Friday, July 26, 2013

Why PEDs Matter to Fans

Ryan Braun accepted a 65 game suspension on Tuesday, the first major league suspension issued from the ongoing Biogenesis scandal. It will not be the last suspension we see, nor is this likely to be the end of steroids in the sport. Part of the reason why is the money involved. Braun is losing around $3.2 million for his suspension this season. Yet, he is set to make $10 million next season and his $105 million dollar extension doesn't even kick in until 2016. Part of the reason is that cheaters will always find a way to stay one step ahead of the testers. As in any competition, people will seek out advantages to maximize their opportunities for success. Some are simply willing to go further than others, beyond the rules, because "winning" is more important than "fair." The uproar that Braun's suspension and subsequent pseudo apology has triggered has been shocking because of just how many people actually care. Why are PED suspensions such a big deal in MLB and barely a blip in other major North American sports?

A popular theme has centered around the idea of being lied to. Braun had a positive test suspension from the 2011 postseason overturned in 2012 based on a chain-of-custody technicality. His comments during the investigation and afterward were filled with strong denials and accusations against Dino Laurenzi Jr., the man in charge of handling Braun's sample. Mr. Laurenzi ultimately lost his job over the incident. This week, Braun brokered a deal with MLB and is out for the season, a season where Milwaukee is going nowhere and he is dealing with an injured thumb. He gets to come to the ballpark next season with no threat of suspension and plenty of years to rebuild his reputation. Unfortunately, part of his deal, apparently, is that he cannot speak about the incident until MLB's Biogenesis investigation is concluded. That makes sense, but when you leave the masses without information we will supply our own. "Braun was guilty in 2011", "Braun was using for years before that positive test", "Braun was probably using as late as last week." We don't know, but the public perception is that he lied: lied to the commissioner, his teammates, his family, but most importantly to us. Lying is being paraded as Braun's real problem. His hubris led him to use, to be the best, to try and hide the fact, to deny it loudly, publicly, and often. As if speaking louder has ever made a lie sound better when the speaker knows its a lie. This theory points out Andy Pettitte, Jason Giambi, and others who admitted to using PEDs, who stood on a podium, took a beating for admitting the truth. They did not try and hide behind loud denials or false websites. Wouldn't that just wrap everything up in a nice little moral package fit for Sunday School. Unfortunately, the real world is more complicated than that, for better or worse there are other reasons why PEDs in MLB matter so much to fans.

First of all Major League Baseball makes it matter. For over a decade major league has pushed for more and better testing to catch PED users and punish them. They now boast the most advanced testing policy in major sports. The testing includes baseline results to track players over time and blood testing in addition to urine analysis. The Braun Exception loophole has been closed, players are getting punished. MLB has taken a bold and unnecessary risk in their approach to combat dopers: they air their dirty laundry publicly. No other league would dare consider this option, let alone implement it. MLB is betting on fans wanting a cleaner game, on players wanting clean teammates, to win out over the negative press and they appear to be winning. Indeed the Players Union seems to want those caught doping to be exposed, separated from the good, clean majority. During the BALCO scandal players were quiet, protective, since then they have permitted increased testing, today with Biogenesis players are speaking out. It might shock you that there are NBA ties the Biogenesis clinic. In 2013 there have been 13 NFL players suspended for PEDs, that is the same total as all of MLB from 2009-13. MLB is leading the charge to clean up their game and are willing to take the mud stains that come with it. MLB knows, dovie'andi se tovya sagain.

The fans are the reason MLB is willing to toss the dice, fans care about the history and statistics of the game. Baseball, more than any other sport, has always been about the statistics. From scoreboards and boxscores to fangraphs and baseball-reference, baseball has loved data -and the fans have loved it back. 300 wins, 3000 hits, 56 hits, 2632. The numbers matter to fans. Mets fans can probably tell you Keith Hernandez batting average in 1986 before they could recall their anniversary. Andre Dawson's 1987 MVP season, a glowing highlight to this day for the Cubs, more than a few in Cubs land could tell you he led the led the league in homeruns (49) and rbi (137) without needing a smart phone. Examples exist for every team in every era. Before fantasy sports took root, baseball was the sport for the analytical mind. When MLB looked the other way and tainted sacred records by permitting PEDs, fans enjoyed it, until the reports came out. PEDs took the fun out of the game. We enjoyed watching Sosa, Bonds, and McGuire slug homeruns until it started leaking that it might not have been done "right," not "clean."

Fans have asked for asterisks, white out, or separate records for the Steroid Era. Baseball doesn't work that way, for better or worse the game changes, evolves, and some records fall. Ultimately steroid users will be in the Hall of Fame for a similar reason. The era happened, MLB let it happen, but to be fair to future fans they will be included. Part of what helped make baseball America's pastime were the stats, recorded for all time to be called up and dissected by any curious observer. The other part is the oral history of the game. Box scores don't describe when Babe Ruth called his shot, they don't explain the majesty of the "Shot heard 'round the world" or the class of Lou Gehrig or Roberto Clemente. Fans have enjoyed inviting generations of ballplayers into their homes, their stories, and their hearts. Perhaps if MLB can clean up the game, those traditions will continue and fans can continue to flock to the Church of Baseball

Finally, fans appreciate closure, a closure that PEDs just aren't affording us. From the midweek series on up to a whole season we can get closure in whatever dose is required. The season is long, so long in fact they break it up to have a quasi-exhibition every July. For the 29 teams that don't have a parade at the end of the year, there is closure by October. The season is over, the team can retool, heal, and go for it again next season. This reset button recharges fans batteries and allows us to get excited to see what next year has in store. PEDs don't provide that closure. From Balco to Biogenesis there is the looming specter of another suspension, another tainted athlete. It gets exhausting and depressing.

This desire for closure can be seen in the constant references fans make to Pete Rose. "PED users should be banned for life, like Pete Rose" or "Pete Rose should be in the hall of fame before these bums." Pete Rose and PEDs have very little in common, but people bring it up for a reason. Pete Rose was an example of evil with closure. Pete Rose bet on baseball, admitted it and accepted a lifetime ban to halt the investigation into his gambling. Fans could accept that there was one degenerate gambler, one man who ignored the only rule in baseball that mattered. Since Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned the Black Sox for life following the 1919 World Series, gambling has been verboten. PEDs are viewed as a lesser offense in baseball, players get 3 strikes before they are out. Perhaps the punishment is not as strict as some would like it, but that is another matter. With Pete Rose fans got quick, one and done, closure that PEDs simply do not provide. Of the 1200+ players who are on 40 man rosters every year there is always going to be at least one who seeks an advantage, whatever the costs. There is no closure in that and that too is why fans care, we have been programed to seek out closure, if not in a season than in a players career. In baseball, even the brightest stars eventually fade, but PEDs twinkle on the periphery, annoying and tempting at the same time.

PEDs matter because MLB says so, but more importantly they matter because fans care about the past, the players, and the stats that encompass both. The game will never be completely clean, if it ever has been, but by demanding better testing, by taking its lumps, MLB is trying to make up for its mid-90's mistakes and let fans know that it cares because we made them care. Clean players, clean records, and dirty uniforms, doesn't that sound fun, doesn't that sound just like a kids game should.

Am I onto something or simply on something? Sound off in the comment section below.