Let's give Major League Baseball some credit. Nearly 15 years after Steve Wilstein's Associated Press story about seeing a pill bottle labeled "androstenedione" in Mark McGwire's locker awkwardly launched the steroid era, the sport's handling of performance-enhancing drugs is still getting more tragicomically backwards every year.
The latest chapter comes via an ESPN/Outside the Lines report that MLB is about to move to suspend some 20 players, including stars like Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun, for PED use. But these players weren't caught by MLB testing or investigated because of information collected by MLB's personnel. Rather, this is all based on information from BioGenesis, an apparently prolific PED-peddling clinic in South Florida, whose documents were uncovered by the Miami New Times and ESPN. MLB, its entire enforcement division having been outworked by a few good reporters, then filed a dubious lawsuit against the lab's proprietor, Anthony Bosch, claiming that he had interfered with MLB's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program and was thus compelled to hand over said info. Now — with their lawsuit against him still pending — they've reportedly accepted his offer to give them information about his former clients in exchange for some promise of protection from federal prosecution.
In other words, MLB's newest hope for clearing its reputation as a playground for the chemically inclined is to deal for info from a huckster with a fake medical degree whom they have already sued. But baseball is an impatient beast on some matters — enhanced instant replay, not so much — so it's apparently willing to drop the suit if Bosch pipes up. If this all sounds very convoluted and sketchy to you, you probably have something in common with the accused players' representatives and lawyers, who are no doubt gearing up for a long appeals process. (Not that these players are looking especially good right now either; even if they're not found to have technically violated MLB rules, it still doesn't say much for their judgment to have their names show up on the records of a fake doctor who specialized in "anti-aging" treatments and had already been credibly connected to steroid shenanigans.)
With more melodrama than a Spanish-language novella, you can't say that MLB's ongoing attempts at whatever it thinks this will all accomplish haven't been entertaining theater. Or even that eliminating steroid use is an unworthy goal. But what it hasn't been is terribly effective, and now another grasp at credibility comes with the caveat of having to partner up with someone like Bosch, a newer-age Victor Conte. Baseball has now become a pastime where an extensive legal background is almost as necessary for understanding the sport's context as identifying box score symbols. What commissioner Bud Selig and his underlings would have you believe, on a very basic level, is that this is a net positive, that anything that helps eliminate potential PED use is worth doing, and I don't necessary disagree. But this tragic comedy has reached such outlandish proportions that it's hard to see how partnering with BioGenesis actually fixes anything. If these players were cheating, then they weren't deterred or caught by MLB testing protocols. Putting the squeeze on a fake doctor after he's blown up by a local gumshoe is not a replicable process. If these players weren't cheating, and it's not as if Bosch's credibility is beyond reproach, then here we go again.
Even in the most optimistic of scenarios — i.e. they doped; they're suspended; ergo, less players dope — no one looks good here. And the sport's "war on drugs"-style approach — occasional scary suspension binges punctuating long periods of doing nothing — is almost designed to create uncertainty. Craig Calcaterra of HardballTalk has written a marvelous piece that delves into this whole debacle from a smart and sensible perspective. (Also required reading: Jonah Keri and Tim Marchman.) What really proves enlightening (and, by extension, frustrating) is how he lays out the ways in which baseball could actually achieve long-term reductions in PED use. MLB will, in all likelihood, not heed his approach in any meaningful way, but if Jose Canseco can find a second life as a writer, then maybe anything can happen.
But I don't think this latest twist with Bosch and BioGenesis was ever about longterm change. It's about legacy-building for Bud Selig. The commissioner says he will step down after the 2014 season, and much like David Stern, his soon-to-be-departed basketball counterpart who's attempting a little reputation-polishing of his own vis a vis Seattle, it's high time Bud start thinking about history and perceptions. Lucky for Selig, society is built on short memories these days, so they can attempt these kinds of PR-shaded maneuvers and trumpet whatever tangible results they can wrest away and call it a success. Some people will fall for that, but most probably won't care to invest too much emotional energy in such conclusions. This 15-year effort has never truly shown any signs of going away, and the BioGenesis business will, if history has taught us anything, likely represent yet another false coda.
A final aside: My first child, a son, is due later this summer, and when you hear all the proclamations about how expecting a kid changes your outlook on life (and, yes, sports, by extension), do know that it's all very much true. Being a baseball fan of a certain age who has full cognition of The Great Home Run Chase of '98 and all it brought about, every new twist in the Steroids Era has me thinking how I might have to explain this to my son one day, should his baseball fandom come to fruition. My great expectation is that by the time he's old enough to talk about and enjoy and love baseball as I did in my youth, there'll be some sense of finality with regards to PEDs. Not that they don't exist — it's not like I'm going to try and keep him from ever learning about the concepts of cheating and dishonesty — but that there will be a level of science/health understanding, education, and deterrence such that steroids have stopped being such a constant interruption from the most wonderful sport we have.
It's a vain, stupid hope, but it's all I've got now.