VIERA, Fla. — Baseball’s ongoing conversation about performance-enhancing drugs and Major League Baseball’s testing program made its way into the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse Thursday morning.
With MLB Players Association representatives in town for their annual meeting with the team, the topic of how to continue to clean up the game arose, as it has at spring training sites across the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues.
But unlike in years past, when silence over steroids reigned in clubhouses, many players are standing up to advocate ways to rid the game of performance-enhancing drug users.
“One thing that’s not really written about enough is that guys want this,” said Drew Storen, the Nationals’ player representative in the union.
“I think if you look around, the only way the drug agreement gets to where it’s at is because the players say they want it,” added shortstop Ian Desmond. “That’s how we got to this point.”
The question that they’re all pondering, of course, is how?
“It’s no question [players want a clean game],” union executive director Michael Weiner told The Washington Times. “It’s a question of how to do it. … We’ll get the consensus and move forward from there.”
Commissioner Bud Selig has strongly advocated for harsher penalties, including upping what is currently a 50-game suspension for a first offense, 100 games for a second infraction and a lifetime ban for a third.
This year, for the first time, in addition to urine samples, players’ blood will be tested for human growth hormone and baseline testosterone readings will be kept for each player so that it’s easier to detect any changes that come from the use of synthetic testosterone.
That’s an important next step, and one on the path Storen believes is most important, regardless of what the penalties are.
“I think the main thing for us is catching the guys who are really doing it,” Storen said, though he is not opposed to harsher penalties. “The penalties, they’re the stiffest in all of professional sports to begin with and I don’t think, for some of the guys who are doing stuff, it’s necessarily the thought of missing 50 games that is their ‘I better not do that’ move.
“I think the guys who are doing it intentionally are thinking that they’re not going to get caught.”
The union presented the idea of differential penalties to owners, which would make a distinction between what Weiner described as “a tougher penalty for certain intentional cheaters but a lesser penalty for negligent or careless violators,” but MLB did not go for it. And union reps are listening to their constituents as they travel from camp to camp this spring.
They’re listening for ideas and suggestions, like one Desmond had about altering the penalties to make them harsher without necessarily increasing them.
Desmond, prefacing the idea as “unpolished,” described a scenario in which a player would lose 50 games worth of pay but be required to stay with his team and have the opportunity to play.
“It’s the manager’s discretion, if he thinks the player is performing, then he plays. If not, he’s on the bench, but he’s around,” Desmond explained. “Your face is in front of the camera, you have to deal with your teammates, and if you don’t play up to your potential, then if you hit free agency, people are going to see a true evaluation of you.
“I don’t think the suspension is what players are afraid of. What players are afraid of is being subpar. And I don’t think in history there’s been someone who got busted and had to immediately be in front of the camera and say, ‘Look, I did it.’ … Let them face the hard road, playing without it, or let them do the extra hard work to be at the level they want to be at. If they play well they get the contract anyway. If they don’t play well, the question is answered. Otherwise the question always goes unanswered: Is he that good?”
Weiner acknowledged that any changes to the penalties are likely a 2014 issue because of the complications that would arise in trying to alter the system midseason.
But regardless of when, or even if, changes are enacted, it’s clear that the majority of players are thinking about the issue and how they can help to make it tougher to cheat, starting with the tests.
“That’s your first line of defense,” Storen said. “It’s like if you’re getting away with murder. We all know that’s going to happen penaltywise [with a murder], but if you don’t get caught, if you think you can get around it, that’s what the issue is, right? It’s an extreme example — but at the same time it’s a parallel.”