September 21, 2020

I Believe in the Death Penalty (in Baseball)

Warning: this post is devoid of grace.

If I were Major League Baseball’s commissioner, anyone caught using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) would be banned from the game for life. Period.

Last week, Melky Cabrera, the San Francisco Giants’ left fielder (the position formerly played by Barry Bonds, king of the Steroids Era), was given a fifty game suspension. He had been having the best year of his career, batting .346 with 11 home runs and 60 RBIs. He was the MVP of the All Star Game.

His punishment was not enough.

After all the negative publicity and shame Major League Baseball endured for the “Steroids Era,” which hit its peak in the 1990s, you would think MLB leaders might recognize and take the severest action regarding the grave danger any continued drug use has for the well being and future of the sport. I’ve heard people say that the penalty handed out to Cabrera was harsh, and will cause him even more problems because his contract is up at the end of the year and it is possible that he will not be able to cash in as a free agent on the big year he is having.

Poppycock. This is not about Melky Cabrera and punishing him. This is about protecting and saving the game of baseball. And the only way players will get the message that using PEDs is absolutely unacceptable is by elevating the penalty for their use to the same level as gambling, which is the one vice baseball will not tolerate in any way, shape, or form.

In an interview with USA Today, Victor Conte of BALCO, who has been at the center of the steroids scandal in sports and has spent time in prison for distributing steroids, claims that as many as 50% of MLB players use synthetic testosterone, the substance Cabrera used. Conte may be a slimeball, but if he is even half right it is devastating for the sport.

I love baseball about as much as I love anything in this life. It’s a wonderful game and has provided me and millions of others with countless hours of pleasure.

The use of performing enhancing drugs has the capacity to destroy the game I love.

Major League Baseball has been negligent, almost criminally so, in the way they have dealt with this grave threat over the past generation. Now, after all this time, it is still a big problem and yet here’s another slap on the wrist that does nothing to truly protect the game.

Mr. Selig, wake up.

Any player caught using PEDs should be banned from baseball immediately and permanently.

* * *

UPDATE: Good quote from Lincoln Mitchell:

“An industry that makes billions of dollars by exploiting irrational attachments between adults and their teams, as well as the journalists, bloggers and others who benefit from the profits generated by that sentimental relationship, should understand that faith and belief in the honest good intentions of the players is at the heart of the game’s economic model.”


  1. Okay, I’ll bite.

    WHY do PEDs threaten the game of baseball? Rather than assuming they are bad, I’d like to hear the “why”. Are not PEDs just the next technological step in the evolution of the game? Should we decry the use of larger mitts (or mitts at all!) in order to level the playing field with previous generations? What about maple baseball bats (which transfer more energy to the ball than the game’s staple, ash bats)?

    Is your concern that, rather than just having better equipment, the players themselves are benefiting from PEDs? (If your concern is that they are “unfairly” benefiting when compared with their “clean” brethren, the answer might just as well be to legalize PEDs across the board to give everyone the same opportunities.) If so, what about non-PED enhancers and workout routines? What about medicines and procedures that allow injured athletes to recover faster? Aren’t those an unfair advantage over what the previous generations might have had?

    I totally agree that as long as PEDs are outlawed, there need to be incredibly harsh penalties (though I doubt the player’s union would go along with anything TOO harsh). But part of me wonders if trying to stay ahead of PEDs is so much kicking against the goads, if not an outright shortsightedness on where the game could be headed in a different world.

    • I think you pegged me. Old school all the way when it comes to baseball. I’d as soon watch robots play as bulked up druggies.

      • I understand your concern, Mike, but I’m a little amused by the naivete of your concerns. If you look back on baseball’s history, there’s been plenty of cheating, plenty of gambling, and tons of underhanded tactics right from the very start. John Thorn’s “Baseball In The Garden of Eden” is a great deconstruction of this myth that there was once a pure, idyllic past in baseball, and that certain evils came along and ruined that innocence. Baseball (like everything else in life) has always been filled with people trying to get ahead by any means possible.

        Heck, the whole reason we have multiple umpires is because John McGraw (who would go on to be the New York Giants’ Hall of Fame manager of over 30 years) perfected the art of tripping and impeding players coming around third base when the official had his back turned. This is how the game has evolved: people cheat, systems change to clamp down on that cheating, and life goes on.

        By the way, Pud Galvin was the first known baseball player to use “Performance Enhancing Drugs.” He admitted to taking repeated doses of monkey testosterone…in 1889.

        • Donny, no naivete here. Of course baseball is played and managed and controlled by corrupt human beings, and a certain amount of underhandedness is to be expected. I happen to think that the kind of PEDs that are available now take all of that to an unacceptable level, a level at which it is difficult to recognize what is and isn’t genuine talent and skill. Many of the ways people cheated in the past reveal our humanity. This scandal seeks to supercede it.

          • As long as it’s banned and many players aren’t taking certain substances and playing within the rules, then I fully agree that PED use should be harshly punished. But the idea that this seeks to “supersede” humanity is, again, in my humble opinion, arbitrarily naive.

            If “superseding humanity” is your standard, what do we do when bionic limbs get good enough for amputees to compete against non-amputees? (Already happening in track and field, by the way.) Or does Tommy John surgery “supersede humanity” (how radical a procedure is it to take a ligament from a different part of your body and graft it into your elbow)? How about people who have received organ transplants? Heck, most of us have all kinds of growth hormones swimming around in our body through the commercially treated beef and animal protein that we eat.

            Technology will continue to advance, whether we like it or not. People are now much taller (on average) than they were in the early days of baseball. They’re naturally stronger too. Different eras of the game will always be difficult to compare, because baseball doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

            Again: I don’t condone cheating at all. I just think your concerns are rather hysterical and overstated, and overreacting often doesn’t help to solve the problem. You’re being very fundamentalist here, and as you often like to point out, life is much more nuanced than we’d like it to be. 🙂

      • CM, I share your old school sentimentalities (in the best, non-condescending sense of the word). My point was not one that I personally hold, at least not emotionally. My favorite team of all-time, the 1988 Dodgers, should shed light on how I like the game to be played. I like 1-0 games and 12-K CGs and sub-2.00 ERAs pitchers that hit, and tolerate weak-hitting middle infielders.

        However, I can rationally see a case like the one I fronted. My problem with that case, which I suspect you would share, is that the game would hardly be fit to be called “baseball” if it were played entirely by hulking PED-heads. That said, I’m not sure our viewpoint is the popular viewpoint; you can’t argue with the surge in popularity post-1995. To use the cliché, “Chicks dig the longball.” So there are something of warring goals here: keep the game pure (for some value of “pure”), and expand its reach and interest level.

        I don’t actually have an answer, but I’m also not sure it’s as dire as all that. After all, while home run records fell like so many dominoes, no one hit .400. Few people we’re hitting 50 doubles. The most prolific hit machine in the era (Ichiro) was a speedy singles/contact hitter. Pedro Martínez, Randy Johnson, and Greg Maddux were still way, way better than the batters they faced.

        So I’m not saying there’s NO problem–Hank Aaron and Roger Maris are still MY home run leaders–but it’s just not as straightforward an issue as I think it appears on the surface.

        • I will freely admit: my rant is the complaint of an aging fan who doesn’t like many changes in the game he loves.

          And this goes beyond MLB and the PED scandal. It starts at the lowest levels, where five year olds are now playing on fully outfitted travel teams rather than in sandlots. I can’t remember the last time I saw a group of kids playing ball in a vacant lot or field. The ethos of many sports is so far removed from the games I played as a kid that I find myself lamenting about it regularly.

          Such are the seasons of life, and thankfully, I still find reasons to enjoy baseball and refuse to become a cynic.

          • Mike, I’m much younger than you, but I totally agree with you on this point. A lot of older baseball coaches and ex-players also lament the increasing specialization and formalization of youth sports, and how kids can’t play multiple sports anymore if they’re really serious about having a future in any particular one.

            I’m glad you still enjoy the game; I’m sure I’ll have many more complaints in 30 years myself.

    • Let’s all remember the original performance enhancing substance: a bowl of Wheaties!

      I’ve been thinking alot along the lines of what pcg is saying here. In fact, many medical and technological breakthroughs in healing and rehabilitation are available to “the rest of us” that aren’t available to athletes. A few months ago, a sports radio segment about Manny Ramirez and his testosterone use had a commercial break. The first commercial? An ad for testosterone for men who wanted to spice up their love life! A radio engineer with a sense of humor.

      I think life itself is heading in a direction that will not be able to keep sports out of it. It will be interesting to see how all this pans out 20-30 years from now (assuming I’m still alive). What will a future generation think not only of the players who used, but of the people who were against the use?

  2. Ken Larkin says

    I do not believe in anything “for life”. Christ said…”go and sin no more”. I think that we are wrong to punish or judge anything to an extent that you do not allow the person to ask for forgiveness, and then be given a second chance. I believe they should continue to test for drugs, and if the person has not learned a lesson, then there should be a more lasting punishment. Perhaps a killer should be put away for life (if it was premeditated), but I believe that most sins should be acknowledged, and then the person shoud be watched carefully, and given a chance for change. Child molesting should be punished severely, and the person put away from all exposure to children…

    • We’re not talking about criminal penalties here, Ken. We’re talking about a business putting in place a no tolerance policy for actions that threaten the integrity of their business.

  3. Funny isn’t it, we all like the home runs, we don’t like the 1-0 games. We like it when we go back to the days when 9 home runs won the Home Run Crown. I was told a lot of players have used things to make them better, only a hand full of prayers that use the drugs can even hit the ball.

    The use of performing enhancing drugs has the capacity to destroy the game I love. You said. Don’t agree. They will continue to use drugs to get well better and be able to hit better. They can mask the drugs. We take the 5 hour energy drink to get an edge on living, so why not PED. Just saying.

  4. To follow up on Ken’s comment. Drunk driving, in my opinion, is treated way too lightly.

    Every time you drink and drive you are risking someone’s life, and that needs to be taken much more seriously.

  5. Joseph (the original) says

    interesting consideration about “zero tolerance” policies whatever their intended scope and/or area they impact…

    being that we inhabit a ‘fallen’ world, is there proper application for such a thing? no do-overs? no 2nd chances???

    i admit i am a failure at marriage. yup. divorced. as a Christian no less. it is not something in have made my peace with yet…

    sports is such an idol creating industry, no? any type of hyper-human performance rife with abuses no matter how ‘pure’ those that appreciate it want it to be. just because there was a time when enhancing drugs were not so high-tech, were there things athletes did to enhance their edge???

    we might laugh at such things today, but then the moral issue still problematic, no???

    i think the human element of all things sports related always going to be an issue. i mean, if selective breeding (no drugs at all) were done, would people scream about ethics then?

    hmmm…what are we to do???

  6. I would feel better about super-harsh penalties if I were really really convinced there weren’t ANY false positives, including in marginal cases, unexpected cross-detection of legitimate drugs, plants by competitors, … . As I understand it, the test for testosterone is particularly problematic, since it’s normal to have some.

    IMO, the problem behind the problem (and not just for Baseball) is Money and the intensity with which it is pursued, meaning anything and everything gets sacrificed for “success”. What drove me away from fandom was the incessant trading, which meant that except for a few superstars, my home team (SF) was practically unrecognizable from season to season.

  7. Right, look at the all the beer cups after the fans leave. And then they try to wiggle on home. And I wonder how many people in the stands would pass a drug test. Or in the MLB front office.

  8. I agree with you, Chaplain Mike. By way of comparison: Pete Rose is banned from baseball, and I would argue that what he did wasn’t as damaging to the sport as what the on-going PED problem has become…

  9. Cabrera could actually win the NL batting title this year…–mlb.html

    As a Pirates fan I hope this doesn’t happen (McCutcheon currently owns the lead), but maybe MLB needs some more crow in their diet.

  10. PED’s basically come with their own death penalty. Athletes who built their careers on PED’s seem spend their retirement dealing with health issues which end their lives prematurely. That’s not always the case. I guess it’s unfair to the clean player who loses his position to someone who isn’t. But if your hope is that a professional sport run by billionaires will somehow be a stage for stories of personal triumph and redemption, well, I may have bad news for you.

  11. David Cornwell says

    It’s about cheating. If these players are winning by cheating, then they have cheapened the game. And they are saying that cheating is ok in any other arena of life. Cheat on taxes, on Wall Street, the banks, in government, or wth your spouse.

    When I was in High School I very much disliked cheaters. I’m not too found of them now when I’m much older. Our culture seems to spawn cheaters and those who make excuses for them. Everyone who says its ok to cheat in a sport is saying the same thing about everything else.

    If we tolerate cheating in the big leagues, then we should tolerate the little guy cheats also; our kids who love the game, but are taught they can win anyway that works.

  12. Chaplain Mike,

    Your proposed lifetime ban wouldn’t end the use of these substances. At all. Lots of talk has been made here in SF about the whole thing this week. Nevermind Barry Bonds or Manny Ramirez, talk to a player who is struggling to stay in the bigs at all. You can go back to civilian life with no skills other than baseball, pretty much having to start over (not at 18, but at 28), or you can take some stuff and stay on for a year or two. That extra year or so, even at a very “low” salary, is far and away worth the risk for these players. So, they will continue to use no matter the consequences.

    Far worse than any drug scandal has been the hypocrisy of baseball’s brass in dealing with the issue.

    • I recognize the problem and I heartily concur with your last sentence. One of the articles I read recommended penalizing the teams as well as the player. Perhaps that would get their attention.

      Steve, you probably know me well enough by now to know I’m a hopeless idealist. It just boggles the mind that this has been going on for 30 years and MLB is still dealing with it like this.

      I still love the game and watch it pretty much on that basis alone.

      Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio?…

      • Mike,

        Yes, I know you’re an idealist. I was a hard core, old school “purist/traditionalist” for years. You know, take away helmets, elbow guards, shin guards and raise the strike zone to the shoulders, give back the high hard one and chin music to the pitchers without warnings or ejections. Let the players fight without suspensions, etc. Some things I have changed my thinking about, and the whole topic of performance enhancement is one. But it is complicated.

        Bud Selig is the only person under whose nose the steroids era happened as both an owner and commissioner. He went to the bank with the McGwire/Sosa ordeal, then wouldn’t even stand up on his feet in acknowledgment when Bonds tied Aaron at 755.

  13. Some people have naturally higher testosterone levels. Besides sex and age, it breaks down racially: blacks > whites > Asians. Should sports, then, be resegregated? Or perhaps whites and Asians should be allowed enough steriods to allow them to compete effectively with blacks, in those sports whose players are disproportionately black.

    Rather than try to regulate such things, I would rather see a return to pure gladiatorial combat, like in all those bad old science fiction movies. We watch sports not out of an interest in peak human performance, but as a primal ritual similar to religion as well as war. It is all about group identity, vicarious emotion, and catharsis.

  14. Final Anonymous says

    CM, as a die-hard old-school baseball fan, I was tempted to add a +1 to every one of your comments, but decided against cluttering up the section.

    I got to live through the Tony LaRussa era (motto: “Steroids? Watch my head turn round and round”) so I want my zero-tolerance to start higher up — suspend the TEAM from post-season play for any positive test. Suspend them for a few years if necessary.

    When the problem hits somebody high up in the pocketbook, I suspect managers’ vision will dramatically improve, and those drug tests will suddenly become a lot more frequent, regulated, and accurate.

  15. Mr. Selig, wake up

    Don’t just blame him. The owners can’t touch this issue without consent of the players union. This has been a big stumbling block since the issue got big time.