Is it time for stiffer penalties for the drug cheaters?

Otto Greule Jr

Today might have been one of MLB Network's finest moments. When the big story broke, MLBN was all over it, with Matt Vasgersian and Harold Reynolds, casually attired, anchored what became nearly a two-hour discussion that included Bob Costas, Ken Rosenthal, Tom Verducci, and Peter Gammons. I appear on the network occasionally -- and will appear later this week, and again next week -- but I've been critical from time to time, and there are whole shows and people I can't really stand to watch.

Today was great, though. I'm not saying I agreed with every inch of the commentary, but it's just wonderful that one can turn on the television and find wall-to-wall coverage of a breaking story like this.

One of the topics that came up repeatedly: punishment.

Not so long ago, there was no penalty for using (supposedly) performance-enhancing drugs. First there were no rules against steroids (et cetera), then rules but no testing, then rules and testing but no penalties, and finally rules and testing and penalties. And those penalties have been stiffened: there's a 50-game suspension for a first offense, 100 games for the second, and permanent for the third.

But with every major new revelation, there are calls for stiffer penalties. Tuesday morning, Costas got things started:

Michael Weiner can recognize that the majority of his membership (at least I'm assuming that) prefers a clean game and as close to a level playing field as possible. And he can get behind stiffer penalties, like you say. Banishment for a full year, first time. The full remaining season, or if there's only a few games games left in the season, it happens in September, the full following season. And, total banishment the second time.

And if you are caught with performance-enhancing drugs, and upon appeal -- a fair appeal, a full and fair hearing -- you cannot exonerate yourself, maybe we won't take your living away from you, because that may be your right, but we will take an honor away. We will simply make you ineligible for the Hall of Fame...

Just make the disincentives to using these performance-enhancing drugs stronger. Is it going to stop everybody? No. But it's going to cut down on the number of people who are willing to take the chance.

Doesn't the potential permanent suspension for a third violation already allow for the possibility of a player having his (chosen) living taken away from him? In fact, players who have been permanently suspended (i.e. Joe Jackson and Pete Rose) are already -- as Costas well knows -- ineligible for the Hall of Fame. So what he's essentially recommending, I think, is simply that the 50-game suspension be eliminated, skipping instead to a longer suspension -- the rest of this season, or all of next season -- on the first offense, and a permanent suspension (and thus Hall of Fame ineligibility) on the second offense.

Actually, he might be suggesting Hall of Fame ineligibility on the first offense, in addition to -- or perhaps instead of? -- the long suspension. But I'll discuss these possibilities later.

Back to Harold Reynolds and Matt Vasgersian, at the desk:

Reynolds: I've always said, Matt, "Take their money." So what about the Hall of Fame? I mean, really, think about it. Hall of Fame, that's great. That's the pinnacle peak of every play--Not every player's thinking about being in the Hall of Fame. But they are thinking about taking care of their family and being able to live a life of luxury. When you take the money, now you're hittin' everybody. That's the difference. Take their paychecks.

Vasgersian: That's even stickier. Then you wanna get the ACLU and every civil-liberties advocate involved, in taking away the ability to earn a living? That's gonna get hairy. You could take the Hall of Fame away easily. Baseball and the Hall of Fame can get together and cook up some new bylaws and--

Reynolds: You know what? So what. I got a hundred million dollars in the bank. I don't need the Hall of Fame. You know what I mean?

Vasgersian: That's how a lot of the players feel.

Their money's already getting taken away. Suspensions are without pay. If a player who's earning $20 million is suspended for 50 games, it'll cost him around $6 million pre-tax income. That's a lot of money.

I do agree completely with Reynolds about the Hall of Fame. Very few active players think about the Hall of Fame, because a) the great majority of them realize, fairly early in their career, that they're not good enough, and b) long-term thinking is antithetical to human behavior. You're just not going to convince many players in 2012 to worry about something that might (but almost certainly won't) happen in 2030.

Tying drug testing to the Hall of Fame would (as Costas mentioned, not quoted above) do something: It would make the ballots a bit less crowded, thus making things easier for the voters and for the remaining candidates. But again, as Costas knows, there's already a connection between drug testing and Hall of Fame balloting. It's just that so far, nobody's drawn the permanent suspension; the closest have been Guillermo Mota and Manny Ramirez, both suspended for 100 games for second offenses. But I believe if Ramirez were suspended a third time, he would have become ineligible for the Hall of Fame, which (again) if nothing else would keep him from clogging up the ballot.

Later, Verducci got on the phone with the guys ...

This is why guys need to be thrown out of baseball for at least a year on first offense. I mean, you're talking about people who are willingly subverting the system, and going to great lengths to do so. And to try to hide their involvement, to try to use undetectable drugs. This is not something people fall into by accident... My main point would be that the penalties do not meet the level of the crime, certainly not in the deterrent mode.

How can Verducci know that the current penalties aren't serving as an effective deterrent? Can anyone know how many players have been deterred by the current penalties? Can anyone know how many more players would be deterred by a year-long suspension for the first offense?

I keep coming back to a fundamental question: What next? Let's say the parties agree to stiffer penalties? Say, a one-year suspension the first time around, and permanent the second ... Inevitably, somebody is going to get busted. Will there be calls for even stiffer penalties? There are people would like to permanently suspend players upon their first offense. Will everyone calling for stiffer penalties now agree that one-strike-and-you're-out would be too draconian?

Or maybe we're just supposed to wait and see if somewhat stiffer penalties will completely eliminate drug cheating. They won't. Not completely.

I don't think there's a right answer. I do think there are some wrong answers. I believe that a 50-suspension is significant. I believe that a 100-game is significant. I think we can guess that the prospect of a 50-game suspension deters players from using banned drugs. It seems apparent that the prospect of a 100-game suspension really deters players. And the prospect of a one-year suspension, with the attendant embarrassment and potentially devastating financial loss, would do even more.

So yes, it's highly likely that the stiffer the penalties, the higher the deterrent value. At some point, though, you have to consider what's right and what's wrong. Leaving aside the ACLU -- which, to my knowledge, hasn't been involved in sports and drug policy -- wouldn't there just be something wrong with permanently banning a baseball player who might have inadvertently ingested some banned substance, just once?

The existing drug policy is already a blunt object. It probably has to be. But the blunter you make it, the less precise and the more unfair it's going to be. I would think long and hard about doing much more, penalty-wise.

Okay, enough on this for the moment. Later in the show, Peter Gammons made an interesting point that I'll address soon.*

* Also, Ken Rosenthal made so many good points today that I can't even begin to summarize them.

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