Keith Strudler: Baseball's PED Problem
Last night I sat through a full nine innings of Single-A minor league baseball. Once the sugar high of Cracker Jacks and funnel cake wears off, it can get pretty old, if you plan on actually watching the game. There’s missed balls, botched plays, and everything else that reminds you why they call it the minor league instead of, say, the majors. But on a positive note, three hours and four pretzels later, I can definitively say that not everyone in professional baseball takes drugs. That’s probably news after this week, when major league baseball suspended Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun for the rest of the year without pay for his involvement with the Miami clinic Biogenesis, who apparently gave him enough supply to fill a Duane Reade. And I’m talking about one of the big ones down in the city, where they sell groceries and lawn furniture.
Ryan Braun isn’t the only offender. There’s a list of players tied to Biogenesis that feels like something Heidi Fleiss circulated in the 90’s that includes some of the biggest names in baseball, including, of course Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod, unlike Braun, seems disinterested in cutting a deal with the league office to take a suspension, even though the book on the Yankees shortstop is reportedly even more condemning than the script on Braun. At least for now, A-Rod is simply getting ready to return to major league action after an expedited rehab, referring to this whole issue as a process, like he’s waiting for his film to get developed, for anyone who remembers what that was like. His persecution, or prosecution, depending on your perspective, will likely dominate the public and private in baseball over the next several days, followed by a list of suspensions based on just how much baseball can get from Biogenesis and clinics like it. So just in case you found baseball boring, now imagine baseball mixed with lawyers. It’s like adding kale to brussle sprouts.
A-Rod’s general argument, beyond his normal argument that he’s simply spoiled and entitled like a 5-year-old princess, is that baseball hasn’t produced a failed drug test, a smoking gun if you will, just simply a whole lot of evidence tying him to clinic that specializes in performance enhancing drugs. In A-Rod’s mind, and let’s not go there, this proves nothing, and it certainly doesn’t seem to follow standard procedure, where drug tests are just that. Receipts, e-mails, testimony, that’s for the courtroom, not baseball. To A-Rod, if you want to prove he took drugs and kick him out of baseball, then do that.
What’s really surprising about that stance is that most baseball fans actually agree. Our Marist College Center for Sports Communication worked with the Marist Poll to release a study yesterday measuring fan opinion on just this topic, and 61% said they want to see a failed test before anyone gets suspended. Only 28% said ties to Biogenesis, or any other clinic, is enough. Of course, that number might have changed if you attached A-Rod’s name to it. Especially if you asked the Yankees brass, who are desperately looking for a way out of his gazillion dollar contract for a player that looks less healthy than Keith Richards. But in the abstract, fans give the tie to the athlete, or at least the overwhelming benefit of the doubt, of which in the case of Ryan Braun, there seems to be little left.
There are likely a whole lot of reasons why fans responded the way they did, the vast majority tied to the importance of hero worship in this country. It’s a lot easier to deny circumstance than dismantle your own cognition, one that’s possibly turned a wayward athlete into a godly presence. So if you have to rewrite your version of history or explain away a memo from some shady clinic, well, I’ll take the latter.
That might get tougher as the next several days and weeks transpire, as fans nationwide will watch athlete after athlete take a deal from major league baseball. We’ll never see the evidence, just the penance. But we’ll know it must have been pretty bad, for guys like Ryan Braun to not even put up a fight. And with each suspension, we’ll just be that much more likely to believe that pretty much everyone in baseball is doing drugs.
Thankfully for me, after a night at the ballpark, I can assure you that’s not the case. It only feels that way.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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