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The Varsity

The University of Toronto's Student Newspaper Since 1880

Drugs and Baseball: the dark underbelly of America’s favourite pastime

NOOR NAQAWEH/THE VARSITY

Drugs and Baseball: the dark underbelly of America’s favourite pastime

Drug-related suspensions further derail the faith of fans, integrity of baseball

In April, Blue Jays first baseman Chris Colabello was suspended for 80 games after testing positive for Turinabol, an oral steroid widely used by athletes in the 1970s. Colabello’s suspension was announced two months after he tested positive — enough time for Colabello to, like many players before him, issue a lackluster statement with an all too familiar message: “I would never, have never and will never compromise the integrity of baseball.”

Any baseball fan can tell you that while Colabello’s suspension may have come as a surprise, the use of performance enhancing drugs (PED) is not unheard of in professional baseball. Major League Baseball (MLB) has a sordid history regarding PED use; the transgressions made by players this season reflect this, sadly, ongoing narrative.

A scandalous history

This season fans have witnessed numerous PED related suspensions including 2015 National League batting champion Dee Gordon and New York Mets relief pitcher Jenrry Majia, who was banned from baseball for life.

In 2002, the US federal government investigated the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO), a clinic that was found to be supplying steroids to professional athletes. As a result of this investigation, Jason Giambi, former league MVP, and Barry Bonds, record holder for the most home runs hit in a season and in a career, appeared in front of a grand jury. Giambi admitted to using steroids, while Bonds was later convicted of obstruction of justice for giving incomplete testimony during the trial. In 2015, the charge was overturned.

Following the BALCO scandal, in 2007, the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball published an independent investigation into the use of steroids and human growth hormone in the MLB, authored by former US Senator George Mitchell. The Mitchell Report listed 89 baseball players that were in some way involved with the use of PEDs. The report suggested that the league use independent testing to improve the system already administered by the league.

In 2013, another PED scandal hit the MLB. Biogenesis of America, a Miami anti-aging clinic, was found to be supplying baseball players with PEDs, after a disgruntled employee leaked records to a Miami newspaper. The Biogenesis scandal marked the largest mass suspension in league history: a total of 13 players were found to be acquiring and using banned PEDs from the anti-aging clinic. The longest suspension was imposed on New York Yankees 14-time all-star Alex ‘A-Rod’ Rodriguez. He received a 211-game suspension that was later reduced to 162 games, and he was forced to forfeit $25 million in salary.

MLB’s current Commissioner Rob Manfred has continued predecessor Bud Selig’s crusade against PEDs by doling out harsher penalties in the wake of Biogenesis. In line with the more rigorous measures implemented by the league, this season fans have witnessed numerous PED related suspensions. 2015 National League batting champion Dee Gordon and New York Mets relief pitcher Jenrry Majia — who was banned from baseball for life following his third violation of the MLB’s PED policy — were suspended as well as Colabello. It is, however, questionable whether these harsher penalties are actually deterring players from using banned substances.

Case study: A-Rod

There are still huge incentives for MLB players to use PEDs and Rodriguez is a perfect example. He is the poster child for the modern steroid era, and his place in baseball history presents a moral conundrum for baseball fans. With nearly 700 home runs and over 3,000 hits, he is the all-time leader of grand slams and has won three MVP awards. Statistically, Rodriguez is one of the greatest players of all-time; if it wasn’t for his rapid decline and season-long suspension, he would have had a plausible chance to surpass Bonds in career home runs.

The fact that flying in the face of the league’s rules has led [Rodriguez] to immense wealth and status, makes it nearly impossible for him to receive clemency from fans.

In December 2007, Rodriguez signed a $275 million 10-year extension with the Yankees, seven years after the ink dried on his $252 million 10-year contract with the Texas Rangers. Both contracts were the largest deals in MLB history at the time they were signed. Rodriguez, who admitted in 2009 to using steroids during his time in Texas and then again post-Biogenesis in 2014 when he was with the Yankees, will eventually retire as the highest paid player in MLB history.

However, the fact that flying in the face of the league’s rules has led him to immense wealth and status makes it nearly impossible for him to receive clemency from fans. It is not just that Rodriguez has tarnished the game’s history and legacy by doping his way through the record books, but Rodriguez also lied to his fans about using performance enhancing substances in a 2007 60 Minutes interview, and then he sued MLB following the Biogenesis scandal, in an effort to counteract the suspension that was actually warranted.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that speaks to Rodriguez’s use of PEDs and his disregard for the league’s regulations, fans will ultimately have to accept the uncanny talent he possessed. While PED usage can enhance the level of an athlete, natural ability is still required to be able to play at a world class level. In cases like Bonds and Rodriguez, fans are left wondering how far the players’ natural talent and hard work would have taken them, in the hopes of comparing the modern steroid users to the baseball heroes of the past.  

Lost dignity

If it were not for Bonds’ steroid use he would be hailed as the greatest power hitter of all time. As it is, his total number of home runs — 762* — will forever be accompanied by an asterisk.

PED use does not only pervade the ranks of great players seeking to break records. Prior to winning a starting role with the Blue Jays last season, Colabello spent two seasons in the Minnesota Twins organization as a struggling utility player on the fringe of the pros. In Toronto, he was celebrated for his unwavering pursuit of playing baseball. His initial journey to the majors came after playing seven seasons in the Can-Am League. Colabello’s PED tale tells a different kind of sad story: an icon of perseverance and tenacity, the kind that kids looked up to, was found guilty of cheating.

When it comes to Colabello or any other player suspended for using PEDs, baseball fans have heard it all before and they’re sick of it. After all, it’s their sport too. It’s not just the players’ reputations that have been smeared by the use of PEDs — the authenticity of some of baseball’s greatest players, moments, and records will forever be questioned, which impacts fans.

Bonds, one of baseball’s all-time greats, bettered Babe Ruth and then Hank Aaron for most home runs hit in a career — Babe Ruth held the record from 1935, only to be surpassed in 1976 by Aaron. If it were not for Bonds’ steroid use he would be hailed as the greatest power hitter of all time. As it is, his total number of home runs — 762* — will forever be accompanied by an asterisk.

The asterisk symbol often depicted alongside Bonds’ record is a symbolic gesture made by fans as an unofficial declaration against his suspected steroid use. They believe only players who’ve stayed clean belong in the Hall of Fame and that Hank Aaron is the true all-time home run leader. The Baseball Writers’ Association of America has reinforced these values by consistently voting against suspected PED users, such as Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, and Bonds, to keep them from being named in the Hall of Fame.

In the season that Rodriguez returned, Boston Red Sox pitcher Ryan Dempster aimed three pitches at him before finally connecting with the fourth, as the fans shouted, “You’re a cheater!” — he still gets booed every time he steps up to the plate in Toronto. Dempster’s brand of frontier justice, however, isn’t an effective way to take a stand against PED users, because at the end of the day, Rodriguez was still able to return to baseball.

Alternatively, suspensions aren’t proving to be a sufficiently effective deterrent to PED use by baseball players. While PED use is ostensibly denounced by the MLB, the culture still remains largely intact. The use of PEDs in baseball is being resisted at every level, from the commissioner to the season ticket holder, yet the problem persists.

Colabello’s promise to uphold the integrity of baseball — regardless of the sincerity of his statement — is an outlook that needs to be adopted by all MLB players. Fans and officials can’t control the actions of athletes, so it’s up to the players to not let their passion, drive, and commitment to perform well ultimately override the integrity of the game.

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