Scandal will test MLB labor peace

If you were born after 1994, you don't know really know baseball. You don't know the bitterness, the hostile roots of today's game, when hatred was common. If there was love of the game, it was buried underneath nonstop vitriol. The players hated the owners and the owners hated the players just slightly less than the owners hated one another. None of this is an understatement.

If you winced at the recent lockouts in the NHL, NBA and NFL, it is because you don't remember firsthand that from 1972 to 1994, either the players or the owners stopped baseball in every year the league's labor contract expired: the 1972 strike, the 1973 lockout, the 1976 lockout, the 1980 walkout, the 1981 and 1985 strikes, the 1990 lockout and – finally and most disastrously -- the 1994-95 strike. It was chronic dysfunction, and that list doesn't even include the collusion of the 1980s, when the owners broke whatever trust existed by secretly agreeing to not sign available free agents, forcing players to accept lowball contract offers and stay with their teams.

Following the 1994-95 strike, one of commissioner Bud Selig's goals was to end the public fractures. Selig began by celebrating the game and its players, which produced, among other non-traditional, contrived hilarities, scenes such as Sammy Sosa racing in from right field to hug Mark McGwire after McGwire's 62nd home run in 1998, and the Florida Marlins stopping a game to cheer Roger Clemens -- the opposing pitcher who ostensibly was retiring -- in the sixth inning of a World Series game. Selig cleaned out the ownership ranks of the old loose cannons such as Marge Schott and managed to keep new mavericks such as Mark Cuban from buying teams, while favoring non-controversial ownership-team players such as Artie Moreno, Lew Wolff and Tom Werner. After decades of internecine warfare, Selig attempted to unite baseball around the one thing they all loved and understood best: money.

No one likes to look like a fool. After the players kicked sand in the commissioner's face during the steroid era by refusing to cooperate with the Mitchell investigation (among other perceived slights that Selig believed undermined his efforts to create a legitimate drug policy), baseball's investigative unit is now trying to show its toughness through the brimming Biogenesis scandal. Selig and Co. wanted to believe the steroid chapter had been closed, found out through another adventure with Alex Rodriguez and the smiling, nose-thumbing Ryan Braun that it wasn't, and now apparently seeks massive suspensions. They intend to hand down sentences without being exactly sure of the crime.

Selig's gambit with Biogenesis will test the two most fragile strains of his commissionership: the efforts to overcome the steroid taint with the toughest drug policy of the major sports, and the uneasy alliance with the players' association that has kept baseball, of all sports, from locking its doors for nearly 20 years. A $9 billion industry, however, doesn't exist on PED agreements alone. Former players' association head Marvin Miller died last November uncomfortable with the union's decision to succumb to league, public and congressional pressure and re-open an existing labor agreement to toughen its drug policy -- not once, but three times. It was a major concession that has helped keep the peace.

But in the coming weeks and months, the strength of that alliance will be revealed. Internally, the commissioner's office is relying on the union's belief in the testing in place -- it's called a "joint program," meaning that the union, players and league all share the same investment in its success. It is relying on the conviction, voiced most recently not only by Mark Teixeira and Vernon Wells of the Yankees, but by many others as well, that the players are sick of the steroid taint that will keep many of their peers out of the Hall of Fame, that the players are past the code of silence that made them millions and frustrated Selig and landed them all in congressional hearings, and that the players are moving toward a time of zero tolerance for the sake of their collective reputations.

It's unclear, though, if Biogenesis is the battleground where these strains should be tested. Anthony Bosch, the center of MLB's investigation, is not exactly a model witness, having allegedly tried to shake down money from players such as Rodriguez, as well as dodge what is looking like various legal troubles from the state of Florida. Nor is MLB's investigative unit covering itself in ethical glory by paying for documents and pursuing sketchy legal courses of action in its attempt to compel Bosch to cooperate.

The real issue is baseball's attempt to suspend players for their association with a wellness clinic, without actual positive-test violations of the league's drug policy. Melky Cabrera, the one player linked to Biogenesis who has tested positive, already served his 50-game suspension. Unless documentation shows --assuming Bosch's documentation is better, say, than Brian McNamee's decade-old syringes and gauze in a Coke can -- that Cabrera was still using PEDs after his suspension last season, it seems inconceivable that baseball would be able to suspend him again for essentially discovering the source of the original offense.

Equally disturbing is that if Nelson Cruz or Gio Gonzalez or Alex Rodriguez or Cabrera (again) are to be suspended for soliciting Biogenesis, baseball will have to reconcile that punishment with the knowledge that each of those players beat the vaunted drug-testing program, for none failed a test.

Secondarily, Selig seems prepared to enter even murkier space. Without failed tests or other spectacular evidence from Bosch regarding PED use, baseball must decide if it is willing to suspend players simply for associating with disreputable organizations, the way the old, pre-union commissioners banned players and coaches (Leo Durocher) and retired players (Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle) for being associated with gambling. Having already lost one case on appeal because of failures in the chain of custody of evidence, for what exactly could baseball punish Braun?

It is hard to believe the union would allow its members to be suspended without pay under such specious circumstances.

Baseball also must deal with its own contradictions. Cabrera, who had failed a drug test but was in the midst of his appeal when he made the All-Star Game and was named its MVP last season, was humiliated as his team, the Giants, won the World Series without him. But he was rewarded in the offseason with a $16 million contract from Toronto. Certainly, after serving his suspension, Cabrera -- or anyone else who has paid for his indiscretions -- has a right to earn a salary. But in terms of disincentives to using PEDs, the math just doesn't add up. The money is worth the risk, and that is simply a byproduct of the game's success.

Another contradiction: With the exception of voters for the Hall of Fame -- who so far have denied induction of PED-tainted players and who have nothing to do with the commissioner's office -- the game hasn't exactly penalized PED use. It certainly hasn't been the death sentence experienced by Joe Jackson and Pete Rose. Selig took George Mitchell's advice following the Mitchell report and sanctioned no one mentioned in the investigation. Cynically, for money, the San Francisco Giants re-signed Barry Bonds to break Henry Aaron's home run record, then cast him aside and complained about drugs and the "sanctity of the game."

A little courage might have kept Aaron's record intact, and the game's effort at reform might have been taken a bit more seriously. Outside of a mild, self-imposed exile, McGwire, with Selig's blessing, has been redeemed, having been hired not once, but twice, enjoying plum jobs as the hitting coach with the Cardinals and Dodgers.

Baseball at least has logic on its side, believing that players willing to receive medical treatment from someone who is not a licensed professional are likely engaged in something potentially illegal or at least highly suspicious. The public is fatigued by the steroid era, and there was an expectation that players, especially star players such as Braun and Rodriguez, would act more responsibly.

But it seems the better option, or at least an accompanying one, would be to encourage player cooperation to glean information about how the Biogenesis 20 beat their tests (if they were in fact tested at all during the proper time frames).

The commissioner's office is walking a delicate line. The players may say they want a clean game, but they most certainly will retrench in solidarity if Selig begins handing out wanton, inconsistent suspensions. If Selig overreaches -- for clearly, good lawyers are lining up to expose Bosch's credibility gaps -- the old fractures and fissures will resurface between the union and the league. The year 1994 might not be as long ago as we imagined.