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Union must fight to weed out cheaters

1/30/2013

Rick Reed became an important part of the New York Mets' rotation in 1997, posting a 2.89 ERA in his 33 appearances. But he was not wholly embraced by teammates that year, because in the spring of 1995, he had served as a replacement player during the players' strike -- a scab, in the eyes of the players' association.

I covered the Mets that year and can remember seeing Reed sitting outside of the clubhouse glancing through a newspaper while a union meeting was taking place inside. Teammates were polite with him, and some actually liked him a lot -- but he was not welcomed by the union because he was perceived as a threat to the rank and file of the brethren through his actions.

The Major League Baseball Players Association continues to face a far more significant threat from some of its own members these days -- and yet it remains to be seen whether the union will ever render the sort of harsh treatment that those outliers have earned. The players must decide if they will take a needed step forward.

The MLBPA has evolved in its stance on performance-enhancing drugs through the past 15 years, pulling its collective head out of the sand and finally bringing itself to ignore the antiquated counsel of Don Fehr and Gene Orza and accept drug testing, in order to protect the interests of the clean players and those who used only because they felt they had to keep up with the cheaters.

The first round of survey testing went into effect in 2003, and some of the clean players in the union -- call them the silent majority -- were so adamant that testing was needed that some discussed refusing to provide urine samples, so that they would be marked as positive and trigger automatic testing in 2004. There were angry words about this at the White Sox spring training site, as mentioned in this report that spring.

By 2006, the union had agreed to tougher testing, and tougher penalties, to deter would-be users.

But over the past few years, it has become increasingly evident that for some, the incentive to use vastly outweighs the risk of punishment.

Consider the case of Melky Cabrera, who came up with the New York Yankees and was evaluated by them as an extra outfielder, for the long term. After a trade, he was a fourth outfielder for the Atlanta Braves in 2010 -- and a subpar player, at that. He hit .255, with a .671 OPS, which ranked 134th among 149 qualified hitters that year. Rather than paying him something in the range of $5 million for 2011, the Braves simply released him. At age 26, Cabrera was out of a job, a fringy major leaguer.

Somehow -- presto! -- Cabrera became one of the best outfielders in baseball. He had 201 hits for the Kansas City Royals, with 67 extra-base hits among them. Because Cabrera was a year from free agency and because K.C. really wasn't sure what he was, at that point -- a fluke? a miracle? -- the Royals moved him in a trade for Jonathan Sanchez.

Cabrera was a star, putting himself into the conversation for the National League MVP; he won the MVP at the All-Star Game. He was hitting .346 and rolling toward a huge free-agent payday -- he probably would have gotten more than the $75 million that B.J. Upton got -- when he got popped for PEDS in late August.

While Cabrera didn't get the $90 million deal that he might have if not for his suspension, he still got a two-year, $18 million contract from the Toronto Blue Jays. Which means that even if you account for the $2 million or so he lost through his 2012 suspension, Cabrera will make something in the range of $23 million for his play from 2011-2014.

Twenty-three million dollars. Oh, sure, he might have gotten more if he hadn't been suspended, but ... twenty-three million dollars.

We can reasonably speculate that Cabrera began using as early as 2011, given his sudden spike in performance, and given his established history of performance-enhancing drugs.

Cabrera made a choice to break the rules established by a union that was concerned about maintaining a level playing field among its brethren. Cabrera made a choice to go against those rules, and to cheat in competition against other union members.

This has been the practical impact of the decision: He is taking money that rightly belongs to somebody else. Somebody else should have gotten those at-bats with the Royals and Giants; he might as well as have broken into somebody's home and lifted a pile of cash from a safe. Pitchers whom he got hits against were diminished by his performance, which was fueled with at least one kind of banned substance.

The Giants shunned Cabrera after his suspension; they were offended by his actions, and by the way he sneaked out before speaking to the whole team. But for some reason, the union has never treated the PED guys with anything close to the same sort of disdain that they had for replacement players such as Rick Reed -- even though the PED guys pose a much greater threat.

Under the current rules, Cabrera still has plenty of room to cheat. He got a 50-game suspension for his offense last summer, and if he tested positive again this year or next, he'd get a 100-game suspension. But think about this: Even if he gets nailed a second time, he'd still make about $12 million of the $18 million on his deal. Twelve million dollars.

The players' attitude toward the PED issue has shifted a whole lot since the days of Fehr and Orza, and under the current leadership of Michael Weiner, they may have more practical influence than they have had since the first days of Marvin Miller. MLBPA leaders such as Craig Breslow, Daniel Bard and Chris Capuano and others can affect change.

The players need to think about the legacy of their generation and consider the shadows cast over the generations that preceded theirs in the 1980s and 1990s. Stars such as Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Jeff Bagwell are being discredited, fairly or unfairly, and the accomplishments of all of the players -- either because of their actions, or inaction -- have come into question. History shows that a passive response by the players on this issue hurts everybody in the union.

Based on conversations with players, agents and baseball officials, I'd bet that if they were to poll players privately, the majority would want to toughen the penalties and greatly reduce the incentive for cheaters. The union almost certainly would never agree to a punishment that included voided contracts for suspended players, out of concern for the occasional case of a false positive.

But the union can, in good conscience, reduce one of the get-out-of-jail-free cards. It should consider changing the rules to include only two strikes: A one-year suspension for a first positive test and a lifetime ban for a second positive test.

One agent noted Tuesday evening that it's the players' instinct to protect other players. They generally view themselves as a fraternity, and it's not their reflex to ostracize their brethren.

But it would be fully appropriate for them to treat the PED users with as least much anger as they did the replacement players. They are taking jobs from other players; they are stealing money.

And if the union ever stops being devoted to the idea of fighting for a level playing field, in the interests of the clean players, well, then they might as well open it up and let everyone take as many PEDs as they see fit. Because right now, players have incentive to slip through the weaknesses in the program -- and they're making millions, on the backs of their brethren, by doing so.

More PED fallout

I can remember the first time I saw Alex Rodriguez. It was the summer of 1993, and I was covering the San Diego Padres for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Tony Gwynn and other San Diego hitters had come out for early batting practice, and in the midst of that, a tall, lanky teenager walked down an aisle in the seats behind the first-base dugout. Gwynn went over, shook hands and chatted with Rodriguez, who had just been drafted by the Mariners and was in the midst of contentious negotiations. Gwynn offered him advice, over an hour-long conversation, on how to handle his career.

I think about what Rodriguez was at that moment: One of the most gifted young talents in baseball history, with his whole career ahead of him, with so much potential.

How sad that his career has played out in the way that it has.

It's sad that it's coming out, says Matt Cain.

From Alex Rodriguez, there are new denials, and questions about what's next, writes Tyler Kepner.

Tyler notes that the Yankees' dream scenario would be if Rodriguez simply retired because of his significant hip problems, and then the team could collect insurance.

If the Yankees have some leverage in this situation -- some known to the public and media, and maybe some unknown -- I'd bet they'd use it. The Yankees hope this gives them an exit out of the contract, writes Joel Sherman.

The Yankees and Major League Baseball want no part of Rodriguez, writes Bill Madden. Rodriguez's legacy will be as an all-time cheater.

Gio Gonzalez issued a statement, as Amanda Comak writes.

With Nelson Cruz under investigation, the Rangers' outfield plans may have to change.

The Rangers decided not to make another impact move this winter, despite the availability of free agent Michael Bourn. You do wonder if this will change that stance.

Mary Pilon and Gina Kolata have more on one of the substances noted in the notebooks.

One of the most significant threads in Tuesday's Miami New Times report is the alleged connection to the University of Miami strength coach. Major League Baseball does not have the power to investigate the coach, beyond making the request -- but it will be interesting to see if federal or state authorities decide to investigate this employee of a college with subpoena power, and the threat of prosecution.

The University of Miami released a statement.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. A former Twins reliever signed with the Pirates.

2. Chad Durbin has come full circle, writes Matt Gelb.

3. Brian Schneider has decided to retire after 18 years.

4. Andy Pettitte became the latest player to skip the WBC.

5. Scott Atchison signed with the Mets.

6. The White Sox outrighted a pitcher to Triple-A.

7. The Marlins are expecting a lot of competition this spring.

8. The Mariners are close to signing Kelly Shoppach.

9. The Padres signed some pitchers.

10. Albert Pujols says he wants to be in the WBC, but it's not likely.

11. The Brewers re-signed Alex Gonzalez.

Other stuff

• The Diamondbacks didn't get enough for Justin Upton, writes Nick Piecoro.

• A Tampa Bay partnership wants to be involved in Rays' stadium discussion, writes Michael Sasso.

• Lou Piniella spoke to a group and told stories.

• The Uptons may butt heads in trying to energize the Braves.

And today will be better than yesterday.