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You'll never stop the Marlon Byrds of the world from taking PEDs

If Marlon Byrd was facing a lifetime ban, he still would have used performance-enhancing drugs. That's why you'll never stop them.

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Marlon Byrd was suspended 162 games for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. It was his second offense, and considering that he's already 38, this is probably the end of his career.

Other baseball players are mad. Other baseball players are very mad. You'll hear and read calls for longer suspensions, more invasive testing, bigger penalties for the teams. After every high-profile suspension, everyone from the fans to the players wants to increase the punitive pain of a PED suspension. Byrd is the perfect example of why that would fail.

People often accuse me of writing clickbait. Whether it's because of a headline that commits the unforgivable sin of piquing interest, or because it's a contrarian opinion wrapped in the crispy shell of a trending topic, the word is tossed at writers often. I don't mind. Occupational hazard.

But here's how I keep myself sane: I remind myself that I could, on any given day, get a million page views by writing a story titled, "The 10 players who would surprise me the least if they were suspended for PEDs."

I'd have the lawyers look it over first. I'm no dummy.

This doesn't happen for several reasons. Self-respect. Pride. Empathy. Being able to look my children in the eye. Not wanting to get fired. A lack of per-click financial incentives. That doesn't mean that I don't have my own list going, a secret accounting of the players of whom I'm skeptical, partitioned in my brain and kept away from the standard hot takes these fingers nimbly tap out every day.

Oh, I have a list. And I guess it's not a big deal to reveal who the No. 1 name on this secret list was last year. It was Byrd. He was also the No. 2 name and in the running for No. 3.

The one damned time I'm right about something related to baseball, and I can't even link to my own speculation. This isn't about an I-told-you-so-even-though-I-didn't-actually-tell-anyone, though. This is about why players like Marlon Byrd make draconian penalties useless.

There were reasons to suspect Byrd beyond "38-year-old player keeps hitting dingers," even though it would be a big ol' lie to pretend that scenario doesn't always catch my eye. It always does. It's possible for 38-year-old players to still have enough bat speed to succeed, but they don't usually have it in such abundance that it becomes the only reason they're still in the majors.

Still, that's typical, baseless, drunk-on-the-power-of-my-own-eyeballs speculation. You're a dummy if you tweet it, and you're more of a dummy if you hint at it on radio, on TV or in an article.

No, Byrd was my guy for two reasons. The first is that he'd been suspended before, showing a willingness to use. That's a pretty, pretty good sign that a player might use again. It makes my guess look less impressive by the common-sense-adjusted metrics.

The rest has to do with his story, though. After being a can't-miss prospect who missed, the Phillies gave up on Byrd. Two years later, the Nationals gave up on him. He was 29, with exactly one good season on his résumé, and he made the Rangers' 2007 roster as a minor league free agent. He thrived.

Baseball has been filled with stories like that -- hotshot youngster refines his talent as an older, wiser veteran -- since the sport was created. If you side eye every one of those players, your eyes will stick like that, kid. That wasn't why he was suspect.

After four solid years, Byrd stumbled a little with the Cubs in 2011. He was 33 and below-average for the first time. Still not an ironclad reason to suspect. You can't think that every player is going to turn to PEDs at the first sign they're slowing down.

Then Byrd had one of the worst starts in major league history, getting three hits (all singles) in 47 plate appearances. If you need perspective, that would have been the worst offensive season of Barry Zito's career. The Cubs released him, and he signed with the Red Sox, where he was better, but still awful. After 100 at-bats, he was busted for his first PED offense.

Now we're at the reason why the Byrds of the world will always look for that extra, illegal edge. He was 34, and by the time the suspension was lifted, he would be looking for a new team for his age-35 season. He had a stink of steroids about him. He was in serious decline. He was coming off the worst season of his career, if not one of the worst seasons possible in anyone's career. He would have to do some serious convincing.

At that point in Byrd's career, what would he possibly have to lose by taking performance-enhancing drugs?

It's still an ethical concern, of course. He was taking a roster spot that should have gone to a bus-riding, burger-eating minor leaguer. He was hitting dingers off players who were demoted immediately after. But if he was mentally over that hurdle, again, what did he have to lose?

If he doesn't use, the odds are good that he wouldn't be impressive enough to nab a roster spot. Which would have meant that his career is over.

If he uses, there's a chance that he'll get suspended again, this time for a year. But pretend the penalties were more substantial. Pretend that a second positive test would have led to a lifetime ban. That would have meant his career would be over.


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Where was the risk? There was none. And after not taking a risk, Byrd made just over $17 million dollars. He got to continue doing the only thing he knew. He escaped the ash-and-maple scythe that takes down every player. He won. Compared to the scenario without PEDs, he absolutely won.

You don't prevent that with bigger penalties. You can only hope to prevent it with better testing. Byrd wasn't a vainglorious player who was upset at the attention paid to his peers, like Barry Bonds. He wasn't a very good player who wanted to be great, like Rafael Palmeiro. He wasn't a major leaguer who wouldn't be a regular without a little extra strength, like Dee Gordon.

Byrd was a player with nothing to lose. Those players will brave the penalties every damned time. And here's a spoiler: You don't have to be 34 and facing unwelcome retirement to have nothing to lose. You can be 24 and repeating a level for the third time. You can be 20 and facing life in the independent leagues. You can be 30, with an All-Star appearance and $10 million in the bank, but struggling in Japan. You can be a player with a fragile ego who can't contemplate the idea of struggling at baseball for the first time in his life.

There are a lot of reasons why a player might not think he has anything to lose. The nothing-to-lose players are everywhere, too. So increase the penalties if you want to discourage players like Dee Gordon. Maybe that will work. But they'll never discourage everyone. Marlon Byrd is a classic example of why. He's the face of the perfect PED storm, and there will always be a lot of storms on the horizon.