Bartolo Colon

Cheating is bad, but are the drugs?

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One of the issues many of us have with steroids is that they make players something they’re not. Or so we think anyway. Barry Bonds was practically a superhero in the early part of the last decade. Ryan Braun was probably destined to be a major leaguer, but now we assume that he was never meant to be an MVP. And it’s likely the case that more than a handful of pitchers who would have topped out at Double- or Triple-A otherwise turned themselves into major league relievers for a spell by juicing and adding a few miles per hour to their fastballs.

But what about the other side of juicing? What about the players who just want to be what they were? Many players have used the excuse that they turned to performance-enhancing drugs to aid in the recovery from an injury. Some of those people were undoubtedly lying, but others weren’t. Players want to play.

Bartolo Colon was pretty much written off as a major league pitcher after hurting his shoulder in 2009. Following a controversial surgery in which he had stem cells inserted into his right shoulder, he resurfaced with the Yankees in 2011 and was surprisingly solid, going 8-10 with a 4.00 ERA in 164 1/3 innings. It was the first time he had cracked 100 innings since his Cy Young season in 2005.

Colon performed even better for the A’s in 2011, going 10-9 with a 3.43 ERA, but then he was nabbed for testosterone use. The A’s re-signed him anyway, and this year, he’s been flat-out terrific, going 14-3 with a 2.54 ERA that ranks third in the AL.

We now know that Colon was a Biogenesis client alongside Braun, Alex Rodriguez and others. Many suspect he’s still cheating to this day. Even if he isn’t, he could still be deriving some benefit from the meds he got to help strengthen his shoulder.

And, oddly enough, I just don’t seem to care much about it. In reality, Colon’s crime is the same as Braun’s, and I pretty much despise Braun at the moment.

Colon, though, isn’t something he isn’t supposed to be. Instead, he’s a guy who simply bought himself a few more years. According to Baseball Info Solutions data, Colon is currently defying American League hitters with a fastball that averages all of 90.1 mph. That’s down from 92.7 mph in his Cy Young campaign eight years ago. The data doesn’t go back to when he first came up, but he probably averaged 94-95 mph in the late 90s, often going higher.

Steroids didn’t give Colon the excellent fastball accuracy he’s always enjoyed. They also haven’t helped him master a slider or a curve, which he never really did in the first place. He’s throwing two-seamers and four-seamers 85 percent of the time this year.

Now, maybe Colon’s cocktails will come back to bite him in the long run. We don’t know. Steroid use has always been reported to have dangerous side effects. Since we’ve demonized and criminalized steroid usage, studying whether these more modern regimens could prove relatively harmless is pretty much impossible.

We all like the idea of a level playing field, and if Colon is artificially extending his career, he’s taking a roster spot from a clean player. But, of course, depending on where you want to draw the line, half of the league is composed of guys who are now or will later artificially extend their careers. That’s just modern medicine doing its part.

It’s not like we’re ever going to win the war on performance enhancers. Chemists are always going to come up with new things. Someday, these new things won’t even be frowned upon. We shouldn’t be trying to outlaw substances that make us feel better and look better. We should just be making sure they’re safe.

Someday, people will look at the steroid era and wonder why so many people were so upset. They’ll have moved on. Perhaps not for the better. Perhaps they’ll simply be complaining about genetically engineered people ruining sports.

In the meantime, yes, by all means, punish the cheaters. But don’t pretend that the performance enhancers themselves are a black and white issue. The drugs keep getting better, and they’re not just for bodybuilders and professional athletes. Maybe they should be for everyone.

Joe Blanton signs with the Nationals

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 07:  Joe Blanton #55 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches in the sixth inning against the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium on June 7, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
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Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post reports that the Nationals have signed Joe Blanton to a one-year contract.

Surprised it took this long given that Blanton was excellent out of the pen for the Dodgers last year, posting a 2.48 ERA and 80/26 K/BB ratio over 80 innings. But even if it’s a late signing, it’s not a terrible one: Blanton will receive a $4 million salary and will have the chance to make an additional $1 million in performance bonuses. UPDATE: The salary structure is kind of odd. Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post reports that Blanton will get only $1 million in 2017, plus some incentives, and will have $1 million deferred to 2018 and $2 million deferred to 2019.

And he got two weeks off work. Bonus!

Baseball doesn’t need gimmicks to draw in young fans. It just needs to be baseball.

MESA, AZ - MARCH 6: Chicago Cubs ball and bat bags are seen prior to the game between the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds on March 6, 2015 at Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona. The Reds defeated the Cubs 5-2. (Photo by Rich Pilling/Getty Images)
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MESA, AZ — I didn’t set out to ask Robin Mitchell about pace of play, rules changes, how to best execute an intentional walk or how to turn kids into baseball fans. I was interviewing her about other stuff. She brought those topics up on her own.

“I heard them saying that they were not going to throw four pitches for intentional walks anymore,” Mitchell said. “I’d prefer that they throw the pitches because anything can happen. There can be wild pitches. And that’s the exciting part of baseball. That you don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t think we need to speed the game along.”

For most baseball fans such sentiments are tied up with a devotion to baseball purism, tradition or their distaste for change. But such is not the case for Mitchell. While the lifelong Chicago resident went to Cubs games as a child, baseball has not been a lifelong obsession. Rather, it’s something she has become reacquainted with via her two baseball-obsessed boys, Jake, 11, and Bennett, 9.

Mitchell and her boys live on the north side of Chicago and, over the past two years, her sons have developed a huge affinity for the Cubs, almost by osmosis. It was certainly a good time for it, as the Cubs have become winners, and Mitchell allows that since Jake and Bennett didn’t “have to suffer through some of the more challenging times,” their attraction to the game became easier. It’s clear to her, however, that they are not going to be fair weather fans.

“They love baseball,” she said, implying that it’s not just homerism for the current World Series champions at work. They love the sport itself and began to play it too. It’s not easy for Mitchell to say whether their playing led to their fandom or vice-versa. It all sort of happened at once, with each reinforcing the other.

I asked her what about baseball, specifically, appeals to them. What, at a time when Rob Manfred and everyone connected to the game is worried about the sport’s seeming inability to attract and hold on to young fans, keeps Mitchell’s sons engaged.

For them, it seems to be all about accessibility and engagement. Being in Chicago and living close to a park is important, as is having all of the games available on TV. Also important to them: appealing young stars.

“It helps that the Cubs have some really nice players who seem like really nice guys,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes we see them in the neighborhood even. Ben Zobrist. Anthony Rizzo. David Ross. Whenever we’ve seen them out or at an event they’re always kind and polite and give the boys encouraging words.”

But isn’t baseball . . . boring? And slow? Don’t kids like video games and kinetic action? Doesn’t a 19th century pastime with a sometimes turgid pace turn off 21st century kids?

“No, are you kidding?!” Mitchell said. “We don’t leave the game before it’s over. That’s what we do. It doesn’t matter what the score is. We love the pace of baseball. In the world of electronics, with everything moving really fast and being gimmicky, there’s something I think that my boys and I find appealing about baseball. I can share it with them and we all just slow down.”

As we talked, Jake and Bennett ran around a field just outside the Cubs clubhouse, playing catch and practicing rundowns with a couple of other boys they just met. Mitchell and I spoke for nearly a half hour. They played the whole time and looked like they wouldn’t stop unless or until their mother dragged them away.

We have spent a lot of time lately talking about how to fix baseball. I don’t know that anyone has made a compelling case that, despite the challenges the game faces, it is actually broken. Robin Mitchell doesn’t think it is. Neither do Jake and Bennett. While Rob Manfred and Joe Torre propose increasingly unorthodox methods for speeding things up, some pretty basic and longstanding factors are continuing to attract young fans:

  • The availability of games almost every day;
  • An exciting and successful local team;
  • The charisma of baseball’s biggest stars;
  • The ability for kids to play the game themselves and to emulate those stars on a little league field; and
  • The chance for parents to share their love of baseball with their children.

These are the factors which have always made up baseball’s appeal. Perhaps Major League Baseball should concentrate on ensuring that those factors, which are proven to draw in fans, persist and flourish. Perhaps they should concentrate less on chasing hypothetical fans via gimmicks aimed at fixing problems which are far-from-established.