Baseball Scandal

Major League Baseball Is Right to Punish the Biogenesis Cheats

Michael Brendan Dougherty applauds MLB for going after 20 players linked to a likely drug peddler.

If Major League Baseball goes ahead with its tentative plan to suspend a score of players for their associations with Tony Bosch, the creepy unlicensed Floridian health clinician and likely peddler of performance-enhancing drugs, it will be the largest drug punishment in American sports and a landmark event in the amber-drenched history of baseball. The Biogenesis ban would be akin to the Black Sox scandal or the barring of Pete Rose from the Hall of Fame. It also would be an unusually bold move by the controversy-allergic Bud Selig, coming so close to the end of his time as commissioner.

Instead of being thrilled by this bold move to take responsibility for enforcing the league’s rules on performance-enhancing drugs, the best and brightest of the baseball commentariat couldn’t be more bored, suspicious, or unimpressed with MLB’s efforts. While I share their long history of disliking the decisions of the league office, I sincerely believe they’re wrong and should be celebrating this effort. So let’s engage.

Perhaps my favorite writer, Will Leitch, seems merely bored by PED scandals. During the past 15 years, scandal or not, the sport has continued to grow, and fans still like the game. Isn’t baseball just going too far, he asks, and creating its own mess? After events like the Mitchell Report and the institution of a new testing system, people have been getting busted every so often. Isn’t that enough? Why should we let columnists work up a pointless, never-ending debate about morality and procedure, based on suspicion and innuendo? Fans seem to have moved on. Why can’t MLB do the same?

Tim Marchman takes a far more hostile approach to the league in his extraordinary and worthwhile J’accuse in Deadspin. Marchman takes it as a given that MLB basing its case on the say-so of a sketchy Floridian drug-dealer is preposterous. Bosch is a desperate man. He has been harassed by an MLB lawsuit, and he’s talking in exchange for legal protections and a very troubling “good word” to federal or state law enforcement. Further, MLB seems to be engaging in a pretty dirty campaign in the press, letting these players dangle under suspicion while MLB takes its good time working over Bosch and his associates in a room that I like to imagine is dimly lit and resounding with reverb.

And here on The Daily Beast, the Gillette-labs sharp David Roth says the league is being vindictive because it seems to be going after Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun in a personal fashion and reading its own PED abuse rules with a kind of Warren Court expansiveness, driving its desire to see double suspensions and establishing “just cause” for punishment on the commissioner’s discretion. Roth concludes, with a sigh of resignation, that the effort being put forth is not commensurate with the crimes alleged and that a perfect game, a game without cheating, is something beyond the reach of MLB and humanity itself.

These estimables are all correct in part. Yes, we should take into account Bosch’s reputation and the league’s tactics for getting him to sing. The question is not whether Bosch is a liar—he is—but whether he is telling the league lies now. The league and press should continue to examine them.

Leitch is right that the public doesn’t seem troubled by PED abuse in baseball at the moment and perhaps correct that they never really were. But that attitude can change, and the league won’t have excuses anymore. All of MLB’s critics seem take it as a given that drug testing works or at least works well enough. This is disputable and has been disputed by Victor Conte of the BALCO case, who says the players flunking today’s testing regimen are doing so because of stupidity and that many players who are just as guilty escape “positive” results with a little guile.

If true, that could change public opinion quickly. If Tony Bosch turns out to be more than just a “guy with a notebook” and has harder evidence—bank accounts, signatures, emails, anything more than his scrawly handwriting—then his testimony will show that MLB’s drug testing is a rigorous, scientific, and fair process, but one that does very little to uncover cheating while it simultaneously gives the game a clean bill of moral health. A revelation like that, combined with laxity in this Biogenesis investigation, would be damning in the extreme. The same columnists suggesting the league should ease up would read the player contract in exactly the way Selig is reading it now, as empowering MLB to investigate, even if the player’s union doesn’t like it. If you are the commissioner, you cannot risk one of your great successes, a testing regime, coming back to ruin the league and your reputation. Would anyone say to a Catholic bishop that he should simply trust the procedures put in place in the last decade and not listen to a credible accusation from a kooky parishioner? This shambolic mess of a man in Florida may be able to tell Selig whether his testing regimen is working at all.

The critics constantly put the league’s motives in doubt. What about everyone else’s? Marchman acknowledges that the players probably did what they were accused of doing. Baseball commentators feel free to call Tony Bosch a “liar” because they’re sure he did deal illegal substances to players. I don’t know about you, but that seems to help establish the damning facts, not put them in further doubt.

What Marchman doesn’t mention is that these accused and probably guilty cheats will have the nation’s most successful union defending them, the MLBPA. And no one in the public or the commentariat, or really even in the MLB offices, expects the players' union to accept whatever conclusions the evidence suggests. Selig’s men will be held by public opinion and the opposition to a strictly defensible reading of the player contract. The union that opposes him will be cheered if it finds a technicality or loophole to get the players off, no matter how guilty they are. Further, it will be Selig and his men who are called fools if this happens.

David Roth is absolutely right that there is no perfect game. But MLB has a duty at least to try to live up to its contract with the players and its covenant with the public. And just as there is no perfect game, very rarely is there a perfect witness in an illegal drugs case. Bosch’s testimony and evidence could help MLB’s disciplinary regimen achieve results. The league’s zeal in pursuing cheaters who may be getting away with it changes incentives for all players, and it will rescue the league from any damning revelations that come its way. Once the union agreed to some testing and some oversight, vigilance became a necessity for the league. It has no excuses. There is no use in premising the league’s integrity on a “fair” and “scientific” testing regime if other evidence tells us it isn’t working. There’s no point in defending the integrity of the player contract if that document is disguising damage to the integrity of the game. I can’t rule out that MLB may be looking for revenge. But the league can’t satisfy itself with procedures alone. It must pursue available evidence with determination or else it is giving players permission to cheat. No, it’s not fair that one clinic and its clients get busted while another provider gets away for now because of the happenstance of investigative reporting. But it isn’t just to have rules and refuse to pursue those who break them.