Penalize teams when players use steroids

Jeff Passan

Of all the problems with the Mitchell Report, the most embarrassing are the "recommendations" to help Major League Baseball with its performance-enhancing drug issue. Apparently peace in Northern Ireland was an easier case than steroids, because former Sen. George Mitchell filled 22 pages with ideas so uninspiring that any credibility gained by exposing juicers was lost in his poor excuse for a solution.

Mitchell's ideas include appointing a drug czar, outsourcing testing and hanging posters in the clubhouse that "forcefully articulate" MLB's rules. Shamefully, Mitchell must have excised the section recommending a monthly visit from the local D.A.R.E. officer.

All of this nonsense reminded me of a recent conversation with a team general manager. While discussing the impending report, he made a point that Mitchell did not: Franchises take next to no responsibility in keeping performance-enhancing drugs out of the game. Whether Mitchell glossed over this because he felt collective-bargaining issues would negate his suggestions, or he soft-pedaled the owners because they're the ones who commissioned the report, isn't important. Mitchell's failure to pose an important question is.

"Why don't teams get penalized when their players test positive?" the GM asked.

The premise makes sense. Right now, there is little incentive for teams to keep players clean, other than the specter of suspensions and the public-relations haymaker.

That obviously doesn't scare players, not when they keep testing positive and getting pinched with human growth hormone. Nor do teams flinch. Kansas City signed Jose Guillen days before his HGH suspension and the Los Angeles Dodgers signed backup catcher Gary Bennett two days after he appeared in the Mitchell Report, his signature on a check to Kirk Radomski for $3,200 worth of HGH.

By levying significant fines or taking away draft picks, MLB would send its most forceful message yet: Teams are truly partners in the effort "to eradicate the use of all illegal performance-enhancing substances for the game."

Those are commissioner Bud Selig's words, issued in a statement the day Barry Bonds was indicted. If he is serious about eliminating performance enhancers, he must understand that the current policy, even with the Mitchell addendums, instills little fear in players and less in the people who employ them.

At this point, with Congress breathing fire again, with the backlash against Roger Clemens growing, with Bonds' case approaching, Selig must consider the good of the game, even if it means angering his cronies in owners' boxes.

"At some point or another, we have thought about virtually every idea that has been used as a possible tool," said Rob Manfred, MLB's executive vice president for labor relations and its chief negotiator during collective-bargaining sessions. "There are some good things about (penalizing teams). And there are some problems."

Legitimate ones, too, and ones that have prevented baseball from considering cracking down on teams.

"People think the Bonds case is a witch hunt already," one National League general manager said. "Think about what this would turn into. If you suspect someone is using, you wouldn't stop at anything to find out. It's McCarthyism waiting to happen. There's too much potential for unjust persecution."

No question, there would be casualties. Careers would be lost. Some, perhaps, unfairly. Privacy issues would arise – and, as evidenced by its opposition to blood testing, the Players' Association holds privacy as a dear tenet.

Yet the union likely would embrace the shared culpability. Anyway, neither side wants to devote thousands more hours to combating steroids, and a solution – no matter how radical – could be worth the collateral damage.

"OK. So, how are we supposed to catch them?" one assistant GM asked. "It's completely naïve to expect the clubs to have control over what these guys do."

Fair question, especially in light of Mitchell needing the testimony of two dunderheads who got arrested to fill his report with anything substantive. By now we know players don't bend over in clubhouses and hold injection parties. Clemens, according to the report, used his apartment. Others choose hotel rooms.

So how can executives – some who rarely venture into the clubhouse – possibly know?

In June 2000, according to the Mitchell Report, Marlins pitcher Ricky Bones got caught with steroids, and GM Dave Dombrowski reported it to the commissioner's office the next day. Three months later, Diamondbacks GM Joe Garagiola Jr. did the same when first basemanAlex Cabrera received a package with steroids.

It's executives' business to know, just like a CEO is accountable for corrupt employees, just like colleges take the brunt of penalties when the NCAA hammers them for players accepting illegal benefits, just like the NBA last season fined the Knicks and Nuggets $500,000 each for a brawl among their players.

Teams enable players by skirting responsibility, so give them a reason to stop by hitting their bottom line.

Fine them for every positive test or non-analytical positive with sufficient evidence, such as Guillen's case. Pick a number. Is $1 million enough? How about $2 million? Or, if that's too harsh on the lower-revenue teams, levy the penalty as a percentage of gross revenues. One percent against the Yankees would be more than $3 million.

Oh, and no first-round draft choice this year, either.

"Right now, the team is already penalized," Manfred said. "We have accepted all of the responsibility for the cost administration of the programs. And the team loses the services of a player they'd have on their 25-man roster."

Doesn't seem like much of a penalty.

Baseball's entire approach to solving the steroid issue is backward. Mitchell wants MLB to adopt the World Anti-Doping Association's standard, and for all of its universe-conquering bravado, WADA doesn't seem very good at getting rid of cheaters. Cycling has more users than skid row. The Olympics are overrun with positive tests. So adopting WADA's rules satisfies a self-important group that, by default, became the expert on the issue.


Mitchell's "recommendations" do nothing to compensate – or, if necessary, overcompensate – for the lack of an HGH test.

So MLB must act. In addition to penalizing the owners, it could try the 7.(b)(1) solution. In the Uniform Player's Contract as outlined by the collective-bargaining agreement, rule 7.(b)(1) states that a team may terminate a player's contract if the player "shall at any time fail, refuse or neglect to conform his personal conduct to the standards of good citizenship and good sportsmanship or to keep himself in first-class physical condition or to obey the Club's training rules."

Tweaking that rule by adding "without the use or purchase of banned performance-enhancing drugs" following the gobbledygook about physical condition. It would force teams to decide whether harboring known cheats is truly worth the cost to self, team and sport.

"This is too much," one AL executive said about the proposed penalties. "You're talking largely about (the past). Why have a radical reaction now?"

Baseball needs it. Mitchell lashed with a wet noodle when he should have wielded a leather whip. After five years of drug testing, everyone sees that placing the onus solely on the players doesn't work. Dozens left paper trails that tied them to drugs. For each of those idiots, imagine how many savvy players escaped – and continue to escape – detection.

"I want to be clear: All of us share responsibility for making the game as clean as possible," Manfred said. "GMs, owners, players, the union. Actual knowledge on a particular player is something different, though.

"We already have the best program in professional sports if you look at it wall to wall. To the extent additional changes (as suggested by Mitchell) are made, it would make the program all that much stronger."

And still not strong enough.

Mitchell wants to repair a broken bone with a Band-Aid. Baseball's drug issue needs surgery. Or at least something new, something novel, something different.

Something that might actually solve the problem.