Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A steroid policy with some teeth?

Some of the reactions to Manny Ramirez's suspension for steroids went way beyond the rational. (See Bill Plaschke calling for everything but Manny's head on a pike...and this WAS the rational version. His totally losing his shit on Around the Horn seems to have disappeared into the ether.) But, honestly, are we past being annoyed with it yet? Do we just kind of shrug and simply adjust our hopes for our favorite teams (or our fantasy teams for that matter) and factor these guys out as if they'd suffered some minor rotator cuff problem? It's a difficult situation to get a good read on because everyone has an excuse. I thought it was arthritis balm...my trainer said it was good for me...I wanted my own pair of knockers to play with and not get slapped...I wanted to see if I could become Octodad...excuses all over the place.

Now, people who follow baseball seem to be divided into three camps: the Chicken Little "send them to the ovens" purists, the "why, God, why?" hand-wringing purists, or the "eh, what the hell else's new?" realists. And to be honest, I can't slot myself completely into one or the other. I guess my position would fall somewhere between Camp 1 and Camp 3. I can't really hammer Mike Schmidt for his use of greenies or Gaylord Perry for his use of the spitball, so why would I want to hammer Barry Bonds for using the cream and the clear? To be honest, my main anger at steroid users isn't that they're tainting the game, it's that they're overshadowing the games. Alex Rodriguez's confession owned spring training. The entire NL West race is now being viewed exclusively through the prism of Manny's absence from the Dodger lineup. Even when it's not the story, it's the story. Fringe players like Juan Salas or Ryan Jorgensen getting suspended isn't greeted with gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands. It really only becomes an "epidemic" when it's big-name veteran players getting the hammer brought down on them, and then you can't get away from it.

But is it really that hard a hit for a guy like Manny Ramirez? Examining his month-by-month splits shows us that he's already a better hitter in September than he is in May. How's he going to be this year, when he doesn't even have to worry about playing these essentially meaningless games in May? If the Dodgers are anywhere close to the division lead come Roster Expansion Day (and unless they all suddenly start playing like St. Mary's School for Blind Double Amputees, their odds are looking solid so far), they may very well sit back and coast while Manny clocks everything he sees into greater downtown Mannywood (which will be enthusiastically, if quietly, reopened if he's batting .350 through August, I have no doubt).

To put some real teeth into the steroid policy, I have two options. One of them will send most of you into chucklefits because, and I'll be perfectly honest, it's off the wall. The other one is a little more rational. And as a bonus, Proposition #2 could actually HELP the intrigue and storylines of the game, which are usually lacking through summertime, when the contenders are puttering around and wasting time with the already-mathematically-eliminated Pirates and Nationals.

Going out of order, Proposition #2 is this: defer the suspensions. Suspending Manny in May is like sending the man on an unpaid vacation. And let's face it, unless he's taking financial advice rather than hitting advice from Tony Gwynn, it's doubtful you're going to be seeing Manny behind the counter at Del Taco for some extra coin anytime soon. (Although, with Manny, we really do never know, do we?) But, where's the harm in making a 50-game suspension equal the LAST 50 games of the season? The ones that make players legends, give fans ulcers, and get managers fired? The interest in those dog-day games in June and July take on a little more meaning for a team and a fanbase that knows its engine is about to blow its biggest cylinder in mid-August. And if the pennant race is hot, just think how guys like Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier would feel if they were suddenly seeing those fewer pitches to hit and those fewer baserunners ahead of them, all because their dreadlocked security blanket was conducting fertility experiments? Making it hurt the team when they can least afford it will make teams that much more vigilant, which would in turn add an extra layer of scrutiny for players in addition to the already-heightened focus from Major League Baseball.

Now for Prop #1, which will either curl your toes and set your pubes on fire or make you nod your head enthusiastically. Since the big-name players are the ones who tend to overshadow the game when their wrongdoings are brought to light, and they're also the ones who tend to be banking the most money, one would surmise that they would have the most to lose, correct? Sure, there's the Hall of Fame, but when the shrine to this most statistic-obsessed game bars its doors to its all-time leaders in hits AND home runs, as well as what will surely be one of the game's last 350-win pitchers, it seems like Cooperstown takes more of an integrity hit in the long run than any of the offending players. The secret here is to make players stare down the barrel of a VERY big gun. 50 games in May is a vacation, as stated above. If you want to really make players decide that no enhancement in performance comes with ACCEPTABLE risk, the solution is radical, yet powerful: a salary-based suspension scale. I know, I know, it'll never happen. If Don Fehr and the rest of the players' union had their way, murder, rape, and Satanic sacrifice of small woodland creatures in the on-deck pentagram, er, circle, wouldn't be grounds for even a benching, let alone a suspension. Like I said, this one's out there. But think about it. For Manny, who's making $25M for this season, 50 games costs about $7.65M. Now, ponder this: would you be more cautious about using everything your doctor prescribed if you had to stare at an extra 10 games for each million in your annual salary? Adding that multiplier to the existing 50 games, Manny would (Mannywood? Yes, Manny would), in my MLB, be staring at a 300-game suspension. That's a month shy of TWO FULL SEASONS, boys and girls. Crazy? Probably. Fair? Ye gods, no. But I'll be damned if it wouldn't have every player in baseball snapping to attention and understanding that there'd really be no room to even consider screwing with the system. The bigger your paycheck, the bigger of a name you likely are within the game, and by that standard, the bigger the impact your being busted has on the public perception of said game. Juan Salas getting nailed doesn't make everyone cry about how tainted baseball is. Manny Ramirez getting nailed does. And if anyone would be stupid enough to dance in front of that train, they'd deserve everything they got.

I'll continue on the steroid track next time with a man-by-man discussion of the prominent figures in the Steroid Era, and who I would and wouldn't allow into the Hall of Fame...and while doing so, I'll invoke the name of the man, the myth, the legend...Rob Deer.

Peace and be wild.

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