MLB & PEDs: The Image of Scandal

Hey everybody. It’s good to be back, but what in the world have you allowed the Jays to do in my absence? Their July record is worse than their April record! There’s a lot of tumult and turbulence in Jaysland, but they were quiet at the deadline. However, I also notice that there’s a great deal of turbulence in Major League Baseball regarding BioGenesis and it’s connection with MLB players. Rather than boot the Jays around (like they’re booting the ball around in Game 3 vs. OAK), let’s have a peek at what’s gone on over the last 40 years or so, leading to the impending fallout of the BioGenesis investigation.

Major League Baseball is preparing for another scandal to rock the sport. The aftermath of the BioGenesis Clinic-related discoveries will see at least two former MVPs (Alex Rodriguez; Ryan Braun) and one former Cy Young Award winner (Bartolo Colon) either suspended or have their reputations ruined. My question is, ‘how could MLB let it get this far?’ The rumours and allegations date back to the late 1980s: had they dealt with it decisively at that time, the BioGenesis scandal probably wouldn’t have occurred.

A Little Historical Perspective

Regarding the magnitude of the scandal, this rivals the Black Sox/gambling disgrace of the late 19-teens when players threw games for money and put forth a dishonest effort. Is this any different in principle? Back then it grew ’til it affected the World Series. Now it’s MVPs, CYAs, batting champs, and, of course, the integrity of the World Series.

MLB hired Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis in 1920 and gave him wide discretionary power. Many owners were against his hiring, but he came down hard on the cheaters (lifetime bans, etc.) and cleaned up the game. Punishments were harsh and swift, acting not only as a deterrent but also as a means of restoring justice and integrity to the sport.

Regarding the duration of the scandal, there were reports that the gambling issues of the early 1900s reached as far back as 1908. The PED issue has been been going on for at least 25 years (Canseco, etc.). PEDs have tarnished MLB’s reputation badly in large part because it took Mr. Selig so long to act decisively.

If Jose Canseco is to be believed, star-level players have been using PEDs since at least the late 1980s, but it likely predates the ‘Bash Brothers’. The ‘Bash Brothers’ were the logical successors to the MLB cocaine scandals of the late ’70s/early ’80s, which featured the Pittsburgh Pirates prominently but not exclusively. They, in turn, were the successors of the amphetamine users of the ’60s (Jim Bouton’s book Ball Four is a really good read, and it gives a glimpse into the amphetamine culture of the day). Broadly speaking, the use of drugs, whether to enhance performance or for other reasons, has been going on for some time now.

Competition is Ubiquitous

Professional athletics is a highly competitive environment, and athletes aren’t much different from you or me: they’ll try almost anything to ‘get an edge’ on their competition. The rewards for success are substantial in terms of the 3 things that we humans strive for so often: glory, money, and sex. Who wouldn’t want gobs of money, fame that will live longer than you will, and a steady stream of high-quality companions? Not all athletes fall into these traps, of course, but many of them do, and PEDs can make it all possible. Frankly, it’s not difficult to understand an athlete’s rationale and desire to use something if it can increase the quality of their performance, even if it’s morally ambiguous.

How Did it Get This Far?

Athletics impact everyday folks like us. Not only are we taking our kids to soccer and swimming and hockey or playing them ourselves, but we follow pro athletes and their teams, buy the products, immerse ourselves in the competition. We cheer when they win and rail when they lose. Each sport wants our full and undivided attention: they’re competing for you and me. They compete with each other, but they also compete with other forms of entertainment as well as our family, work, religious beliefs, etc., to get and maintain our ‘loyalty’. “Image” is crucial to this process. Since it’s crucial, maintaining this “image” is a chief concern. Major League Baseball has some work to do…again.

The cocaine scandals were a significant blow to the image of Major League Baseball. Drug dealers weaseled their way into clubhouses. Prominent players were involved (Keith Hernandez, Dave Parker, Tim Raines, etc.). And, in one case, the reputation of one of the all-time greats was sullied, as Dale Berra was caught using cocaine.

The cocaine scandals gave way to the Pete Rose affair in the late 1980s. The all time hits leader placed bets on Major League Baseball games while he was the manager of the Cincinnati Reds. He gambled and lost, receiving the punishment set out 70 years earlier. The fallout of this scandal included the sudden death of MLB Commissioner A. Bartlet Giamatti, but also included an irony: the Reds won the 1990 World Series over the heavily-favoured Oakland A’s. Those Oakland A’s had 2 players—Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire—who burst on the scene and were leading one of the American League’s flagship franchises back into prominence.

The next scandal was different: labour relations shortened the 1994 and 1995 seasons, and cost executives, players and fans the 1994 World Series. After a decade-and-a-half of battling one major scandal after another, MLB’s image had been distorted beyond recognition, and restoration was needed.

It was in this environment that MLB, whether intentionally or unintentionally, rode the back of the steroid/PED users in an attempt to restore the sport’s image. McGwire and Sammy Sosa battled for the single-season home run record. Roger Clemens dominated the sport from the mound, winning back-to-back Cy Young awards. Ken Caminiti was a surprising MVP. Rafael Palmeiro and Juan Gonzalez slugged their teams into prominence. MVPs Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada were central to yet another Oakland A’s resurgence. And then Barry Bonds took over baseball. All of this occurred in a decade, 1994-2003, but didn’t stop in 2003.

The sports’ image was improving and popularity was on the increase, but there were ominous clouds on the horizon. There was an investigation into BALCO Labs and their influence on MLB. Then the Mitchell Report was issued, detailing the use of steroids in Major League Baseball and it named names. Steps were taken but they were minor, almost baby steps. More needed to be done, but could MLB do it? Would they do it?

One thing is clear about building a house on shifting sand: it doesn’t matter how nice the house looks when it begins to rain and flood. Ironically Major League Baseball gambled on restoring the game’s image by allowing their players to do things that stretched the bounds of athletic integrity. Rotten apples spoiled the pie.

Instead of restoring their image, MLB has tarnished it even further. Records and achievements from the mid ’80s and onward are all suspect. Also, everyday baseball things like hitting streaks or good seasons come into question. Now there’s another storm about to break. I wonder if honest players feel like Ray Schalk, the catcher for the Black Sox so many decades ago, must have felt: am I the only honest player in the game?

I took my family out of town on July 19th, the day that incredible storm touched down in Ontario. When I had the chance, I parked the car where a tree wouldn’t hit us if it was blown down by that wind. Then we waited for better weather. It looks as if MLB is finally taking a hard line on the cheaters. Perhaps sunny days are on the horizon.

Wes Kepstro


2 Responses to “MLB & PEDs: The Image of Scandal”

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  1. 1 Blue Jays Series Recap – Jays Take 2/3 From A’s | AL Eastbound & Down Trackback on August 1, 2013 at 11:38 am

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