The oracles in the Biogenesis case had some baseball history behind their conjecture, but it was ancient, bordering on decrepit. That point became quite clear on Wednesday when the New York Daily News quoted MLB Players Association chief Michael Weiner as saying: "I can tell you, if we have a case where there really is overwhelming evidence, that a player committed a violation of the program, our fight is going to be that they make a deal. We're not interested in having players with overwhelming evidence that they violated the [drug] program out there. Most of the players aren't interested in that."
The players association has come a long, long way from the days when the union opposed drug testing on ideological grounds, and when its No. 2 executive, Gene Orza, said that the sport had no more right to police the use of steroids than it did to prevent cigarette smoking, another harmful personal habit.
The union now understands that it has equal responsibility to players who choose not to dope and don't want PEDs to become a de facto job requirement in their business. It was a slow learner, but it got there.
A USA Today poll of 556 major leaguers in 2002, the year the union ultimately agreed to preliminary testing, showed that 79 percent would accept independent PED screening and that 37 percent felt pressure to dope themselves. Some players have been quite vocal, even staunchly political, on this point.
Back in spring training 2003, six months before the raid on BALCO brought the breadth of doping in American sports to light, more than a dozen of the Chicago White Sox engineered an extraordinary plan to assure that their game began regular drug testing. That was the year that MLB, per its most recent collective-bargaining agreement, implemented survey testing, an attempt to measure the degree of PED use in the game. No penalties were attached to the program, and names were not supposed to be connected with the failed tests that year. But if the number of positive tests exceeded 5 percent, full-scale, punitive testing would go into effect the following season.
Some of the White Sox realized that refusal to take the test would register as an automatic failure, much as refusing a Breathalyzer can trigger an arrest on grounds comparable to a driving-under-the-influence charge. According to several accounts from that spring, 16 of the White Sox planned to decline to provide their urine samples in hopes of driving up the number of positives and assuring that steroid testing became a regular part of MLB life. After a reportedly contentious standoff, the players were finally persuaded by some teammates and the union to take the tests.
"I think some of them were saying that they would like an equal playing field," union rep Kelly Wunsch told the AP at the time, without naming the 16 players. "But no one turned in an essay on why they weren't going to take it."
The impulse of those 16 players, and the thought they put into the effort, represented a fairly radical position, even if they didn't follow through. Prepping for a new season tends to bring on severe cases of tunnel vision, almost a necessity for professional athletes. For them to make waves on matters of principle, they had to hold those principles rather dear.
In the end, 5 to 7 percent of all the survey tests came back positive that year, and MLB's first full-time drug testing went into effect in 2004. Over the next two years, enormous pressure would force the union to reopen negotiations on the drug policy, making it stronger each time.
A lot of that pressure came from Congress, the publication of Jose Canseco's "Juiced,'' Mark McGwire's refusal to talk about the past and the leaking of Jason Giambi's and Barry Bonds' grand-jury testimony in the BALCO case. But it was all buttressed by reactions from the players, many of them adamant about imposing tougher penalties.
In late 2004, just days after the Bonds and Giambi testimony appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the union's executive board gathered at an exclusive resort in Phoenix, where security kept shooing reporters off the grounds. But when the Chronicle's John Shea approached the Cardinals' Ray King there, the reliever waved off a hotel employee and invited Shea to sit down for an interview in which he advocated for a more stringent policy that matched either that of the Olympics or the minor leagues.
During a news conference at the end of those meetings, Don Fehr, the union's executive director at the time, struck as conciliatory a pose as anyone in the media had ever seen from him. He knew he had a new mandate.
Weiner inherited the revamped agenda: Stand up for all the players who oppose doping and, just as important, ensure that any players who are suspected of juicing have to answer only to MLB and their peers, not to Congress, not to federal agents, and not to any local drug-enforcement officers.
After the closing of the Lance Armstrong federal case, the failure to convict Roger Clemens on a single count of perjury or obstruction of justice and howls from taxpayers, there is a very limited appetite for pursuing any kind of legal case against athletes using PEDs. But that could change. In fact, the appetite might never have abated if MLB and the Players Association hadn't agreed to more powerful oversight, and MLB hadn't established the investigative unit that has assembled evidence in the Biogenesis case. If today's suspects escape intense professional scrutiny, future players whose names turn up in a clinic's documents might be ducking into police cruisers, handcuffed as police officers guide their heads safely below the roof.
The zeal and sordid details of MLB's Biogenesis investigation may disgust a lot of fans and media, but this enforcement approach shouldn't be any more troubling than the invasiveness of blood and urine testing, which many Biogenesis critics appear to accept as a gold standard. In fact, with much justification, invasion of privacy through the surrender of bodily fluids seemed to be Orza's chief objection to anti-doping efforts. The union now accepts that indignity as part of the sport.
In cases where Biogenesis evidence does not support punishment, the union will fight hard for the accused players, as it should. But the assumption that the union would wage a scorched-earth campaign simply because MLB relied on strong-arm tactics and some sketchy witnesses, in place of drug-test results, doesn't hold up.
We still don't know how much evidence really exists, or to what degree it rests on the shady characters and deals they cut with Bud Selig's cops. But Weiner's comment amounted to a small concession, because it allowed for the possibility that some cases might contain overwhelming proof. He had to admit as much, because he answers to a large and varied constituency that helped negotiate the very policies that might condemn a handful of their peers.