Everyone is squawking about MLB officials going on “60 Minutes” last night. I don’t think it’s the biggest thing in the world. It’s unseemly for MLB to basically take a victory lap like that, but I doubt they would have if A-Rod and his lawyers hadn’t been pulling those kinds of stunts themselves. Which, of course, followed many MLB leaks and things going back months. No one is covered with glory when it comes to the discretion angle of this nearly year-long affair.
That said, it’s possible to view MLB’s willingness to make a public case like this as an extension of their willingness to break with the automatic penalties of the Joint Drug Agreement that I described on Saturday. Dispensing with the clearly-delineated penalties of the JDA and grabbing a Commissioner’s discretion to suspend for hundreds of games in a first offense. Making P.R. cases in a drug testing program that is supposed to be automatic, zero-tolerance and, above all, confidential. Indeed, the entire character of Major League Baseball’s drug program has been changed as a result of the Biogenesis investigation and suspensions.
And as a result of that, it is incumbent upon Major League Baseball to tell the players and, to the extent they care, the fans, whether it intends to continue on in this fashion or if, alternatively, this was an odd, and unlikely-to-be-repeated case. And yes, this matters.
As I said on Saturday, Bud Selig, with the approval of baseball’s arbitrator, has created a new power to punish from whole cloth. When a player is suspected of drug use but there is no positive test — which, of course, represents a failure of the testing program — Major League Baseball now has the power to use discretion and to apply any penalty it wants, without reference to the 50-100-lifetime ban. It can justify it by claiming a lack of candor (justifying 15 extra games for Ryan Braun) or obstruction, justifying 112 additional games for Alex Rodriguez. The evidence of that lack of candor or obstruction is not for public consumption. It can publicize its investigation and punishment with impunity.
And, most importantly of all, unlike any other power to punish players in existence, Major League Baseball has claimed these powers without the assent of the Players Union.
While it is unlikely that some player is going to draw the ire in the same way Ryan Braun and A-Rod did, it is now possible for baseball to go after someone in the same way if it so chooses. If it hears a rumor of a player’s drug use, it can question the player and decide, on its own, whether that player is being truthful. It can file lawsuits against his friends and associates to coerce them into turning on him. It can buy stolen property and give six-figure sums to shady people as long as they cooperate with them. In the end, it can suspend the player for hundreds of games — maybe 200 or more — and only see the suspension reduced if the player has the means to mount a months-long legal challenge.
Perhaps it is unlikely that Major League Baseball would ever do this again. Perhaps A-Rod and Ryan Braun represent unique cases. But, tell me, when was the last time any governmental, quasi-governmental or administrative body willingly relinquished power for which it made a bold grab?
While the unpopularity of appearing to side with Alex Rodriguez or appearing to be anything less than tough on PEDs mitigates against most players and members of the media from criticizing the manner in which Major League Baseball obtained its discipline against A-Rod, the fact is, Bud Selig’s actions and assumption of new power in the drug game is troubling and potentially damaging. It could lead to abuses by Major League Baseball. More likely, it could lead to mistrust between the players and the league and could inject itself into labor negotiations in the future once people realize exactly what just happened here and why it’s so troublesome.
Major League Baseball could head that off, of course. After the dust from Saturday’s ruling settles, the league could issue a statement explaining — with reference to facts and perhaps the unsealing of the arbitrator’s ruling, not rhetoric like we’ve seen for months — exactly why A-Rod’s suspension was justified. It could assert where the power to issue a 211-game suspension (and then a 162-game suspension) flows from for a first offense. It could explain why — if it truly believes so anyway — this isn’t a power grab by Commissioner Selig and why this decision does not create precedent beyond the highly-unique circumstances of Alex Rodriguez’s case.
I’m not holding my breath for that. Because, again, those who claim unprecedented power rarely voluntarily relinquish it and even more rarely adequately justify it. And they are especially loathe to do either if no one bothers to complain.