Baseball’s Bipolar Day


by Chas Danner

Yesterday was a dramatic one for professional baseball. On one hand, one of the finest pitchers in the game, the Mariners' Felix Hernandez, did the hardest thing a pitcher can do: he pitched a perfect game. On the other hand, it was announced that the MVP of this year's All-Star Game, Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera, had become the second (seemingly) elite player in less than a year to test positive for a performance-enhancing drug, automatically earning him a fifty-game suspension.

Hernandez's accomplishment was only the 23rd perfect game in history, and, remarkably, the third of this season; Cabrera's accomplishment was to remind everyone that the steroid era, during which almost every achievement in the game was tainted, might never completely end. Last season, the National League MVP, Ryan Braun, also tested positive for PED use, and when paired with the Cabrera news, it clearly suggests that some ballplayers still don't care how damaging PED use is to the sport. The harsher penalties imposed since the steroid era haven't discouraged marquee players from cheating, and the Player's Union has traditionally been slow to allow more strenuous testing or stronger penalties (though it's worth noting that last year they did agree to blood testing for human growth hormone). ESPN's Buster Olney, says it's time for the players themselves to take responsibility for cleaning up the game, and the way they can agree to do that is to realize that PED use is not just cheating, it's theft. (Olney's column is sadly paywalled):

Melky Cabrera was like a bank robber who did everything right in his plan to steal tens of millions — right up until the moment his getaway car ran out of gas. With a little luck, it would've all worked out as planned, and Cabrera could've made $60 million, or $70 million or $80 million or more. It's unclear exactly what day Cabrera was asked for the urine sample that tested positive, but if the timing had been different, he might've slipped through the cracks before becoming a free agent this fall. And it's just the latest example that should scare the players' union into seeking tougher penalties for drug offenders.

Cabrera cheated his way from mediocre to elite, and thus into a position to be (over)paid accordingly. If Cabrera had landed a top-tier contract, he would have stolen significant market value from every other player who'd played the game fair, yet couldn't perform as well as he could. Olney believes the penalties must now be made intolerably severe, similar to those already in place for gambling offenses:

[Those testing positive should receive a] one-year ban for the first offense, and a lifetime ban for the second offense. Additionally, any player suspended for performance-enhancing drugs should have his contract voided, with the player remaining under the control of the team that signed him. And any player who tests positive in a given season should automatically be ineligible to play in the postseason that year, so they are not rewarded with a playoff share. … These would be an important means in assuring that cheating players would be face career-threatening risks, rather than a penalty that is light enough that the Melky Cabreras of the world would seek ways to beat the system — to rob the marketplace.

(Left photo: Starting pitcher Felix Hernandez #34 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates after throwing a perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Safeco Field on August 15, 2012 in Seattle, Washington. By Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images; Right photo: Melky Cabrera #53 of the San Francisco Giants pauses at second base after doubling against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on August 3, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. By Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)