Upon first glance, the two recent suspensions of Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon for failed drug tests indicates baseball is finally doing something about a steroid issue that, for years, ravaged a league without a steroid policy.
Much of the achievements by players and teams in the 1990s and early 2000s will be questioned thanks to a lack of regulation from Major League Baseball and after-the-fact revelations that accused some of the biggest names of that time of using performance-enhancing drugs. Baseball first started doing something about steroid use in 2002, when it created a steroid policy that resulted in treatment – not suspensions – for players testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. The MLB was the only pro sports league without a drug policy at the time.
Then, the league was rocked by the BALCO scandal that revealed widespread usage of steroids among greats such as Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens. As a result of the evidence presented in a book, Game of Shadows, and a federal investigation, commissioner Bud Selig pushed the league to adopt stronger punishments for proven steroid users.
The harsher terms were met by resistance from the MLB Players Association, and the MLB adopted a still-lenient policy of 10-day suspensions for a first offense, 30-day suspensions for second offense, 60-day suspensions for a third offense and a one-year suspension for a fourth offense. But after dozens of players continued to test positive for PEDs, Bud Selig pushed the MLBPA until, in 2005, it adopted the current policy of a 50-game suspension for a first offense, 100-game suspension for a second offense and lifetime ban for a third offense.
Over the last three years, it seems the drug problem in Major League Baseball was starting to resolve itself, as only seven players were suspended through the 2009-2011 seasons for positive PED tests (although former Red Sox Manny Ramirez was suspended twice – once in 2009 and once in 2011).
But things are taking a turn for the worse in 2012. Guillermo Mota was suspended in May for 100 games after a second positive PED test, and in the span of one week, Cabrera and Colon became the fourth and fifth players respectively to be suspended for PED use this season.
Their suspensions were both for excess levels of testosterone and follow close on the heels of a disputed positive test from Ryan Braun, who avoided suspension after saying his test sample was not properly handled. Braun’s appeal was the first successful appeal of a steroid suspension by an MLB player.
But with two testosterone suspensions in one week and increasing positive tests for performance-enhancing drugs from some of the game’s higher profile players, baseball needs to reconsider its punishments for positive tests.
In the aftermath of Cabrera’s suspension, many in the media argued that testosterone testing is not strong enough in baseball, a complaint the MLB addressed by issuing a press release defending its testing methods.
And despite positive tests and suspensions for Ramirez and Mota, both used steroids again. Since Mota’s first positive test in 2006, he has signed six contracts worth a total of $10,025,000. So he missed 150 games in the meantime. How much does that matter when you’re making over $10 million dollars in six years?
Ramirez made out pretty well too. After his positive test in 2009, Ramirez finished out a contract with the Dodgers that paid him $18,695,006 and then signed a $2,020,000 with the Rays for the 2011 season.
Alex Rodriguez, an admitted steroid user who tested positive in 2003 (but was never suspended since suspensions for steroid use did not exist at the time), signed a $200-million contract after acknowledging he used performance-enhancing drugs.
While teams likely cannot get away with refusing to sign players who have tested positive for PED usage, players continue to enjoy high salaries and therefore do not have much reason to be deterred from steroid usage. Sure, Ramirez saw a drastic salary drop from his time with the Dodgers to his contract with the Rays, but he was also known as a problem player and was not producing at a level consistent with a high salary (he hit .298 with nine home runs and 42 RBIs – a career low – in 2010).
Baseball is certainly punishing its players who test positive for steroids – Oakland and San Francisco fans definitely feel that – but is the league really hitting the players where it hurts? With two suspensions in one week, now looks to be the perfect time for the league to re-examine its policies.