Major League Baseball took its strongest action yet against the use of steroids in the national pastime on Monday, handing down 12 season-ending suspensions and one that will keep the game's highest-paid star, Alex Rodriguez, off the field until 2015. The Baltimore Orioles, we are happy to report, were not implicated in the latest fallout from the sport's investigation of the Coral Gables, Fla., Biogenesis lab, but members of the team had two of the most interesting things to say about it.
The first is remarkable not just for what was said but for who said it. Nick Markakis, the Orioles' excellent but generally soft-spoken right fielder, unloaded on steroid users just before the suspensions were announced Monday, saying baseball should ban players for at least five years for a first offense. Lifetime bans would not be too much, he said, adding that doped-up players were effectively "stealing" from the owners and from other players who either didn't get a chance because others cheated or who now will have all their accomplishments questioned. "All of us that have done it the right way, we are going to suffer and have to answer questions about this for a while now," Mr. Markakis told The Sun's Dan Connolly. "I think that puts us in bad situations that we don't deserve to be in."
Mr. Markakis epitomizes what a star outfielder was before baseball bulked up. He plays Gold Glove defense and is a career .294 hitter who, with the exception of an injury-shortened 2012, has played virtually every day since his rookie year. But although his first hit in the big leagues was a home run, he is not what counts as a power hitter these days, averaging about 17 home runs a season. He has never made an All-Star team, and it is perhaps no coincidence that all those who beat him out for that honor this season hit for more power, some of them having notched three times as many home runs as he has so far this year.
Mr. Markakis couched the issue in moral terms, as a matter of right and wrong. But there is more at stake here than the notion of cheating the game and its fans — who, truth be told, have been all too happy to buy tickets to watch pumped-up sluggers smash baseballs into the stands. Steroids can have dangerous physical and psychological side effects, and they tend to be particularly acute among adolescent users.
The Texas-based Taylor Hooton Foundation, named for a high school pitcher who committed suicide after discontinuing use of steroids, has collected dozens of stories of young people who suffered severe physical damage or death after using performance-enhancing drugs. The foundation had partnered with Mr. Rodriguez on a public awareness campaign after his earlier admission of steroid use; its board voted Monday to discontinue its relationship with him, saying his actions are "in direct opposition to the lessons that we teach children." There is no telling how many lives have been damaged or ended as a result of pervasive steroid use in professional sports.
(Mr. Rodriguez, incidentally, offered up a "mistakes were made" non-apology and played his first game of the season Monday night. He has vowed to appeal and will be eligible to play until an arbitrator rules on his case.)
The second eye-opening reaction from an Oriole came last week from manager Buck Showalter, who told USA Today that a suspension of Mr. Rodriguez through the 2014 season would enormously benefit the Yankees. The team would no longer be on the hook for his $25 million salary that year, its payroll would fall below $189 million, and the Yankees would get a huge break on baseball's "luxury tax."
"If they can reset, they can spend again, and I guarantee you in two years Matt Wieters is in New York," Mr. Showalter said, referring to the Orioles' All-Star catcher. Given how things look at the moment, it might not play out quite that way — Mr. Wieters won't be eligible for free agency until the 2016 season, by which time Mr. Rodriguez could be back in pinstripes — but the basic premise holds true. The Yankees benefited mightily from Mr. Rodriguez's performance in years when he used steroids, just as many other teams have from their artificially enhanced players. But the teams and their owners bear little of the cost when the players are caught — and given Mr. Rodriguez's age, injuries, diminishing production and bloated contract, the Yankees are probably better off without him.
That's a real mismatch of incentives between players, particularly young up-and-comers who have everything on the line, and owners, who don't. With this round of suspensions, the cabal of team owners who run Major League Baseball are trying to show the world that they've gotten tough on steroids. But until they and the players pay a comparable price for transgressions, the game may never be truly clean.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun