Photo by Dinur Blum

I love discussing steroids. Growing up as a wrestling fan and now also following MMA closely, I feel like I’ve been aware of steroids for longer than most, including many sports writers today. The fact that writers were defending Ryan Braun instead of calling him out for his technicality after his test failure in which his epi-testosterone to testosterone level was the highest ever tested tells me that. Ahem, Jeff Fletcher.

In the last couple weeks, two productive players have been suspended from Major League Baseball for having elevated testosterone levels. Both players had good careers prior, but saw their games go array before getting back on track recently. For Melky Cabrera, it was in Kansas City when he finally reached his expected levels since being a top prospect with the New York Yankees in the mid-2000s. He transformed himself from someone with a good batting average and light power, into a player with decent pop, hitting 18 home runs in 2011. Bartolo Colon’s best season may have been in 2005 with the then Anaheim Angels when he won 21 games with a 3.48 ERA. But from 2006-2009, he’d only made 47 starts.

(By the way, this should kill the stereotype that steroids make everyone turn into adonises. Based on his rotundness, the only thing you’d expect Colon to test positive for is gravy.)

Before their strong seasons in 2011, both players were struggling. Cabrera had the worst season of his life in 2010, while Colon missed all of 2010. And in 2012, they were completely rejuvenated. This year, Cabrera was having the best season of his life, hitting 62 points above his career average and Colon’s ERA was the lowest it’s been since 2002. Coincidence? Probably not.

There’s been a recent storm brewing by writers and fans alike to increase the punishment for test failures. This is current punishment:

    First positive test result: 50 game suspension
    Second positive test result: 100 game suspension
    Third positive test result: lifetime ban from MLB

What I’ve been hearing is that people are suggesting the penalties should include banishment from the game much sooner than a third positive test. I have a real problem with that.

In football, boxing, MMA, or another sport where you can really hurt someone with added musculature and strength, I’d agree completely that the penalty should be more severe. But this is baseball. Most are concerned with what they decree a competitive imbalance. What about Lasik? Shouldn’t that be a competitive imbalance? Better analytics used for scouting and judging your players is a competitive imbalance. Tommy John surgery can create a competitive imbalance when a pitcher can throw harder than before.

Also, Major League Baseball needs to get over itself. It’s not holier than thou as it pretends to be. Gaylord Perry and his spitballs are in the Hall Of Fame. So is Ty Cobb and his racism. Do we think that Pete Rose is the only person who ever bet on his own team? Of course we don’t. He’s just the one who was caught. Are Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon the only guys in the majors juicing today? Of course not. And that’s why I think severe punishments are a cop out for Major League Baseball. They’re only catching the dumb or the unlucky.

Victor Conte, head of BALCO, the lab that produced designer steroids that weren’t trackable by testing, is now back on the scene as an expert on steroids. When Cabrera failed, Conte was on TV telling everyone that steroid usage is still rampant in the big leagues. He told USA Today:

I’m not going to name names, but I’ve talked to a lot of top players in Major League Baseball, and they tell me this is what they’re doing. There is rampant use of synthetic testosterone in Major League Baseball. I would say maybe as much as half of baseball (is using performance enhancing drugs).

Though Conte is an expert on PEDs, he’s also a blowhard. I don’t believe 50% of the big leagues are taking PEDs. But I don’t think his number is that far off. The tests are simply too easy to defeat for me to believe that MLB’s program has scared the players to stop juicing. If you cut Conte’s number in half, that’s probably where I’d guess the true number is. Yet, if only 2-5 people are failing per year, that’s no where near Conte’s number, or even my guess. We can even cut that number to 10% and if that was the case, upwards of 75 people should fail a test (simple math using a 25 man roster and 30 teams) at some point. Yet, it’s less than five per year. What does that tell me? It tells me that only the dumb or unlucky are getting caught. And if that’s the case, then you’re going to ban the dumb and unlucky while allowing the rest of the cheaters to prosper. That doesn’t sound like a great plan to me.

Here’s what I think baseball should do:

    1. While I haven’t seen any concrete information about how many times guys are tested, I’d up the amount to a minimum of 10 times per year, including the off-season. There should be no pattern or cadence to the testing. It should be completely random. Offseason testing is probably really expensive, but the MLB is a billion-dollar company. They have the money. And with this procedure, they’re sure as hell catch more than a few per year. That’s probably why they don’t want to do it (and why the player’s association would fight to their death before it happened).

    2. I’ll take this from Tom Verducci. Don’t just do the bare minimum. You have to be able to run with the cheaters. If the cheaters are using synthetic fast-acting testosterone-laden gels that leave the system quickly and Carbon Isotope Ratio tests help detect them, use them all the time. They’re expensive? See my last point.

    3. Rather than make it so much about cheating and competitive imbalance, instead, make it about health. The main reason people should be up in arms about the steroid usage in sports is because players are killing their bodies. When Ken Caminiti died, it should’ve opened more eyes than it did about what’s really scary about steroids. It destroyed his endocrine system. He was moody, depressed, and eventually died of a heart attack. Was it all because of steroids? Probably not, but it was part of a vicious cocktail that included recreational drugs that eventually killed him. His heart couldn’t take it any longer and he was only 41. Have serious symposiums that discuss what steroids do to the body. Work with older players who may have issues today from previous steroid use. Wheel out old body builders who are now crippled because of prior use. Make it about health, not cheating. It rings more true.

This steroid phenomenon is far more than just about future contracts and breaking records. It should be about why these drugs are illegal in the first place; they’re harmful and destructive. Spend the money to increase the effectiveness of the testing. Catch and punish all cheaters, not just the unlucky ones.

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