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Starling Marte’s PED suspension is a simple fact of life for baseball

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This specific All-Star getting suspended for PEDs was surprising. That an All-Star was suspended at all isn’t surprising, though, and there’s not much baseball can do.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Chicago Cubs
Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Starling Marte was suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs, which means it’s time to Do Something and/or freak out.

Rangers pitcher Jake Diekman suggests forcing busted players to play for the minimum salary for the rest of their careers. Ken Rosenthal compared Marte to a cheating spouse, and Buster Olney opines that the Pirates will never get a return on their investment.

Some of these opinions are better than others. I, however, would like to invite you to a service at the Church of Steroid Equilibrium, where the takes are as lukewarm as the coffee. Because this is how it is. This is how it will be until science comes up with something better than PEDs. The only surprise is the name of the player, but not because of anything specific to Marte. It’s always going to be surprising when the claw machine drops another player into the dispenser, but only because of the details.

We’ve reached the PED equilibrium, which goes something like this:

  • Every year or three, a good player will get suspended for steroids.
  • Minor leaguers and fringe players trying to establish themselves will get suspended with more regularity.
  • Everyone will be a suspect. Even that guy. But there won’t be a thick fog of suspicion that hangs low over the entire era; not even close.
  • The Major League Baseball Players Association might allow tweaks to the existing PED policies, but not wholesale changes.
  • Baseball will continue to thrive, and there won’t be enough high-profile busts for the fans to care on a national level.

There’s no escape from the equilibrium. Everything is stable. The occasional high-profile suspension is a feature of the stability, not a bug. It’s written into the code. What are the other options? C’mon, shout something out.

Ban players for life!

Nope. For one thing, there are such things as false positives, just like there are honest, sloppy, incredibly dumb mistakes when it comes to supplements. There are a lot of scenarios in which the crime wouldn’t merit a lifetime ban, and Blackstone’s ratio is applicable here.

Banning players for life would make sense if the scourge of PEDs was threatening to take down the entire sport. Like, say, gambling was at the time of the Black Sox scandal. If the World Series was thrown, that meant fans couldn’t trust anything about baseball. Why would they bother spending money on it? Why would they invest their time? The only way to regain that trust was a death penalty, with Shoeless Joe’s career stuck on a pike outside the castle walls.

You’ll forget about Marte’s suspension in a week. Maybe you’ll remember it every month or so — unless you’re a Pirates fan, of course. But the rest of baseball will move on. There will not be a sport-wide existential crisis, and it won’t be especially close.

Meanwhile, players will be deterred by the Marte suspension, especially the high-profile ones. The one thing everyone agrees on is that the Pirates are hosed. I was riding shotgun on the Pirates-gonna-surprise bandwagon, but I barrel-rolled off with everyone else. The bandwagon is in the ravine now. I think I left my sunglasses on it.

Players can appreciate that sense of profound disappointment, with the kicker being that Marte won’t be eligible for the postseason even if his team rallies without him. It’s hard to create an analogy that works in other professions because it’s impossibly rare for someone to simultaneously be so valuable and irreplaceable that they would survive a screwup of this magnitude and keep their job. But I have to try, dammit.

A star player getting suspended is like Ben from Ben and Jerry’s writing an Upton Sinclair-like novel about the ice cream industry, complete with rat lips and other horrors. It wouldn’t matter if it’s a joke or an artistic statement: The damage would be severe and lasting. But making it just “Jerry’s Ice Cream” would do more harm to the brand than good. Can’t get rid of Ben, even if he seems a little preoccupied with rat lips. There’s still more money to be made with him than without him.

While that analogy was going well and I could go for another six paragraphs, the point is that Marte screwed up in a way that’s easy to recognize and easy for players to remember, even if fans outside of Pittsburgh will mostly forget.

Test more often!

Peeing in a cup while someone watches you is invasive. For $10 million, I would pee into a cup filled with spiders while I streamed it on Facebook Live, so I can anticipate your next argument. However, there are perks when you’re the best in the world at what you do. There are perks when you’re the best in the world at what you do, and you collectively bargain with the other people who are the best in the world.

One of those perks is that you can limit how many times you have to pee in a cup with someone watching. You can also limit how often you have to have blood drawn. Without cup-peeing, there would be so much cheating and suspicion, it would harm the sport. So you have to have some cup-peeing.

But the harm under the current system isn’t nearly enough to have players followed around with a cup dangling from a drone. The Peeinator 3000 would upload videos of each drug test into MLB’s servers, and it would make me a ton of money if my design were adopted. But it’s not ready, and the demand isn’t there yet.

Again, that’s because of the balance. The equilibrium. There are penalties, and they’re enough to be onerous without being draconian. There is PR harm caused by a player’s suspension, but not nearly enough to panic and push for those draconian penalties. Baseball isn’t known as the sport of steroids anymore, and the players aren’t human fluid dispensaries. Everything is as it should be.

The cost is that every couple of years a player like Marte will get nabbed, and it will be extremely disappointing. This is probably as good as it’s going to get, though, and our only hope is that with each high-profile suspension, there’s just a little more deterrent for the next star or semi-star who’s already secured his place in the majors. Otherwise, this is the lasting future of PEDs.

It’s not so bad, really. Mostly because it can’t get much better.