News flash: A 39-year-old pitcher who is leading a division contender with his best ERA in nine years has been caught using performance-enhancing drugs.
Not surprised? Not surprised, either, that this man has also been at the center of rumors that he may actually be two years older than he says, and that the great season he posted last year after shoulder surgery may have been aided by some dubious stem cell treatments?
Of all the people you would suspect would be caught for 'roiding it up, the Oakland Athletics' Bartolo Colon had to be at the top of the list. His turnaround and abilities in recent years were just too good. Still, it took until August of this year for the MLB testing system to catch him.
So, instead of greeting the news of his steroid suspension with comments about how MLB is finally catching dopers or that the system works, can we please revisit the whole premise of how baseball is supposed to have cleaned up the game?
For a few brief years, fans seemed to believe that baseball could put a pin in the steroids era and start something new. Breakout seasons would be just that — breakout seasons — from now on, not a time to ask whether a player had been juicing. Clubhouses would be clean, pitching numbers would go back to normal, and baseball would once again be a guilt-free, wholesome activity.
Except that the bunk that MLB has fed everyone — that they've saved the world with this random testing that only catches a few illegal drugs, does little to detect the choice substance of human growth hormone and hasn't destroyed the culture that ruled the game for a couple of decades — is starting to make it look like baseball not only hasn't solved the problem but rather has actually made it worse by acting like there's a system in place to take care of it.
If guys like Colon can so obviously dope all season, fans have to wonder how many other players are using performance-enhancing drugs. The same rules that appeared to scare players into submission when the bans were put in place now seem laughable, as players must think they're easy to navigate around if such prominent players are using enough to get caught. Plus, players are only getting nabbed in connection with obviously banned substances. With no human growth hormone tests during the season (and players knowing that full well), observers would be flat-out dumb to think players who depend on production for a living may not be tempted to keep using while they can.
The bigger question that arises after someone like Colon or National League slugging standout Melky Cabrera gets caught using performance-enhancing drugs is where baseball is in its drug recovery. The bans and punishments put in effect as the game crawled out of the steroids era were supposed to be a first step, not a final point. What MLB had to do after the scourge of the game was find a way to regain trust from fans and eradicate the clubhouse culture of doping from players.
Two suspensions in one week — and the caliber of the subjects getting caught — showed that baseball has failed to do either. These aren't minor leaguers trying to make it. These are MVPs of teams, including one guy who played in the full light of the All-Star game, willfully looking the game in the face and cheating it.
(And don't forget what this does to players who are clean. In the Angels clubhouse Wednesday afternoon, there was some groaning and shaking of heads when talking about Colon's suspension, but some players were also joking that since he's pretty old, he should be able to use whatever he wants. The response? "That's why [Roger] Clemens is coming back [now], right?" Every time a player gets caught, it's not just a new suspension — it's a reminder of baseball's failures throughout the years and how MLB's bungling has made the game, and its supposed great moments (and players like Clemens), laughable in many regards.)
If MLB has come out of the deepest ugliness of the steroids era with players not respecting the rules any more, and the culture of the game continues to be that each player wants to out-inject the competition the best he can, then it has failed miserably. This week has reopened all of the questions of what happened in the steroids era, of whether players and authorities weren't doing their job to keep the game clean and of what can be done to move baseball forward into equal, reputable competition.
Baseball handled this debate one way the last time around. It now has a repeat on its hands. How about it throws some strikes this time?