Speaking Money

Baseball is a tough game. Not only is it mentally tough, but it’s physically demanding as well. Fans recognize and appreciate that, but have little sympathy for those who say they’re tired when they’re playing baseball. Fans have even less sympathy for those who, at minimum, are guaranteed $480,000 (with the average Major League Baseball salary at $3.2 million).

Clearly, it’s a lucrative game and without a salary cap, baseball’s on-the-field employees are the biggest beneficiaries. Twenty-two players in MLB made more than $18 million during 2012 – and all 22 made more than arguably the most popular athlete in the world right now: LeBron James.

Putting sponsorships, shoe deals and record contracts (looking at you, Tony Parker) aside, LeBron was paid $17.5 million last season. Three MLB players really stand out as having made more than LBJ.

First, there’s Ryan Howard, who just last year batted .219 in 71 healthy games for the Philadelphia Phillies while striking out in 38% of his at bats. (To summarize Howard’s career as of late, his top highlight on MLB.com is his RBI groundout into a double play.) Second listed is Johan Santana who makes $23.5 million per year, and who has been shut down for the second time in three years because of his elbow; the only year of those three that he was healthy? 6-9 with a 4.85 ERA, Santana went from stellar to cellar. Lastly, Alex Rodriguez pulls down $30 million per year, making him the highest paid professional athlete in the world, and his career numbers – along with his relationship with just about everyone from fans to owners to teammates – has been in heavy decline for about seven years now.

But, at some point, each player in that trio played well, and leveraging the deep-pocketed spenders of MLB, they parlayed their success into financial security for their family’s future. Baseball players realize that one solid year could mean a major money deal for multiple years.

Even if MLB isn’t the most popular sport any longer (to which I disagree, but there is a large sentiment in our country) – it is indisputably the highest-paid.

The aspect of wealth in baseball is the reason why it has such a problem with Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs).  Players long ago discovered the secret of baseball business: play well, pay well. That mantra symbolizes the theory that a player elevates effort in a contract year, but it also signals that players will do anything – from training longer to dietary techniques (and not just Subway, Ryan Howard) – to improve their game.

Now, with this winter’s discovery of the Miami Biogenesis clinic, the Steroid Era’s supposed ending left an unsettling queasiness in the stomachs of fans.

It appeared that Anthony Bosch (the owner of the Biogenesis clinic) was the new Victor Conte. Conte was the man who owned the Bay Area Laboratory Corporation (BALCO) and supplied steroids to *All-Time Homerun Leader* Barry Bonds during his tenure in San Francisco with the Giants. It was BALCO’s discovery and the release of the steroids exposé The Game of Shadows – that prominently featured Bonds – that was the impetus for the investigation and publication of the Mitchell Report.

The Mitchell Report was a 409-page document that leveled accusations at 89 players in MLB at that time. They were not small fish either; former future locks in the Hall of Fame saw their career become permanently stained with the dreaded asterisk. Miguel Tejada, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite and famed Closer Éric Gagné all were mentioned. Alex Rodriguez’s name also appeared.

The Mitchell Report caused Commissioner Bud Selig to tighten the reins on the baseball express and enforce harsher penalties and stricter drug testing. As opposed to a ten-day wrist slap, MLB vowed to toughen up and made a first penalty a whopping 50-game suspension. MLB did not renege on their promise either and showed they had the strength to enforce these rules.

Never was executive power more evident in baseball when journeyman Melky Cabrera was batting .346 over half-way through the season. After Cabrera tested positive for PEDs, he was immediately suspended for 50 games by the League and was not invited back for the postseason, for which he would have been eligible, by his team the San Francisco Giants.

Bud Selig had toughened up on baseball and was seeing the rewards, and even the appeals process had proven to work as well. When 2011 National League (NL) MVP Ryan Braun had been accused of testing positive for banned substances, baseball seemed to hang its proverbial head because here again was a hero, dethroned, because he couldn’t resist the allure of the possibly “being better” – but by cheating. But Braun won his case, it may have been on a technicality, but a win will be taken in any form. It marked the first time a player had won an appeal.

Selig, players, and fans alike seemed to be content. Restoration of balance and order occurred in baseball.

That is why baseball sighed again during the 2012-13 offseason because – once again – players were allegedly using steroids. It wasn’t just anyone, either. It wasn’t Joe Schmo, a career minor leaguer, down in single-A ball trying to make the next leap to AA before he retired. The players discussed in the Biogenesis records were perennial Steroids Poster Boy Alex Rodriguez, All-Star Melky Cabrera, Cy Young award-finalist and Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez, as well as Texas Rangers slugger Nelson Cruz.

These players are the faces of baseball, and they are not facing the pressure well. After an initial deny, Cabrera owned up to his steroid usage, but the other three stayed on script. That’s always how it is in baseball. An operation is found out, player’s names get released, the players deny steroids and claim they were using other substances. Excuses range from flax seed oil for Barry Bonds to deer antler spray today.

Each time, a fan realizes that baseball has been cheapened and it’s a little less pure and fun than how you remember it. PEDs taint everything and makes you question even more.

Like myself. I’m a Red Sox fan and in three full seasons, Red Sox Outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury’s homerun totals went like this: 9, 8, 32. Immediately, a nagging thought appears, did Ellsbury juice? It’s like seeing Orioles first-baseman Chris Davis on TV and seeing through the screen that this 6-3 232lb behemoth with tree trunk legs and Pop-eye arms and saying to yourself: he can’t be made of the same stuff that I am, he must have something I don’t.

Selig has the responsibility to clean up the game for good, he has the opportunity to banish PEDs and expel them from the game we all love. ESPN defines the Steroid Era as running from the late ‘80s to the late 2000s. However, is the Era over? Is it really and truly over? Because as long as places like BALCO and Biogenesis exist, I don’t believe it can be.

As I watch baseball’s opening week and see people like Chris Davis complete herculean efforts similar to racking up 17 RBIs in six games – I always think to myself: that’s a great accomplishment, unbelievable…wait, it is unbelievable, is there any way he could be cheating the system? That second-guessing and the nagging doubt – both things baseball could do without.

As the figures on the scoreboards continue to escalate, so will the figures in players bank accounts. But at some point, fans will become discouraged with PEDs – they want to see a real product on the field. Fans want to see a talented Ryan Braun, not a cheater.

Baseball fans want to see baseball, they don’t want to see Anthony Bosch.

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