The official end of the steroid era as we knew it came on Sunday, when the fiscally-responsible and scouting-conscious St. Louis Cardinals officially signed previously suspended shortstop Jhonny Peralta to a four-year, $53 million contract that had the baseball world buzzing. This is not to say that the move was unwise -- that's an argument for another time -- but simply to point out that the Cardinals were flatly unconcerned about Peralta's past, which portends a possible new trend.
"I don't think it's the Cardinals responsibility, necessarily, to be the moral police on potentially future employment," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak told reporters on Monday at Peralta's introductory press conference, which curiously enough, Peralta did not attend.
In the wake of the signing, several players, most notably Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Brad Ziegler, took to Twitter to voice displeasure that Peralta's suspension had not served as a deterrent for teams. What is to keep a player from cheating, Ziegler argued, if he could still get a multi-year deal like Peralta? The question has merits, although it begs us to think about whether steroid use really does deserve the moral outrage that it has seen over the past 10 years.
The larger question, though, is who exactly are the PED guidelines protecting, if not the teams who pay for what supposedly are fraudulent accomplishments? Commissioner Bud Selig's assertion in pushing for testing was that the game was going to be cleaned up and that teams would be protected from cheaters. But if the teams don't care anymore, then why should anybody care?
At the outset of the stringent drug testing guidelines that were put into effect in 2004, it was believed that even the mere mention of steroid use would be enough to tarnish a player's reputation. Rafael Palmeiro, the first major name to test positive under the new rules, was effectively blackballed from the game after his suspension. But that no longer is the reality. A year ago, the Toronto Blue Jays signed outfielder Melky Cabrera, who served a 50-game suspension for PEDs, to a two-year, $16 million contract. That was only the beginning.
Peralta's deal, and the looming multi-year contract that outfielder Nelson Cruz is likely to soon recieve, seem to show a major shift in perception. If any organization chooses to spend its money on someone who has previously tested positive for steroids, then perhaps the whole PED argument has become pointless. So while some players may continue to push for harsher penalties, and many baseball writers continue to chastise players from the era for drug ties, the baseball world has moved on. In truth, some organizations have begun to try to quantify a suspended player's performances pre- and post-steroid use. They have, in effect, stopped the morality play and have begun to deal in reality.
One National League general manager, when asked if the sentiment toward steroids had softened, responded: "Good question. I'm not sure. I thought Ziegler's reaction was interesting."
When pressed whether Ziegler's comments were simply indicative of player's beliefs and not executives, the GM conceded: "Might be true."
An American League general manager responded: "Truly it's hard to say. I believe teams consider it part of the risk factors, just like injury risk, performance risk, etc."
Asked whether there was less perceived risk with admitted PED users now than previously, that general manager said: "I believe we are in unexplored territory. There are not a lot of facts in this area."
These opinions certainly show a thawing toward PED users. The suggestion that PED use may rank as high in a player's history file as an injury is a bold move forward for the sport. Even as recently as a few years ago, many general managers would have completely dismissed signing a disgraced steroid user. It may be that for many progressive general managers, steroid users, with their tarnished reputations and sometimes lowered salary demands, may become a market inefficiency like lightly regarded players with high on-base percentages were a decade ago. As the Cardinals showed, why trade prospects or give up a draft pick when Peralta's only cost was money?
The argument that steroid use had been halted because of baseball's testing was squashed once the commissioner's office suspended 13 players, including Peralta, for their association with the Miami-based Biogenesis clinic. And there will always be another Biogensis-type clinic wanting to provide an advantage for those willing to pay lots of money for it.
Even a tougher drug policy may not serve a purpose, if the drugs that are being used aren't detectable with the current testing technology. Not that baseball shouldn't try to catch cheaters, but the game must accept that it won't always be able to do so. It appears that most general managers have conceded that PEDs will always be part of the game, and that it makes no sense to blackball tainted players.
"When you think about what you're trying to build, a lot of things factor into how you put a club together," Mozeliak said. "Character and makeup are something that we weigh into our decision making. But I think in his case, he admitted what he did. He took responsibility for it. At this point in the game, there's nothing that says he can't go play or isn't free to sign with some other club."
Even with the Alex Rodriguez saga nearing an ugly conclusion, and even in the midst of the entire Biogenesis case, the fervor against steroid users has faded. Even the much reviled Rodriguez had his supporters, and in fact, baseball's hard-line stance against the Yankees third baseman has turned him into something of a sympathetic figure for some. In a sense, baseball has played a part in showing the public that perhaps steroid use, while against the rules, may not be such an untouchable evil.
If the Rodriguez case is the tipping point for the steroid argument, then the Peralta signing is the beginning of a new era.