No rules, no cheaters

Published 6:24 pm Wednesday, February 11, 2009

If you think because Alex Rodriguez admitted he used steroids his accomplishments are tarnished…

If you think this new revelation is a major blow to the sanctity of the game and all professional sports in general…

If you swear to hold a skeptical view of Major League Baseball or never watch it again because any given player on the field might be or might have been cheating…

…Then you’re missing the point by a wide margin.

There’s no doubt fans should take personally the news that Rodriguez used performance enhancing drugs from 2001-03, especially fans of the Texas Rangers.

He was the anti-Barry Bonds, who is technically only guilty of using banned substances by association. But Bonds’ named has been linked so thoroughly to this entire issue that few people are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Not A-Rod, though. This man was supposed to take back and esteem the home run record that rightfully belonged to Hank Aaron and before him, Babe Ruth.

Baseball needed saving, and the hazel-eyed slugger with the million dollar smile and $252 million talent was the rightful man to shoulder that burden.

Thing is, it really doesn’t matter because Major League Baseball’s drug testing policy is weak now, was weaker before 2005 and was non-existent before 2002.

Two things. One, you cannot pay me enough money to believe that team executives were ignorant about players in their clubhouses using performance enhancing drugs. Rangers owner Tom Hicks’ story of “personal betrayal” after hearing the news about his former slugger sounded genuine, but not everyone was blindsided.

Men who make money off the labor of other men tend to want know what their employees are up to. Owners and general managers hang around clubhouses like kids in candy stores, and they’re not blind. If they didn’t know, it’s because they didn’t want to know.

Second, if you don’t strictly enforce cleanliness among players, why would you expect them to enforce it themselves?

In an environment that competitive, if someone is convinced shooting up or swallowing something will make him millions more dollars with little or no penalty, the guy next to him will at least seriously consider doing the same thing. It’s about as basic as human nature gets.

The 2002 collective bargaining agreement called for “treatment” after a first positive test for steroids. A player had to test positive five times before getting a one-year ban, and there was no year-round testing. In 2005, 10-day, 30-day, 60-day and one-year penalties were put in place for each successive positive test. That got stronger the next year: 50-game and 100-game suspensions and then a lifetime ban after a third positive test for steroids.

Major League Baseball allowed a “loosey goosey” culture, as Rodriguez himself put it. Baseball did not take this problem seriously, and now we’re pointing the finger at everyone else.

But why aren’t we asking more questions about this, questions me might not really want to ask? Players in this era have steroids. What were players before then using to gain an advantage, and how common was it? We can’t solve these problems or answer these questions by singling out a handful of people.

Murder is wrong; we all know that. But we need specific language on the books to tell us how and when we can punish someone for killing another person.

So no, don’t take away A-Rod’s numbers – or those of Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire or Miguel Tejada – because they didn’t do anything they weren’t allowed to do. They and countless other players had the benefit of a deeply flawed system, one that rewarded shortcuts.

I hate it for the players who played it clean, don’t get me wrong.

But no one spoke up back then. It’s a bit too late to start making a case now.