Major League Baseball has put off its plans to suspend players linked to the Biogenesis doping scandal. Instead of announcing the punishments right after the All-Star Game, as anticipated, suspensions are now expected to come sometime next month. By the time all of the appeals and arbitration hearings have taken place, we could be eating turkey and watching football.
Biogenesis is the South Florida anti-aging clinic run by the now infamous sketch-ball Tony Bosch. The news earlier this year that it allegedly provided human growth hormone and other banned substances to a number of major leaguers has brought Commissioner Bud Selig to the brink of handing down baseball’s largest collection of suspensions since the 1919 Black Sox scandal.
I suppose it’s a good thing that Selig has decided a little more due diligence is in order before he makes history on the back of a cooperating witness who makes Brian McNamee look like a stand-up guy. The problem is that baseball has already declared the players in question guilty. The investigation is not a quest for justice; it’s part of a protracted negotiation with the players union that’s almost certain to end with players being suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs without any positive test results or credible evidence of their guilt.
How could this happen? Because Selig desperately wants revenge on Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez; it’s as though their continuing freedom from punishment is personally mocking him. More generally, he wants desperately to avoid being remembered as the commissioner who not only allowed baseball’s steroid scandal to take place but also failed to bring it to heel. All of this desperate desire hasn't just clouded Selig’s judgment; it has completely overtaken it.
The dubious manner in which baseball has handled its “investigation” -- buying documents and filing suit against the aforementioned cooperator in order to enlist him into service -- is bad. But the ramifications of actually following through with this farce may be worse.
I’ve never seen any opinion polls on this, but at this point I'd bet that most baseball fans are a lot less bothered by the possibility that particular players are using PEDs than they are by the commissioner’s obsession with ridding the game of them. The existence of performance-enhancing drugs in the game of baseball remains such a big deal partly because the game of baseball continues to insist on making them such a big deal. To the extent that baseball fans do care about players using PEDs, the Biogenesis case is, at bottom, an acknowledgement that the game's drug-testing regime doesn't work. Suspending players in the absence of positive tests doesn’t prove anything so much as the fact that baseball has failed to bring this whole steroid thing to heel.
It's also noteworthy that a disproportionate number of the players on the infamous Biogenesis list are Hispanic. Punishing them -- again, on the basis of shoddy evidence that would never hold up in court -- could wind up alienating what is probably the game’s most important demographic. (All the more so because of the game’s continuing failure to attract black athletes.)
Let’s not forget that in order to make these suspensions stick, Selig is about to go to war with the players union. (At least the union should see baseball’s cavalier attitude toward players’ rights here as an act of unwarranted aggression.) In other words, he’s about to break the long labor peace that has arguably been his biggest accomplishment as commissioner -- and certainly makes for the most compelling counter-point to his bungling of the issue of PEDs.
Selig doesn’t seem to care about that, or really anything else. He has his eyes on the prize, and won’t be distracted until he’s done irrevocable damage to his legacy and the game he loves.
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)