Once upon a time, during the 1990s, performance enhancing drugs were rampant in baseball. There were cheaters in every clubhouse, and the damage they did to the sanctity of the record book was irreparable.
Do you know what the all-time mark is for home runs? Do you care?
In 2002, baseball implemented measures designed to discourage players from using performance-enhancers. The penalties were laughably lenient — treatment and counseling for a first offense, a one-year suspension for a fifth — but with some prodding from Congress, the screws were tightened to the point a first offense now draws an 80-game suspension and a second costs 162 games, an entire season. Three-time offenders face a lifetime suspension.
The tough-stance policy was purported to be a success. Home runs decreased along with neck sizes. Baseball commentators referred to “the steroid era” in the past tense. And though nothing could be done to restore the authenticity of the record book, the scourge that imperiled America’s oldest professional team sport seemed like a bad memory.
Never miss a local story.
And then this happened, last Thursday, literally in the middle of the night: The Miami Marlins announced second baseman Dee Gordon, the defending NL batting champion, had been slapped with an 80-game suspension he wouldn't appeal. Although Gordon’s “apology” was tired and yadda-yadda trite — he had no clue on how the test-lab results turned up positive, he said, because he’d never knowingly put a prohibited chemical in his body — his association with PEDs contrasted the stereotype of the baseball drug cheat as beefed-up body builder.
Gordon, listed at 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, has hit eight career home runs. His game is predicated on explosive speed, which enabled him to hit .333 last season while leading the NL with 58 stolen bases. Because of his skill and an engaging personality that made him a crowd favorite, the Marlins signed Gordon to a lucky-for-life contract over the winter that guaranteed him $50-million.
He’ll forfeit about $1.5 million of that from the suspension but he keeps the rest. It’s reasonable to wonder if he spent more than, oh, a split-second weighing the negative publicity of an 80-game penalty against the assurance of $48.5 million.
Dee Gordon serves as Example A of Everything Fans Don’t Understand About Steroids. For one, steroids are more than a strength enhancer capable of converting the normal-sized body into Hercules. Steroids make fast runners faster and aid in the endurance required to perform at a peak level over a 162-game season.
For another, steroids aren't going away because — this just in — they work wonders. Pitchers gain velocity. Hitters gain hand-eye coordination. Recovery time from injuries is minimized, confidence is maximized, and if you get pinched for a first offense, as was Gordon, you go fishing and play some golf and invite friends over for the weekend backyard barbecue.
When the suspension is lifted and you’re finally back in the starting lineup, you are greeted with a standing ovation by the ever-adoring faithful and looking at $48.5 million in the bank.
I imagine myself in a major-league uniform and always doing the right thing — it’s among the many perks of a job as a sports columnist — which is to say, resisting the temptation to put something in my body that will make me faster, stronger or more durable. But if I’m in Dee Gordon’s shoes, I’m not convinced the right thing is the smart thing.
A drug policy that encourages such thinking is a sham and screams for a solution. Here's mine:
One strike, you’re done. That’s it. The contract is voided, the guaranteed money disappears. Hire some lawyers for an appeal, and keep your fingers crossed that the judge is an avid collector of baseball cards.
But enough with the first-offense wrist slap and the second-offense time out. Enough with the coddling. A single positive test for a banned substance should mean “see ya.”
The players association will not be amenable to such a concession during talks over the next collective-bargaining agreement. Of course not. A prevailing premise of the players association is that owners are inclined to be bullies unworthy of trust, and they’ve got about a century of evidence to support that argument.
Still, performance-enhancing drugs have been a plight on baseball for, what, the the last 20 years? It’s time for rational minds to get together and conclude that a first offense is tantamount to the ultimate offense.
One strike, you’re done. See ya.
Simple as that.