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This is worse than BALCO. That is not easy to do, seeing as the single-season and all-time home run records fell on account of Victor Conte's doping program that fed performance-enhancing drugs to baseball players of all manner and variety. But it is. It is much worse.
The Biogenesis scandal that has ensnared baseball is more painful and embarrassing and harmful because it happened in the supposed post-Steroid Era, when Major League Baseball's drug policy was supposed to eradicate PEDs from the game. That was a fanciful notion to begin with, of course, but now that ESPN is reporting Biogenesis mastermind Tony Bosch is ready to flip and tell the league about Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez and upward of 20 others to whom he supplied his wares, it is the greatest evidence yet that this policy has failed – and, moreover, that any policy is bound to fail.
Back when Barry Bonds was juiced to the gills, when steroids and amphetamines were every bit as prevalent as aspirin and coffee, there was at least a defense: It was, by baseball's definitions, legal. The ethics certainly were debatable, as were the moral implications, but don't let revisionist history fool you: Baseball not only didn't care about its players juicing, its post-strike ascent was built on their acne-covered backs.
Think about the players involved with Biogenesis. There is Braun, who has been tested every year he has been in the major leagues. There is A-Rod, who was caught testing positive in 2003 and still had the hubris to seek out more. There is Jesus Montero, who was 16 when MLB instituted its PED policy. On and on you can go, deeper and deeper into the list, asking each time: Is the money really that good or is MLB's message really not good enough?
The answer: Yes.
When hundreds of millions of dollars are there for the taking, of course somebody is going to fall prey to those extra zeroes and do whatever necessary to get those checks, especially when the disincentives are so poor. A 50-game suspension? Or 100, which the league may seek for Braun and A-Rod? Come on.
If more than 20 guys are willing to do it – almost an entire major league roster's worth of players – that says everything.
Still, baseball's attempted prosecution – and persecution – of those connected to PEDs is an unabashed failure, the league's version of the War on Drugs. The pursuit has been noble, certainly, a reaction to the public anger that stemmed from BALCO as well as the knowledge that nearly two decades of baseball were suffused with drugs. At the same time, the single-mindedness of it has so demonized PEDs that a scandal such as this, where it's obvious that they're still as prevalent as they are, blows up that much larger.
This is baseball's Pyrrhic victory. For every step forward it takes – catching players who used via testing and ferreting out Melky Cabrera's fake website and being the first professional sports league in America to institute random HGH testing – MLB is simply walking toward a river of its own making. Sports, by their nature, encourage doing anything necessary to win. That is why this fight never will be won.
It can be mitigated and controlled. The target of 100 games for Braun and A-Rod – 50 for using, 50 for lying – is a lofty one, and it's certain to incur the wrath of the MLB Players Association. Think about the union's perspective: For all this time, MLB has painted Tony Bosch as a low-life, a pissant faux doctor who was nothing more than a sleazeball. And now it wants to trust him, of all people, and mete out perhaps 1,000 games of punishment?
By camping out investigators in Miami and pursuing Bosch so fervently, MLB has shown a willingness to wage all-out war against the union. For nearly 20 years now, the sport has seen labor peace. Finding a middle ground here on an issue so black and white to the league may cause the sort of fissure that doesn't portend well for the sport writ large going forward.
Yes, this is worse than BALCO because MLB wanted everyone to believe we wouldn't be having these types of conversations anymore, that huge pockets of players wouldn't be so stupid as to still do this when the stench and stigma of PEDs linger. The league underestimated those who play its games.
Unlike those, when it comes to baseball and drugs, there are only losers.