MLB must tread carefully in dispensing Biogenesis justice

Mike Stobe

If suspensions are indeed coming, they had better be well timed.

I've said it before: If Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Yasmani Grandal, Gio Gonzalez, and the rest of the players implicated in the Biogenesis scandal are guilty of using banned substances, I hope they're punished to the full extent of the commissioner's power.

While I accept that cheating happened in the past and properly hate it, I also find it ludicrous to publicly shame and retroactively punish a handful of players when we have almost no evidence of their use, no idea how widespread PED use was, and had no interest in their misdeeds at the time. But if a player is caught these days, with the list of banned substances, penalties and testing policies so widely known, I have no problem if baseball throws the book at him.

That said, I worry that Baseball's tactics betray an unbridled thirst for "justice," they will use questionable evidence, rush to judgment, and wind up not only hurting innocent players and their teams, but compromise the integrity of the regular season that Bud Selig and the rest of MLB is trying to protect.

We know Anthony Bosch is questionable witness. His story has changed multiple times, and the only reason he is cooperating is that Major League Baseball extorted him into working with them via what is, according to most legal analysts, a ridiculously flimsy lawsuit. It's a lawsuit that, despite Bosch's cooperation, is still active so as to compel other witnesses to testify. And unfortunately, according to the judge in the case, these witnesses don't have standing to refuse to testify, because the only person who can challenge that standing is Anthony Bosch.

Now, I take heart from the fact that Nolan Ryan is saying he has heard this is going to be, "a long, drawn out affair," suggesting that the league is busy collecting more evidence, perhaps even some that won't entirely be obtained through coercion. More importantly, it indicates that MLB won't pull out these suspensions in August as pennant races are finally crystallizing. Still, based on the reported animosity between Major League Baseball and the Braun and A-Rod camps, it's hard to imagine the commissioner sitting on his hands if he has any evidence (no matter how suspect) that implicates the players in question.

If Selig does suspends players, we have learned from Ken Rosenthal he has the power to force those players to start serving their suspensions before their appeals happen. That's a huge problem if the appeals process finds that the league's evidence is deficient or insufficient. Then Major League Baseball will have inserted itself into a pennant race and potentially altered the course of the season and the destinies of teams without cause, obliterating that integrity the league claims to care about so much.

Hank Greenberg being inducted into the U.S. Army (Wikimedia Commons)

Now, this obviously won't be the first time the powers that be have inserted itself into a pennant race:

  • In July of 1918, with the United States committed to "The Great War" raging in Europe and Africa, Secretary of War Newton Baker ordered that baseball stop playing in early September, and that its players register for the draft or seek "essential employment." Players had already been leaving to join the military for some time. Baseball followed his directive and stopped play after Labor Day Weekend, with Cleveland just two-and-a-half games back of the Red Sox (and the Senators four back) in the American League. The World Series began three days later.
  • On September 28, 1920, the Chicago White Sox were a half-game back of the Cleveland Indians in the American League with three games to play when the nine Black Sox were indicted by a grand jury and both Eddie Cicotte and Joe Jackson confessed to throwing the 1919 World Series. With no commissioner in place, and AL president Ban Johnson uninterested, it fell to owner Charles Comiskey to suspend them, costing his club a shot at the pennant (although, in fairness, they would have had to sweep the Browns to do it).
  • During World War II, baseball was encouraged to play on, but Uncle Sam got to draft a lot of the elite talent from around the league, even before Pearl Harbor. For example, Hank Greenberg, star of the defending AL-champion Tigers, was drafted in May of 1941. Then, in 1945, when his country was done with him, Greenberg came back to the Tigers on July 1 and helped drive them to another pennant (which they won by just a game and a half), hitting .311/.404/.544 over the second half of the season. Dozens of other players were similarly drafted and returned to their clubs mid-year, drastically affecting the course of seasons.
  • The Korean War was far less disruptive to the game, but don't tell the Giants that. In 1952, incumbent Rookie of the Year Willie Mays was drafted away from the defending NL pennant-winners in May. The Giants would finish four-and-a-half back of the Dodgers, perhaps because the greatest center fielder in baseball history was plying his trade at Fort Eustis, Virginia for most of the season.

Mays_medium Willie Mays (Wikimedia Commons)

You'll notice that the commissioner had no hand in any of these decisions to upend the season. In fact, the commissioner, as far as I can tell, has never intervened in the regular season so drastically without damning evidence against a player. Shufflin' Phil Douglas was kicked off the Giants in the middle of 1922 after confessing to writing a letter in which he offered to deliberately tank a game. Bill Dickey was suspended 30 games and fined $1,000 of his $12,500 salary for breaking Carl Reynolds jaw with a punch in 1932. Steve Howe, Dwight Gooden, and others who tested positive for cocaine use in the 1980s were given lengthy suspensions of varying degrees. Kenny Rogers got 20 games for fighting with camera men. And, of course, any ballplayers who have tested positive for PEDs since 2006 have gotten at least 50 games. But all of those are based on strong physical evidence, and modern players have had the right to appeal those sentences before they were carried out. That's the polar opposite of what we're hearing about Biogenesis, as the commissioner tries to build a strong circumstantial case against the players with the help of questionable witnesses.

There's a reason why those accused of a crime in this country get due process of law. It's to ensure, as much as possible, that justice is not miscarried and that the court system retains the public trust. How much trust will fans in Washington have in the game if Bud Selig keeps Gio Gonzalez form pitching during the last two months of the year and the Nats fall a game short of the wild card, only to learn later that Gonzalez was innocent of the accusations? How much trust would fans of any of the other teams potentially affected by the suspensions have if their seasons were compromised based on tainted evidence, if some key player vanished like a game of pennant-race Jenga? If their stretch runs are harmed at all based on timing that is purely discretionary?

Bud Selig and Major League Baseball must move deliberately here. They must consult the effects of precedent, and they need to make sure the fans can trust that their teams won't be unfairly punished. When fans lost faith in the game in 1994-1995 it took years to repair the damage. If Baseball, in its rush to wreak vengeance on those oath-breakers who did business with Biogenesis doesn't destroys the pennant races, it risks going through yet another self-inflicted crisis of confidence.

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