MLB Commissioner Bud Selig speaks during a news conference in New York

When it comes to drugs, Major League Baseball has learned nothing from the past, wishes to learn nothing in the future

95 Comments

I don’t know what Ryan Braun or Alex Rodriguez or Nelson Cruz or any of the other players thus far implicated in the Biogenesis mess has done. I don’t know what they’ve taken. I don’t know what they’ve said beyond their curt, lawyerly public statements. I don’t know if they’ve lied. But I know this much: any action Major League Baseball takes against them based on the cooperation of Anthony Bosch is equivalent to erecting a building on a rotten foundation. But of course, baseball has done this before, so it’s not all that surprising that they’ll attempt to do it again.

The lever Major League Baseball is using to get Bosch’s cooperation is a specious lawsuit.  I wrote about it at length when it was filed against Bosch back in March. The lawsuit is a transparent attempt to obtain documents as opposed to vindicate legal rights.Baseball has suffered no cognizable injury at law from Biogenesis. It has not been harmed financially nor has it had its reputation legally harmed in any way by this little clinic.

What it has done, however, is put the fear of God into the sleazy clinic owner at the center of it all. Bosch already faces professional ruination due to an investigation by the State of Florida. The MLB lawsuit, even if it never reached a conclusion, could mean financial ruination for him as well. He had no friends in the world and nowhere to turn. That is, until Bud Selig offered him a lifeline. “Sing for me, Tony, and your problems will largely disappear,” Bud is telling him.

And don’t think they won’t. This was Major League Baseball’s m.o. during the Mitchell Report. Drug dealers — actual felons, had they had the book thrown at them as they should have — got off with a slap on the wrist or nothing at all because Major League Baseball and, in the case of the Mitchell Report, a former United States Senator, went to bat for them with the government. In exchange they got dirt a-plenty. I presume the same arrangement is being constructed for Mr. Bosch as well.

Except the return baseball got for its past deals was pretty paltry, all things considered. Brian McNamee and Kirk Radomski sang for the Mitchell Report investigators. And the result was a partial list of PED users. The lowest hanging fruit. The stupid guys who wrote personal checks for illegal drugs and used dealers who were well known among Major League Baseball officials. While this all made for a big splash in late 2007, as time has gone on we have learned that the Mitchell Report barely scratched the surface of the problem. PED use remained widespread, other, smarter drug dealers continued to ply their trade. And the end game of the entire exercise — the criminal prosecutions of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens — ended in abject failure.

It didn’t have to be that way. Major League Baseball was hell-bent on hanging a few big-name players out to dry. Major League Baseball decided that the most interesting and important thing about steroids in baseball was who used and who didn’t as opposed to what steroids meant, how they damaged the game and how they damaged its users.  It did that rather than asking the real questions about PEDs. The ones that would make a difference. Questions about PED habits. Players’ introduction to PEDs. Questions about their actual impact. Questions about the culture of drugs in baseball that could, hopefully, provide answers about how to stop it.

But these questions were never answered, never asked. Indeed, Major League Baseball has evinced a profound lack of curiosity about such topics.  A lack of curiosity that mirrored the blinkered approach to the matter the press and the game took in the 1990s. To the extent we know the answers to any of these questions the information is piecemeal and, without the imprimatur of Major League Baseball, unofficial, unacknowledged and not at all rigorously researched.

Baseball is doing this again. Getting into bed with a drug dealer who, allegedly, provided PEDs to dozens and possibly scores of players. Using his likely unreliable and clearly self-serving words to nab a few big names rather than to understand and address the problem they have in front of them. If Bud Selig cared a wit about what actually went on with Biogenesis he’d ignore Bosch completely, work with the union to get players on board with spilling their guts in exchange for amnesty or reduced discipline and end the process with a far more thorough accounting of what went on than they can ever expect from a cornered man looking to save his neck.

But then again, Major League Baseball has never seemed too interested in what actually went on with any of this in any thorough way. The Mitchell Report was certainly not meant to answer any questions. It was meant to stop them. To put a bookend on the p.r. disaster that Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco uncorked in 2002. To put a bookend on the steroids era itself, really, and to allow fans, the press and the government to pretend that steroids use was limited to a certain unfortunate time and to certain unsavory group of people. Baseball is doing it again. It’s going to nip Biogenesis in the bud, hang a few big names out to dry and declare victory.

If, in fact, it actually achieves victory. Because the union is not going to simply sit back if Major League Baseball is going to attempt to level double-dip penalties against some of its highest profile players without a drug test or even a single reliable witness. Yes, “just cause” is a basis for discipline under the Joint Drug Agreement. But the words of a pressured, compromised and disgraced phony physician/criminal isn’t the stuff of “just cause” in most adversarial proceedings, baseball arbitrations included.

But no matter the outcome of all of that, in a few years, when the players who would cheat have learned all the lessons from Major League Baseball’s myopic approach to things, they’ll just deal with smarter dealers. Guys less susceptible to Major League Baseball’s squeeze play. And Baseball will have nothing other than an empty P.R. victory to show for itself. Nothing, because it never demonstrated a lick of curiosity about the problem itself beyond how it played in the papers.

Video: Minor leaguer dives over the wall to rob a home run

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 10.53.54 AM
Leave a comment

Meanwhile, in Tulsa, Zach Welz of the visiting Arkansas Travelers made a spectacular catch. It was the catch Torii Hunter tried to make on that famous David Ortiz homer in the playoffs a few years back except Welz made it.

Watch as he topples over the wall to come up with the would-be dinger off the bat of Tulsa Drillers first baseman Cody Bellinger:

MLB, MLBPA move to help baseball in Puerto Rico. After hurting baseball in Puerto Rico.

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - JUNE 30:  A Puerto Rican flag flies from a building a day after the speech Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla gave regarding the government's $72 billion debt on June 30, 2015 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  The Governor said in his speech that the people will have to sacrifice and share in the responsibilities for pulling the island out of debt.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Getty Images
11 Comments

Yesterday Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Union announced that they will play games in Puerto Rico as part of a plan to develop and support baseball on the island. They likewise pledged $5 million for the creation of development programs in Puerto Rico and plan to stage special events there.

The press release about this made mention of Puerto Rico’s undeniably outstanding baseball tradition. What it did not mention is that, in the view of many, Major League Baseball itself harmed that tradition significantly when it decided to subject Puerto Rican players to the draft in 1990. A move that the MLBPA signed off on too, of course. Indeed, there’s a pretty strong argument that, if it were not for MLB and the MLBPA’s own acts, there would be no need to “develop and support” baseball in Puerto Rico like this at all.

An exploration of this can be read in this 2012 article from The New York Times. The article (and many, many others like it which have been written over the years) notes the sharp decline of Puerto Rico’s professional and amateur baseball leagues and observes that the once steady flow of players making their way from the island to the major leagues being reduced to a trickle.* (see update below) Why?

No one here disputes the diminished stature of baseball in Puerto Rico, and most agree on the culprit: Major League Baseball’s decision, in 1990, to include Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, in its first-year player draft. This means Puerto Rican players must wait until they have completed high school to sign a professional contract, and then they are going up against players from the United States and Canada in the draft.

Perhaps more important, major league teams have less incentive to cultivate talent in Puerto Rico because those players may end up with another team through the draft.

Sandy Alderson is quoted in that article dismissing the notion that the draft was to blame, but even his dodge is couched in basic economic incentives. He claims that, hey, there is stuff that is more financially lucrative for people to do in Puerto Rico than play baseball now. Well, sure. I’d just like him to explain how radically reducing the amount of money a kid can get from playing baseball due to taking away his right to sign with the highest bidder and by utterly killing the incentives for clubs to invest in developing players doesn’t enter into that calculus. Alderson doesn’t explain that one.

No matter what Major League Baseball might say on the record about all of this now, the fact remains that no one spent the past 26 years building academies in Puerto Rico like they have in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic. No one has an incentive to turn a 12-year-old with promise into a 16-year-old prospect like they do in those countries because there is no longer any way for a teenager to sign for life-changing money like they can elsewhere. The draft has saved Major League Baseball hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses to Puerto Rican players over the past 26 years and it has reduced the number of prospects who may push high-salaried MLBPA members out of work, but has done tremendous damage to the baseball tradition to which Major League Baseball and the MLBPA now pay lip service.

I’m glad that MLB and the MLBPA are doing something about baseball in Puerto Rico. But $5 million over the course of four or five years, which is what this plan involves, a couple of games (if they’re even played), doesn’t even represent a fraction of the damage that the league and the union inflicted when they imposed the draft.

UPDATE: A couple of people who know a hell of a lot about this stuff have pushed back against my post on Twitter:

Marcano has written a book about the excesses and abuses involved in the development of baseball talent in Latin America. He is 100% right about this and, to the extent my writing above made it sound like I was endorsing the model in place in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic on its own terms, I want to be clear that I am not. There is a lot of bad stuff that goes on there and for every kids signing a million dollar bonus, there are hundreds who find themselves at a professional dead end or far, far worse.

That said: Major League Baseball has no problem exploiting that system in those countries and its move to impose the draft in Puerto Rico was not born of some principled stand against those excesses. It was to be a foothold for an international draft which is primarily about cost savings. It would be quite possible to have a system in place that both (a) protects kids from abuses; but (b) provides the sorts of financial incentives to make baseball a worthwhile pursuit for those with the talent to play it.

Also:

Cooper, the managing editor of Baseball America, so he knows of what he speaks, notes that from 1987-1990, before the draft was imposed, 19 Puerto Ricans made their Major League debut. From 2000-03, 23 made their debuts. From 2013-16, 22 made their debuts.

That certainly blows my above comment about “reducing the flow of players to the majors to a trickle” out of the water. That said, Major League Baseball’s move yesterday was not just about the pipeline to the majors. It’s about baseball overall in Puerto Rico. Those numbers reflecting that the top eschelon of talent is still making it to the majors are undeniable, but the Times article from 2012 talks about the erosion of amateur leagues, Puerto Rico’s diminished standing in international tournaments and the reduction in size of the Puerto Rican winter league.

So, OK, I’ll walk back my comments about just how much the imposition of the draft in 1990 damaged baseball in Puerto Rico, but I maintain that it’s hard to argue that it did not do some damage.