Ryan Braun, A-Rod face MLB suspensions. How is this doping scandal different?

Baseball could be facing another huge doping scandal after the founder of the Biogenesis clinic reportedly agreed to cooperate with an MLB investigation. Dozens of players, A-Rod and Ryan Braun among them, could face long suspensions.

Elaine Thompson/AP
In this 2012 photo, New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez watches a home run against the Seattle Mariners in a baseball game in Seattle.

Major League Baseball could be facing its biggest doping scandal since BALCO a decade ago, one that implicates dozens of players, including a few whose names look pretty familiar alongside steroid allegations: Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Melky Cabrera, Nelson Cruz,  and others. But while the game’s fans might be thinking, “didn’t we just do this?”,  this latest dustup is different, and it probably won’t be the last.

ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” (OTL) cited several unnamed sources in reporting that Tony Bosch, founder of the now-closed anti-aging clinic Biogenesis America in Miami, has agreed to cooperate with Major League Baseball in its investigation of the clinic, which allegedly provided Human Growth Hormone and other illegal substances to an ever-growing list of MLB players. (Right now 20 Major League players and one minor league player are implicated; the list could grow, according to ESPN.)

The Biogenesis link to Major League Baseball was initially reported by the Miami New Times in February, and the league has been pursuing Mr. Bosch and Biogenesis ever since, filing a lawsuit against Bosch in late March and buying documents from former Biogenesis employees, according to The New York Times. (MLB first tried, and failed, to get documents from the Miami New Times.)

Sources told ESPN and OTL that on the basis of Bosch’s cooperation, MLB is pursing 100-game suspensions for A-Rod and the rest. Under the league’s collective bargaining agreement with the players, a first-time doping offense carries a 50-game suspension; lying about it constitutes another offense and another 50 games.

Rodriguez has admitted to having used performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in the past, but the new policies were put in place after the fact. Braun famously tested positive for PEDs in 2011, but successfully appealed the ruling on the basis of faulty testing. He has responded to the Biogenesis allegations by saying that he merely consulted with Bosch while preparing that appeal.

The case drudges up a veritable bonanza of thorny issues for professional baseball , both legally and in terms of public perception. But how MLB handles Biogenesis and the offending players could provide a useful roadmap for other major sports leagues in navigating their own doping problems.

First, the bad news: Baseball is the last sport that needs another wide-ranging, public doping debacle. BALCO was barely a decade ago. Some of the names, like A-Rod and Bartolo Colon, are the same, and on the surface it can seem like very little has changed from the era where doping was the rule, rather than the supposed exception. “In the short term I’m sure it’s painful for fans and players to have another drug scandal. In the short term, people are going to be mad,” says Tom Murray, president emeritus of The Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute based in Garrison, N.Y.

“I think we had all hoped we kinda got through it. But obviously we’re not through it,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said in a press conference Tuesday evening. “I worry about baseball being affected as a game, what it’s been through over the past 10, 15 years.”

The case itself, too, could be a difficult one. The player suspensions, should they be called for, wouldn’t be based on league testing itself, which the league has taken upon itself to make more comprehensive and stringent over the past few years. Instead, it would be based on witness testimony and circumstantial evidence, like Biogenesis client lists.

That’s allowed, says Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist for Smith College who has consulted for both the MLB Players Association and front offices of several MLB teams. “If you look at the PED agreement, there’s provision both for lab results and indirect evidence,” he says. “The commissioner’s office can pursue [a suspension] outside of testing.”

But that means the MLB’s case is heavily reliant on Bosch, and that could be a problem.

“Their star witness has a significant conflict of interest,” says Eugene Freedman, a labor lawyer based in Washington. “The MLB suing him, and they have deep pockets, and a defense of that case would cost him tens of thousands of dollars. He needs a way out. It’s also unclear whether the MLB, if he’s charged [with illegal drug distribution by the state], will assist him with a defense. An arbitrator or judge may have questions as to his credibility.”

It’s too early to tell, but if the MLB’s evidence for the possible suspensions is found wanting, it leaves the league open to criticism that it was overeager to take down Braun and the others in the name of pursuing a cleaned up image. “There’s a difference between respectable vigilance and taking unsavory short cuts in an effort to mount players’ heads on the wall,” Jonah Keri wrote in ESPN’s Grantland  blog  Wednesday.

So what’s the good news? For one, Mr. Murray argues, the fact that the Players Association has agreed to such harsh suspensions, stricter testing, and pursuing dopers based on non-laboratory evidence acknowledges the near-impossibility of catching athletes with testing alone. It also indicates a culture shift within the league in a relatively short period of time. Plus, “it goes a long way towards ensuring that players who want to keep clean have a fair chance,” he says. “It’s what baseball needs to do reinforce that positive message.”

Zimbalist is confident that the league owners and the players’ union, who have had a relatively smooth partnership over the past two decades, both want to get this solved amicably, and come down together on the anti-doping side.

“This is an issue that doesn’t get solved and go away,” he says. “You have to remain vigilant over time. Something  like this is going to keep happening, and not only in baseball.”

The Yankees, Zimbalist muses, might be in for a bit of dubious good news all their own, should the reported suspensions be upheld. “For a team like the Brewers [Braun’s suspension] is going to be devastating. But for a team like the Yankees, if A-Rod is suspended 100 days, he’d lose 5 or 6 million.” The Yankees “could sign a free agent or two.”

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