In focusing on Braun, Major League Baseball is abandoning the principles of its drug testing/enforcement program

36 Comments

Been doing some more thinking about the story this morning about how Major League Baseball is laser-focused on Ryan Braun in the Biogenesis investigation, to the point where it is considering giving players immunity in an effort to nab him and some of the bigger fish.

As a basic premise, I don’t have a real problem with that. This is how police work is usually done: get the small fish to flip on the big fish and so forth. I think this differs from the organized crime analogy in that here the “big fish” is only one player whose violation is no different in kind or magnitude than that of any other person cheating — and, as such, going after Braun like this is likely to cause MLB to overlook multiple more cheaters who collectively represent a greater ill to baseball than one more famous cheater — but that’s their prerogative. If they get the goods on Braun and punish him, fine, he’s punished.

All of that said, in pursuing things in such a way it’s inescapable that Major League Baseball is abandoning some of the core principles of the drug program as currently constructed.

For one thing: zero tolerance. The most adamant anti-PED folks on the planet, including WADA and USADA have spent decades telling us that zero tolerance is critical to any drug testing regime and that only through zero tolerance can you have a level competitive landscape. In singling out Braun, however, and standing willing to grant immunity to some players in order to get him, Major League Baseball is abandoning that principle. It is saying that some cheaters are more important than others. Which is the same as saying that some cheating will, in effect, be tolerated and will go unpunished.

And maybe Major League Baseball is fine with that. If so, they should say so. And if so they should cease selectively applying the standards of zero tolerance. I mean, if MLB is satisfied that it can weigh the words and determine the truthfulness of one player’s word over another’s and that it can mete out differential enforcement like this and not harm the very essence of the Joint Drug Agreement, surely it can listen to defenses of inadvertent contamination and accidental ingestion of various stimulants and PEDs, can it not? Now Bud Selig says that it can’t do that for risk of imperiling zero tolerance principles. But if the Biogenesis investigation throws such principles over the side, what is left to protect?

Also being abandoned right now: the anonymity of the testing and enforcement process.  Major League Baseball’s fixation on Braun is of such a high pitch, it appears, that it was deemed unique and newsworthy by someone privy to the process and thus was leaked to Bob Nightengale of USA Today. Since when is that acceptable? The last time news of a drug investigation/enforcement proceeding was made public it led to MLB being publicly embarrassed when that outfielder from Milwaukee beat the rap. How did that turn out for you, Mr. Selig? And how has it turned out for that outfielder, whose name will always be mud to some folks regardless of what the future holds?

If Ryan Braun cheated — and if Major League Baseball can prove it — yes, he should absolutely be punished. And at this point, if what Nightengale is reporting is true, I’d lay better odds on Braun getting popped than him getting off.  But in getting that head on a platter it’s inescapable that Major League Baseball is transforming its drug testing and enforcement regime from a clinically-based program into a police operation.  And in doing so, it appears willing to abandon zero tolerance, anonymity, uniform enforcement and everything the league tells us is so good about the Joint Drug Agreement in the first place.

Hope it’s worth it, guys.

Nick Markakis: ‘I play a kids’ game and get paid a lot of money. How can I be disappointed with that?’

Daniel Shirey/Getty Images
16 Comments

Earlier today, the Braves inked veteran outfielder Nick Markakis to a one-year deal worth $4 million with a club option for the 2020 season worth $6 million with a $2 million buyout. Though Markakis is 35 years old, he’s coming off of a terrific season in which he played in all 162 games and hit .297/.366/.440 with 14 home runs and 93 RBI in 705 trips to the plate. Markakis had just completed a four-year, $44 million contract, so he took a substantial pay cut.

Per David O’Brien of The Athletic, Markakis asked his kids where they wanted him to play and they said Atlanta. O’Brien also asked Markakis about the pay cut. The outfielder said, “I’m not mad at all. I play a kids’ game and get paid a lot of money. How can I be disappointed with that?”

This seemingly innocuous comment by Markakis is actually damaging for his peers and for the union. Baseball as a game is indeed a “kids’ game,” but Major League Baseball is a billion-dollar business that has been setting revenue records year over year. The players have seen a smaller and smaller percentage of the money MLB makes since the beginning of the 2000’s. Furthermore, Markakis only gets paid “a lot of money” relative to, say, a first-year teacher or a clerk at a convenience store. Relative to the value of Liberty Media, which owns the Braves, and relative to the value of Major League Baseball itself, Markakis’s salary is a drop in the ocean.

That Markakis is happy to take a pay cut is totally fine, but it’s harmful for him to publicly justify that because it creates the expectation that his peers should feel the same way and creates leverage for ownership. His comments mirror those who sympathize first and foremost with billionaire team owners. They are common arguments used to justify paying players less, giving them a smaller and smaller cut of the pie. Because Markakis not only took a pay cut but defended it, front office members of the Braves as well as the 29 other teams can point to him and guilt or shame other players for asking for more money.

“Look at Nick, he’s a team player,” I envision a GM saying to younger Braves player who is seeking a contract extension, or a free agent looking to finally find a home before spring training. “Nick’s stats are as good as yours, so why should you make more money than him?”

Contrast Markakis’s approach with Yasmani Grandal‘s. Grandal reportedly turned down a four-year, $60 million contract offer from the Mets early in the offseason and settled for a one-year, $18.25 million contract with the Brewers. Per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, Grandal said on MLB Network, “I felt like part of my responsibility as a player was to respect the guys that went through this process before I did. Guys like Brian McCann, Russell Martin, Yadier Molina, These are guys who established markets and pay levels for upper-tier catchers like me. I felt like I was doing a disservice if I were to take some of the deals that were being thrown around. I wanted to keep the line moving especially for some of the younger guys that are coming up … to let them know, if you’re worthy, then you should get paid what you’re worth. That’s where I was coming from.”

Grandal’s comments are exactly what a member of a union should be saying, unapologetically. The MLBPA needs to get all of its members on the same page when it comes to discussing contracts or labor situations in general publicly. What Markakis said seems selfless and innocent — and I have no doubt he is being genuine without malice — but it could reduce the bargaining power players have across the table from ownership, which means less money. They are already being bamboozled, at least until the next collective bargaining agreement. They don’t need to be bamboozled any more.