It's time for a progressive, smart PED plan in baseball

·MLB columnist

Nobody with any power inside the baseball establishment is interested in having an intelligent, salient, progressive, forthright, public discussion about performance-enhancing drugs, the similarities to their persecution with the failed War on Drugs, and the truth that they aren’t going away and could in fact be a boon to keeping players healthy. These conversations take place all the time behind closed doors. Nobody yet has summoned the courage to risk a career on its potential merits.

They are manifold. Steroids threatened baseball nearly as much as labor discord and gambling. They gave baseball the opportunity to rewrite the public’s impression of the intersection between modern athletes and the chemistry available to them. Rather than spearhead a revolution, baseball has instituted policies more and more punitive that still don’t, can’t and won’t discourage players from using drugs.

Starling Marte got suspended for 80 games Tuesday after testing positive for Nandrolone, one of the hardcore, old-school steroids that rarely shows up in a player’s urine because it’s so eminently detectable, a player would be foolish to take it. Marte is something of an underground star, beloved in Pittsburgh, a sabermetric darling, widely recognized by on-field personnel for his excellence. The Pirates were giddy to lock him up in 2014 to a six-year, $31 million contract that is considered one of the great team-friendly deals in all of baseball.

Starling Marte
Starling Marte was suspended Tuesday for 80 games after testing positive for Nandrolone. (Getty Images)

He is, too, a perfect test case around which to frame this intelligent, salient, progressive, forthright discussion. And since nobody wants to speak up, the best alternative is to proffer the myths that continue to be perpetuated and douse them with the truth.

Myth: Performance-enhancing drugs are bad.

Truth: If you’re going to open a can of worms, might as well start with the fattest nightcrawler of all. This topic is immensely complicated, so buckle up. The statement is all about language, and that language involves two pieces.

The first is the term “performance-enhancing drugs.” This is a catch-all phrase that encompasses hardcore steroids, designer pills, creams and lozenges, human growth hormone, amphetamines, peptides, blood-doping agents, testosterone boosters and countless other chemical compounds that aim to affect performance. The word “enhancing” is the issue. While athletes who take the drugs undoubtedly are trying to enhance their performances, they are also, in many cases, trying to “maintain” it, trying to “recapture” it or trying to “allow” it. Performance-maintaining drugs don’t sound terribly sinister. An entire industry formed around a performance-recapturing blue pill. And a performance-allowing drug is downright good.

This ties into the second bit of language: that the PEDs are “bad.” Replace that with any other word of that oeuvre: “wrong,” “harmful,” “cheating.” In some cases, this is true. Drugs can and will change a body’s chemistry, which in turn can have deleterious effects. Even those in favor of a more rational drug policy won’t oblige competition tainted by a juiced-to-the-gills player. That said, the notion that using chemistry automatically connotes cheating is a specious argument when other types of chemistry like cortisone and Toradol shots are regularly used, without complaint, to allow players to play.

The line between so-called PEDs and other drugs isn’t thin. It just doesn’t exist. The only reason PEDs are considered cheating is because federal drug policies stigmatized certain substances, and those now come with a scarlet S. Never mind that most players who take drugs today do so in order to deal with the rigors of a full season – of the grind, the travel, the responsibility to maintain playing shape in an environment that grows less conducive to it as the demands to do more increase.

There is a place for chemistry in baseball and all other sports, and it is in a tightly regulated, ever-evolving partnership with doctors, chemists, politicians, ethicists, management and players to develop fair rules for sport while acknowledging sport itself can benefit from the use of drugs. The rules in place now don’t work. They never have. They never will. Easing them won’t, as the governing bodies of sports argue, open some Pandora’s Box that leads to worse and worse use.

It’s been open for decades already.

Myth: “Neglect and lack of knowledge have led me to this mistake.”

Truth: These were Starling Marte’s words Tuesday afternoon following the announcement of his suspension. They are pure nonsense, and the fact that the MLB Players Association spread them shows its complicity in this delusion the entire sport tries to perpetuate.

Every spring, the league and union sit down with players and go over PED rules. Players have agents to further educate them. For players from Spanish-speaking countries, MLB offers a full accounting of its policy in Spanish. There is no lack of knowledge. Every ballplayer knows what he puts in his body is his responsibility.

The entire apology charade is so tired. Imagine a scenario in which a player actually said he took the drugs because his body hurt and he wanted to heal faster. That’s possible. That’s realistic. All it takes is a brave sport willing to stand up to public perception that is rapidly shifting away from the notion that PEDs are some evil bogeyman. Once Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens get into the Hall of Fame – and it is happening – baseball will have yet another reason to be that thought leader.

Myth: Baseball is the worst when it comes to PEDs.

Truth: In the last calendar year, Trent Murphy, Kenneth Dixon, Doug Martin, Tenny Palepoi, Kenny Vaccaro, Jordan Payton, D’Qwell Jackson, Jude Adjei-Barimah, Jerrell Freeman, Alshon Jeffery, Armonty Bryant, Chris Scott, Rob Ninkovich, Zach Sterup, Arthur Jones, Aaron Lynch and Demarcus Lawrence have been suspended by the NFL for positive PED tests. That’s 17 players of the 1,590 on NFL rosters. Over that same time, seven MLB players of the 1,200 on major league rosters have tested positive.

Doug Martin
Running back Doug Martin is one of 17 NFL players suspended in the past calendar year for PEDs. (Getty Images)

Now, some caveats are necessary. Dozens of minor league baseball players a year test positive. Baseball’s history is sordid and full of willful blindness. To say baseball’s drug problem is worse than the NFL’s today, though, is just ignorant. Baseball’s half-season suspension shows it to be more serious than the NFL, with its quarter-season, even if punishment is a misguided attempt at deterrence. So, too, is MLB’s desire to investigate potential PED use, though it does prove baseball gives far more thought to the issue than football.

Still, it’s easy to wonder whether all of that is for show so baseball can at least get close to former commissioner Bud Selig’s silly promise to eradicate PEDs from the game. It leads plenty to mistake the notion of less with none.

Myth: PEDs are on their way out of baseball.

Truth: Earlier this week, I was on the radio with two really smart hosts, Danny Parkins and Matt Spiegel of 670 The Score in Chicago, and PEDs came up. I estimated somewhere between two and five guys per clubhouse are using some version of substances baseball would frown upon. This may be high. It may be low, too.

The point was two-fold: After the steroid era, where some half of players were on something of one kind or another, it is difficult to believe baseball has come close to ridding drugs from its clubhouses, even with the threat of long suspensions. And while the number of suspensions is down, drug-testing experts acknowledge there are plenty of ways to beat the tests, whether it’s taking HGH, which is detectable only in blood, using microdoses of testosterone that disappear quickly or taking boutique compounds that doctors don’t even know exist.

It’s all so cloak-and-dagger. Doesn’t a sporting culture where players could be honest about how they treat themselves – running experiments on their own bodies to find what suits them best and optimizing themselves to extract the best performances possible – sound like something sports should embrace, not run from? Transparency, in this case, leads to knowledge, which helps normalize the substances, which make the game better. And isn’t that the point?

Myth: Starling Marte is worth less to the Pirates today than he was yesterday.

Truth: The Pittsburgh Pirates entered into a long-term contract with Starling Marte recognizing the millions of possible outcomes included him testing positive for a substance. This is part of the calculus of every team. Analyze the risk, whether it’s PEDs, injuries, personal issues or anything else, and gauge whether the upside is greater. With Marte, it was. Much greater.

Let’s put it this way: If today the Pirates were offered the opportunity to rip up the remainder of Starling Marte’s contract, they would pass. Why? Because Marte is still insanely cheap. He is making $5 million this season, $7.5 million next season, $10 million the year after that, and Pittsburgh holds two club options beyond that, at $11.5 million and $12.5 million. For the 4½ years after Marte’s suspension ends, they will owe him about $43 million.

Starling Marte
Starling Marte’s career won’t be hurt by Tuesday’s 80-game suspension. (Getty Images)

Starling Marte has played about 4½ years in the major leagues. Know how much he’s been worth? FanGraphs says $135.5 million. That’s based on his Wins Above Replacement and the cost of a win on the free-agent market. No team in baseball values those 4½ seasons at under $100 million. And even if they were PED-fueled – even if a part of Marte’s value did come from what he was using – the potential surplus value of the next four seasons makes his deal well enough worth the risk that all 29 other teams would gladly part with good major league players or top prospects in exchange for Marte.

Myth: There is now a stigma attached to Marte.

Truth: For the next three months, sure. And then for the rest of the season, too, because most outcomes will reflect poorly upon Marte. If the Pirates falter and end up trading Andrew McCutchen, their best player since Barry Bonds, it will be traced to Marte’s suspension, and if they somehow contend for a playoff spot and Marte can’t play in the postseason because of his positive test, it will be a blight on him.

Beyond that, though? Does anyone care about Dee Gordon’s PED suspension anymore? No. Are teams scared to trade for Ryan Braun after his? No. Were Nelson Cruz or Jhonny Peralta impeded from getting four-year free-agent deals on account of theirs? No.

For all of capital-B Baseball’s hand-wringing about PEDs, teams prove again and again: They don’t care unless a suspension directly affects them. Teams won’t ever let morality get in the way of a ring.

Myth: Pressure from players will change the union’s stance on PEDs.

Truth: Bahahahahaha. Players go public all the time acting like hardos about PEDs. The latest was Rangers reliever Jake Diekman after Marte’s suspension.

So … the team would get to take away the money it guaranteed a player and pay him like a rookie forever? This is ridiculous, as is the idea of allowing teams to tear up long-term deals when someone tests positive, which is a Pandora’s Box players decidedly do not want to open. All of this comes from a good place, sure, and one in which players simply are saying they want a fair game.

It doesn’t work that way, though, and they’re doing their union a disservice by even suggesting this is a possibility. The union allowed players to dictate what they wanted in the last collective-bargaining negotiations, and they asked for an extra seat on the spring-training bus. Knee-capping fellow union members’ ability to earn money doesn’t seem like the most astute use of a player’s time. Maybe, instead, he who wants a fair and even game could look into the idea of regulated use.

Myth: This column will go on forever.

Truth: There is so much more, but we’ll save that for another day. This is merely an effort to educate and a call for everyone inside baseball to recognize the incongruity of the current policy and be brave enough to figure out one that’s right for the players, the teams, the sport. It’s possible. It really is.

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