There is nothing quite like a positive drug test from a superstar athlete to inspire all sorts of Bold Proclamations. Starling Marte, the best player on the presumably playoff-contending Pittsburgh Pirates, will miss the next 80 games (79 if you include Tuesday night's loss to the Cardinals) after testing positive for a banned substance. It's the biggest story in baseball. It's time to separate some facts from some fiction.
Starling Marte's explanation is lame.
Marte's press release trying to answer to the suspension is a classic from the "I am sorry for something I did not realize I was doing wrong" genre. "Neglect and lack of knowledge have led me to this mistake with the high price to pay of being away from the field that I enjoy and love so much. With much embarrassment and helplessness, I ask for forgiveness for unintentionally disrespecting so many people who have trusted in my work and have supported me so much. I promise to learn the lesson that this ordeal has left me." Leaving aside the fact that, at this point, no athlete in any sport should ever be able to claim that they failed a test by accident -- I know what's banned, and I don't have explicit reminders of it pasted essentially everywhere I look in my workplace -- Marte claims that he will "learn the lesson" of this ordeal, which apparently means "don't accidentally do anything wrong," because that's all he'll admit to.
Andrew McCutchen will get his one last ride.
The Pirates lost Tuesday night, but it wasn't because of Cutch, who had two hits and chased down a deep fly in center field and then pounded his chest, as if to say, "In center field, I am the captain now." McCutchen was openly irritated when the Bucs gave his center-field job to Marte, and he also hasn't been crazy about the trade rumors that have surrounded him. (There's a club option for next year, and then he's a free agent.) This is one of the most beloved players in Pirates history, and he's frustrated and a bit on the outside looking in. Well, having Marte out of the way gives McCutchen his old job back, and it allows him to make the case, the way he wants to make the case, that he deserves a big contract heading into his mid-30s. Pirates fans are worried they are lost now. McCutchen, irritated McCutchen, has his chance to prove he can be their hero again.
The Pirates are still probably toast.
Pittsburgh had just been coming off a road sweep of the Cubs, facing a Cardinals team that had lost three in a row and was reeling. The Pirates lost a game, got hit with this and then lost another one. Marte was central to everything the Bucs were trying to do, leading them with defense, speed and on-base ability. They can move McCutchen to center field -- a position the advanced metrics say he can't play anymore, Tuesday night's play aside -- but that just leaves holes in right field, and atop the lineup, and essentially everywhere. Every team wants a fast, strong center fielder peaking in his 20s. The Pirates just got theirs taken away. This past half decade of Pittsburgh's resurgence has been inspiring, but the team has never quite broken through. You could make an argument, with the Cardinals struggling, the division weak and the Cubs suffering through a bit of a hangover, that 2017 was presenting itself as an opportunity. Instead, the Pirates look snakebit.
The postseason ban for PED users is a big deal.
Tossed in almost at the last minute when the PED policy was announced, the postseason ban -- no player suspended for PEDs can play in that year's postseason, even if his ban is over -- feels more powerful than ever right now. It's one thing for the Pirates to have to figure out what to do for 80 games. It's quite another to survive those games, get Marte back, somehow sneak into the playoffs … and then lose him again. Baseball has become a more postseason-centric game in the past decade, so this punishment seems to count double: It takes away your star and your hope.
Baseball is totally fine, relax.
There seemed to be a sentiment emerging Tuesday that Marte's positive test showed that Baseball Still Has a PED Problem. That may be true, and it may not be, but this provides us no evidence either way. This was a star player who took something he wasn't supposed to and got busted for it. This does not mean that baseball is now somehow Not On The Level, or at least not any more Not On The Level than it was last week. (In fact, by definition, it is less Not On The Level; they just nailed a guy using PEDs!) If you are enjoying baseball, you can keep enjoying baseball. So deep are the psychic scars of the McGwire/Sosa/Bonds age that you hear these wails about the game being ridden with PEDs every time there's a bust. But the bust is a good thing, not a bad one. If you think PEDs in baseball is a horrible problem that must be eradicated or the game will die -- and I do not believe this, but I'll grant your desire to believe it if you must -- then having a player suspended is a step in the right direction, not the wrong one.
Marte had no reason to use PEDs.
This was the premise of Ken Rosenthal's piece yesterday: "Why did he do it?" is right there in the lead. Rosenthal argues that Marte already had a big contract, and he wasn't overcoming an injury, so … why? Well, a main one might be "baseball is a really hard game to play and super competitive." Sure, Marte had his contract, but contract or no, he still has to produce on a daily basis, and if he doesn't, he'll get benched/booed/lambasted by people like Rosenthal. One of the many reasons athletes have different jobs than you or I do is that even the slightest dip in performance is immediately noticeable by millions of people, all of whom are constantly staring at you, wondering what's wrong with you. And that's not to mention all the younger players who desperately want your job. Contract or no, Marte has to be great at baseball for his life, as currently constituted, to work. If he thought PEDs were the only way -- or at least a key way -- to keep that life going, he was going to take them. It's really that simple.
Marte is going to be a bad baseball player now.
One of the odder statements in the wake of a player failing a drug test is, "Will he ever be the same player again?" History tells us, over and over and over again, that when players come back from PED suspensions or busts, they're just as good as they ever were, if not better. Ryan Braun. Nelson Cruz. Andy Pettitte. Jhonny Peralta. Alex Rodriguez. Cameron Maybin. Bartolo Colon. Marte's teammate Francisco Cervelli. Marte is going to come back at the end of this season, and in 2018, and he's going to be very good, because he is a very good baseball player. The PEDs didn't make him a good baseball player, and stopping using them isn't going to make him a bad one. All told: The Pirates will still get a deal on the contact they gave to Marte.
The PED testing system isn't working.
This one is absolutely baffling to me. When the PED testing protocol -- negotiated and agreed upon by both the union and MLB -- catches a high-profile player who has been using PEDs and suspends him for half the season … how is that the system not working? There is this bizarre notion that when no players are testing positive, that means the system is humming along nicely, but when a player does test positive, it means We Must Do More. This is what happens when you implement a system. Players get busted occasionally. If there were no big-name players being suspended, that's when you should be nervous.
The punishment is too light.
A caller on XM MLB Network radio said that Marte's contract should now be voided. This is insane -- the union would lose its mind, and with good reason, unless teams would like to give back all revenue they made of the player up to that point -- but speaks to this other strange idea that 80 games, with 162 games on a second offense and a lifetime ban after the third, somehow just isn't enough. That the only reason people like Marte use is because they don't fear the punishment. Trust me: Marte's life is miserable right now. Everyone is mad at him. His teammates feel like he betrayed them. He just lost about $2.5 million. Everywhere he goes the rest of his life, he'll be called a cheater and a fraud. Marte's life is never going to be the same, because of one bad test. I swear, there is a certain segment of the populace that won't be happy until we just shoot one of these guys.
You can never cheer for Marte again.
Yeah, not sure about this one. Hey, Pirates fans, do you enjoy Cervelli? You should! He's really good. Well, Cervelli got busted for his role in the Biogenesis scandal back in 2013 and had to sit out 50 games. This doesn't change your opinion of him, and it shouldn't. Cervelli served his time; he's eligible now; he's helping your team win. What's the problem? If you want someone not to cheer for on the Pirates -- and whose problems are actively hurting his team, every day -- how about Jung Ho Kang, whose legal woes are keeping him out of the country. That there are people who are OK with Aroldis Chapman but not OK with Marte makes no sense. You're mad now. I get that. But ultimately the game will be fine, Marte will be fine, the Pirates will be fine, and it will all be fine. This outrage is temporary. Marte's suspension isn't a sign that everything is falling apart. It's a sign that everything's working exactly as it should.