In sports and real life, scandals unfold at their own distinct pace. Paula Deen's endorsement gravy train ground to a halt in a matter of days. Anthony Weiner went down in a hail of ill-advised tweets, only to re-emerge in neon orange and bright blue pants as a leading contender in the New York City mayoral race.
In the summer of 1989, Pete Rose spent an entire summer on the griddle as baseball conducted an extensive investigation into his gambling-related activities. I was there watching the whole sorry affair play out as a beat writer with the Cincinnati Reds, and I can remember periodic bouts of fireworks interspersed with long, fallow stretches. It was sort of like watching an entire season's worth of Rob Deer at-bats.
Ryan Braun, Alex Rodriguez, Nelson Cruz and the other principals in Major League Baseball's Biogenesis investigation are under the microscope this summer and facing a handful of potential outcomes -- from vindication to partial absolution to lengthy suspensions to a Rafael Palmeiro-like "Maybe we should close the blinds and never show our faces in public again" brand of humiliation.
The stakes are high, which helps explain why this story is taking a while to unfold. MLB is in the midst of interviewing the 20 or so players enmeshed in the Biogenesis web, and sources says it's likely to be several more weeks before the commissioner's office is ready to levy any discipline. Then an appeal process is inevitable, which means this saga will probably drag on into the season's dog days or even the offseason.
Like all scandals, the Biogenesis case is marked by fits and stops and hot-button revelations. Fan gets worked into a lather when Brian Cashman lashes out at A-Rod for rogue tweeting, or Frank Thomas shares his belief that PED users shouldn't be allowed to sully the premises in Cooperstown. Then Yasiel Puig gets four hits or an umpire blows a big call, and the public's attention drifts until the next HGH news hits the streets and the chatter begins anew.
Fans who pronounce themselves tired of the steroid issue will unfortunately have a lot more to digest in the coming weeks and months. The results will also be monitored closely in big league clubhouses, where players share more than an obligation to periodically pee in a cup.
Since the start of spring training, I've talked to numerous big leaguers about Biogenesis and the ongoing specter of PED use, and found that their attitudes generally mirror those of fans and society in general. Most players want a clean game, and they're sick of the assumption that "everybody cheats." Everybody doesn't cheat, and baseball players have shown their commitment to beefing up their testing program by first agreeing to modifications in the middle of a labor agreement and then becoming the first athletes in any major professional sport to agree to in-season blood testing for HGH.
Of course, the testing isn't foolproof, but baseball is grappling with the same problems that bedevil the Olympics, cycling and the other major team sports: The testing procedures in place simply aren't up to the level of some athletes who are willing to go to great lengths to try to beat them. It's more a question of science than commitment.
Although much of the attention has focused on Bug Selig's legacy, Braun's reputation and A-Rod's long-term financial future, the Biogenesis mess poses a special challenge for the Major League Baseball Players Association, which has to deal with two distinct responsibilities: While advocating for a stronger drug prevention program at the behest of its members, the union is simultaneously protecting the rights of players who may or may not have tried to beat the system. Whenever MLB interviews a player suspected of wrongdoing, at least one MLBPA attorney is present, along with the player's individual counsel.
"There's no question, we have two things we're trying to accomplish here," said Michael Weiner, the union's executive director. "On the one hand, we're defending players who have a defense. On the other hand, we have an obligation to enforce the joint drug program. If we have evidence that a player violated the program, then we have to do something about it. Is that a conflict? I could imagine circumstances where it could be a conflict. But that's what a union does all the time, and that's what we're doing here. It's not much different than what we've done in the past. It's just higher-profile, I guess."
A changing tone
You don't have to go back too far to find a union that was at worst obstructionist and at the very least tone-deaf to public perception on the subject of drug testing. Rick Helling earned a special mention in Joe Torre's book for standing up at meetings and decrying the evils of steroid use while his peers felt either powerless to speak their minds or cowed into submission. Helling was a fastball pitcher who was years ahead of the curve.
Everybody wants a level playing field. We're not in meetings saying, 'Let's make sure they don't do this.' We've talked about increasing penalties. Players are proactive. It's easy for fans to think, 'The players just want to get away with it.' But that's not the case.
"-- Nationals pitcher and player representative Drew Storen
Now Helling works for the union as a special assistant, and players are lining up to publicly opine on the issue. Matt Holliday, David Wright and Michael Cuddyer are among the prominent big leaguers who in recent weeks have come out in favor of stronger penalties for PED users. With every voice that gets added to the chorus, it begins to sound more like a crusade.
"Everybody wants a level playing field," said pitcher Drew Storen, the Washington Nationals' player representative. "We're not in meetings saying, 'Let's make sure they don't do this.' We've talked about increasing penalties. Players are proactive. It's easy for fans to think, 'The players just want to get away with it.' But that's not the case."
No question, some players felt skeptical, resentful or downright angry in the spring of 2012 when Braun appealed a 50-game suspension for elevated levels of testosterone and then questioned the integrity of his sample collector during a news conference. Did a substantial number of players think that Braun "lawyered" his way out of a bind and escaped on a technicality or two? Absolutely.
But the issues in the Braun grievance hit closer to home when players viewed them from a more personal slant. Weiner and the union leaders asked players, "If it were your sample and there was a glitch in the system that might contribute to a false positive, wouldn't you want to make sure the system was airtight?" MLB and the union, to their credit, worked together to address the problem and tightened up many of the testing procedures in question to make sure some issues didn't reoccur.
Nevertheless, there's a degree of trust involved in any drug-testing program, and it's jeopardized by news leaks that tarnish players, regardless of how events play out. Once ESPN broke the news of Braun's disputed test before the 2012 season, he could never fully reclaim his reputation. And now history is repeating itself twenty-fold with the Biogenesis revelations, which have dogged the players in question since the Miami New Times first reported on Tony Bosch and the activities at his anti-aging clinic in Coral Gables, Fla., in January.
The source of the leaks remains a mystery, but in the absence of concrete evidence, players are going to be skeptical. Another inflammatory issue arose recently when Porter Fischer, a former Bosch associate, told the New Times that MLB paid him for evidence. A-Rod's lawyer, David Cornwell, described baseball's conduct as "despicable, unethical and potentially illegal" in an interview with USA Today. Rob Manfred, baseball's chief lawyer, responded that MLB welcomes the opportunity to present its findings.
Black and white and lots of gray
Is this the price MLB needs to pay to police itself in the absence of failed test results? Perhaps. But a lot of players were dubious to begin with about information provided by Bosch, whose reputation isn't exactly pristine. Baseball is going to have to be exhaustive and vigilant about every phone record or receipt provided by Bosch if he isn't going to go down in history with Roger Clemens accuser Brian McNamee as just another shadowy figure with an agenda.
A fair, impartial investigation could help set the stage for drug-testing changes to come. Many players support the idea of stiffer penalties for PED users, but have concerns about lumping in blatant rule breakers with violators who neglect to read a label properly or fail a test through sheer carelessness. Phillies infielder Freddy Galvis reportedly tested positive after using an athlete's foot cream that contained a steroid, and Giants reliever Guillermo Mota incurred a 100-game suspension after taking a cough syrup with trace amounts of a banned substance. “It’s a huge issue,’’ said one person familiar with the situation.
"If it's a black-and-white issue, that's the best you can ask for," Storen said. "But there's a lot of gray-area stuff. When it's all done, you just have to trust that MLB and the union will do it the right way."
No [drug-testing] system is going to be perfect. The NFL isn't perfect. The NBA and the Olympics aren't perfect, and baseball isn't perfect. But to say our system isn't working is false.
"-- Dodgers utility man Jerry Hairston Jr.
Some players are inevitably going to get off or face lighter penalties because an "i" wasn't dotted or a "t" was uncrossed, but that's the price of a fair and impartial system. This is America, after all, and purported steroid cheats should be entitled to the same presumption of innocence as everyone else in society. The burden of proof lies with baseball, and baseball has an enormous responsibility to keep its standards high.
"It's kind of like the judicial system," said the Dodgers' Jerry Hairston Jr. "Obviously there are going to be some guys fall through the cracks. But you'd rather see a guy maybe get away with it than see a guy be punished for something he didn't do. No system is going to be perfect. The NFL isn't perfect. The NBA and the Olympics aren't perfect, and baseball isn't perfect. But to say our system isn't working is false."
Hairston thinks back to his rookie year in 1999, when one muscle-bound slugger after another stepped into the cage during batting practice, and marvels at how much the landscape has changed. Yes, baseball continues to have a steroid perception problem. But MLB is also held to extraordinarily high standards in comparison to basketball, hockey and even football, which is scrutinized more thoroughly for its concussion issues (and its players' off-field criminal antics) than its PED use. The tradition runs deeper, the Hall of Fame debates are more spirited and the numbers are more sacred in baseball than in other sports. We get that.
Nevertheless, some things can't be measured by money, statistics or talk-show-caller outrage. Melky Cabrera landed a two-year, $16 million deal with Toronto in the offseason after using a banned substance and taking part in an elaborate scheme to conceal his PED use. But Cabrera's former San Francisco teammates thought so little of him, they didn't want him back for the playoffs even after his 50-game suspension expired in October. Intra-clubhouse disapproval is a relatively small cross to bear in the overall scheme of things, but Cabrera will have to lug around the indignity forever.
"When you're in a fraternity, you don't want to have a bad name or be looked upon in a negative light," Hairston said. "You don't want to be on another player's bad side. That's even worse."
Frank Thomas was probably engaging in wishful thinking recently when he suggested that the fallout from Biogenesis will produce an "enough is enough" mentality and lead to penalties so severe that they stamp out PED use forever in baseball. But this much is clear: While the livelihoods and legacies of A-Rod, Braun & Co. hinge on the Biogenesis verdict, their fellow players also have a stake in the outcome. Like it or not, they're all in this together.