Major League Baseball has gone from one extreme to another on performance-enhancing drugs, but still doesn’t have a realistic approach, as the botched Ryan Braun case shows.
At first, Commissioner Bud Selig was quite happy to ignore the issue because steroids helped produce the great home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, with McGwire setting a then-record with 70 home runs.
Attendance boomed. Forgotten was the fact that the confrontation between Selig and the players association in 1994 had resulted in the cancellation of the World Series.
Then, the supremely unpopular Barry Bonds not only broke McGwire’s short-lived season record with 73, but also supplanted Henry Aaron as the career home run leader. Something had to be done, so a drug-testing program was put in.
Nobody blinked when players like Manny Ramirez (twice!) got caught, but when Braun’s test results came in ridiculously high, somebody should have said, “wait a minute,” especially when a later, unrelated test produced normal results.
Also, Braun has been a remarkably consistent hitter throughout his five-year major league career. There were no spikes. In fact, his home run total this past season was only his third-best, his RBI total the second-best of his career.
But MLB didn’t blink, ordering Braun suspended for the first 50 days of the 2012 season. Braun appealed and won, when the one independent member of the arbitration panel sided with him. That still wasn’t enough for Rob Manfred, MLB’s attorney and representative on the board, who said MLB strongly disagreed with the verdict and said it was a “procedural error” that caused the reversal.
Obviously, Selig and friends hoped suspending a top star would prove they meant business. Instead, they sullied the image of one of the game’s young stars. Doesn’t seem too smart to me.
Of course, my own profession is an accomplice in all this because there are many sanctimonious sportswriters who will not vote for any steroids user for the Hall of Fame, which means there will be a conspicuous absence of the top stars of the past 15 years in the HOF, making a mockery of that institution.
And a New York columnist sharply criticized Braun for pointing out the mishandling of his test sample. So, we’re into blaming the victim now.
It’s time for Selig to recognize that the real danger of steroids is not what effect they may have on baseball records, but on athletes’ long-term health.
To that end, I’d suggest a radical change: Allow the use of steroids (and other forms of performance-enhancing drugs), but only if the athletes agree to physical examinations for the next 20 years. That way, doctors can study the long-range effects. Most likely, they’ll find that there’s considerable damage done to the systems of athletes.
It’s already shown up in weight lifters, but they’re taking steroids at a far higher level than baseball and football players.
If athletes don’t agree to this stipulation, then they’d be subject to the same punishments that currently exist.
But for this to happen, Selig has to be a leader who effects significant change, not one who holds a wet finger to the wind.
Yeah, I know. Fat chance.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.