Baseball isn’t a clean sport.
We all know this, of course. It’s almost certainly cleaner than in the past, but there’s too much money and fame and glory on the line to not expect at least some competitive athletes to try to push every possible boundary in an effort to get better. As fans of the sport, we’d all love to live in some blissful alternative reality where players are competing on a completely level playing field, but we’re not that naive, no matter how much we might want to be blissfully ignorant.
Still, when we hear news like what broke Tuesday afternoon — Pirates center fielder Starling Marte was suspended for 80 games for testing positive for Nandrolone and violating the league’s Joint Drug Agreement — it stings a bit.
At first the news is disappointing because it’s surprising to hear what name is attached to the suspension. But then, after we’ve had a moment to digest the revelation, it’s disappointing because the reality is thatit’s not surprising no matter what name is attached to the suspension.
Joe Buck, in an interview with SN’s Michael McCarthy that published Tuesday morning, offered a thought that seems pretty insightful at the moment.
“It would be naive to think all that stuff has been completely eliminated from the game of baseball. I know they’ve done a good job of eliminating amphetamine use. That’s why you see guys wearing down. That’s why you see a lot of the teams that are younger are more effective at the end of the year. The older teams just can’t sustain that kind of physical performance without some of the help that guys used to rely on," Buck said. "So they’ve done a good job with amphetamines. But by no means can we say the steroids issue has been solved.”
You’re right, Joe, the issue clearly hasn’t been solved.
Baseball’s powersthatbe are moving in the right direction. The current penalties are harsh, no doubt. This is Marte’s first incident, and he’s banned for 80 games. Even if the Pirates somehow survive the loss of their best player — his 4.9 rWAR was easily the best on the club last year (Jung Ho Kang was secondat 2.3) — Marte’s ineligible for the 2017 playoffs.
A second incident is a 162-game suspension; Marlon Byrd was hit with that last June, essentially ending his career (he was 38 when the suspension hit). A third incident is a lifetime ban; Jenrry Mejia’s career was officially done, at 26, after MLB handed down that penalty inFebruary 2016.
Those are harsh penalties. But for some, the risk is clearly still worth it.
Baseball fans have proven they’re more than willing to forgive PED suspensions as long as the cheater isn’t an abhorrent jerk about it (hi, Ryan Braun!). Look at this sampling of players who have been hit with lengthy suspensions in the past five years.
— Ervin Santana, 80 games
— Dee Gordon, 80 games
— Raul Mondesi, 50 games
— Nelson Cruz, 50 games
— Jhonny Peralta, 50 games
— Francisco Cervelli, 50 games
— Arodys Vizcaino, 80 games
Who hates those guys? They all served their time (some for positive tests, some connected to Biogenesis) and came back to the game, with few lingering effects. Marte will be the same way.
Who knows when he started using Nandrolone? Here’s what we do know: Marte signed a six-year, $31 million extension in March 2014, and though he’s not getting paid during the suspension, he’s still guaranteed $17.5 million total for 2018-19, and the Pirates have club options for 2020 and 2021.
By the time the decision on his 2020 option rolls around, this suspension will be but a footnote, and the Pirates (or whatever club they trade him to) will happily exercise that $11.5 million club option for Marte, who will have just turned 31 in October 2019. They’ll do the same with his $12.5 million option for 2021.
Every baseball player faces the PED decision. Most opt to stay within the rules. Those who choose to use PEDs are taking a gamble that has a very significant upside (fat contracts) and very significant downside (80-game minimum suspension).
If baseball really wants to be fully clean, there’s only one real acceptable punishment — a lifetime ban for the first offense. That’s it. That’s the only penalty harsh enough to effectively stop players from pushing the boundaries.
We’ll never see that, though. There are too many issues for the MLB Players Association to agree to a one-strike-and-you’re-out policy. And that’s OK with MLB, too, because here’s the truth: Two or three 80-game suspensions a year aren’t a horrible problem for baseball.
That’s not an epidemic — and not a catalyst for change.