You know who have been the harshest critics of players who use performing enhancing drugs? It hasn't been scolding old-school sportswriters still pretending that Mickey Mantle only drank Ovaltine. It hasn't been Congress, who seems to have finally dropped the habit of poking its beak into this mess every few years. It hasn't been fans, who have been so offended by PEDs in the sport that more of them are watching the game every year. It has been the players themselves.
I used to think this was for show, voracious self-back-patters like Curt Schilling feigning sanctimony when there were cameras around. (You saw a little of this from Skip Schumaker yesterday, who said he'd be taking down the signed Ryan Braun jersey from his baseball room, to save his son's impressionable mind, and that PED users should be banned from baseball after the first offense. I assume he ran this rant by his hitting coach.) But players are clearly making their thoughts on the matter known to their union.
As our own Gwen Knapp noted earlier this week, the union has made concessions about PED use -- and player privacy, and individual player rights -- that it never would have made were its constituency not firmly behind them. Union head Michael Weiner said, "I am deeply gratified to see Ryan taking this bold step," when Braun agreed to the 65-game suspension, and that's a statement that would seemed unfathomable five years ago. The union used to fight tooth and nail for even the slightest concession: Now they're happy one of their members accepted a somewhat arbitrary suspension even though there still hasn't been a positive test and we're all relying on the testimony of a shady fellow from Miami who isn't even a real doctor.
I will confess little moral outrage when it comes to PEDs in sport; I'd rather there not be any, but I also think the posturing on this issue has a tendency to suck all the oxygen out of the room. Sometimes I'd just like to watch some baseball in peace, you know? But this is becoming a pivot point. The concessions the union has made on this issue, with the full backing of its members, would seem the biggest move toward "cleaning up the game" -- whatever that really means -- we've seen since the PED issue arose. If you're a player like Ryan Braun and you use PEDs, you not only have Major League Baseball desperate to take you down, you now have your own union just as eager to do the same thing. When you're at that point, you have no one in your corner. Forget any moral or ethical notion: Braun's best move, for self-preservation, was never to do PEDs in the first place. You have disincentivized the activity. This, all told, is the first time during the PED era that has been the case. It counts as progress.
So, yay, right? Well, that's the thing: The way this is going disincentivizes superstars from using PEDs. But I'm not sure it disincentivizes anybody else. This is because players, as it turns out, see their own ranks the same way fans do: On a tiered, caste system. All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
Here, I'll refer to the work of Joe Sheehan, frequent podcast guest of mine and author of the Joe Sheehan Newsletter, which you'd be a fool not to subscribe to. His column responding to the Braun mess didn't look at Braun, or Alex Rodriguez. It looked at Bartolo Colon, and Mike Morse, and Carlos Ruiz. These are players who have committed the same offenses as Braun -- worse, they actually failed tests, and sometimes even lied about it, like him -- and have served their time. And nobody cares. Quoting Sheehan:
How can [players] welcome them back into the fold, get beat by them, lose jobs to them, lose money to them, lose postseason berths, lose World Series shares to them? How is it that in ten years we've never seen a player say he doesn't want to play with one of these guys? I don't mean in the abstract. I mean no player has said that he won't sign a contract with a team because it employs a cheater. No player has said that he would like to see his team release the teammate caught using. There's all this concern trolling about the clean players, the ones "most hurt" by the cheaters' supposed advantage, but when Marlon Byrd signs with the Mets, where is Kirk Nieuwenhuis' outrage? If the players want a clean game, shouldn't Bartolo Colon's job belong to Sonny Gray?
This is exactly right. Players, absurdly, are treating PED users the way the media treats them: On a case-by-case basis, judging those whose names are more well-known (and thus get more page views) more harshly. They say they want a clean game, but what they really want is not to feel like the superstars are cheating. A guy who is just trying to add on a couple years at the end of his career like Colon? A guy who's trying to overcome an injury like Mike Morse? Oh, they understand that. It's Braun and A-Rod who are the jerks; the ham-and-eggers are fine.
They hate PEDs in general. They just don't hate the guys who use them. Unless they already hated them. Last night, Brandon McCarthy, one of the more thoughtful players in the game and exactly the type of person you hope becomes a television analyst someday, seemed to acknowledge this on Twitter in a conversation with baseball writer Rany Jazayerli. "A superstar will always get biggest reaction," he wrote, and "[Braun]"s press conference last year hasn't been forgotten." Braun's a jerk, so throw the book at him. McCarthy -- who, honestly, we should all thank for being as open and available about this stuff as he is so that I can take his points and use them against him -- said later that if he had a teammate who were a user, his tone would be as harsh if the player had "the same level of lying." But no one cares that Bartolo Colon lied, or Carlos Ruiz lied, or Marlon Byrd lied. Because nobody cares about those guys. They care about Braun. They care about A-Rod.
I understand: It is difficult to put together a coherent, consistent position on this stuff as a collective whole, particularly when you are busy trying to be a professional baseball player. (The media, lacking the distraction of games to play, are even worse at it.) But players are the ones changing this whole conversation right now: Their movement on this issue has opened the door to suspensions like Braun's, and it very well might dramatically alter the whole PED game. And maybe that's a good thing. It probably is. But let's not call what's happening right now with Braun, and what is about to happen with A-Rod, anything resembling "fair." I have no sympathy for them: They made their choices. But so did lots of other guys, guys who will never be dragged behind the horse like the superstars are. Players are treating the PED issue the way the media has treated the PED issue for the last decade, being led around by the headlines, by emotion. This might be helping to fix the problem now, at least in the short term. But this has the feel, to me, of frontier justice.