By TIM DAHLBERG, AP Sports Columnist
If you believed Ryan Braun’s first alibi – and a lot of Milwaukee baseball fans did – then maybe his tale about showing up in the records of a Miami anti-aging clinic because his lawyers needed more expertise on performance-enhancing drugs isn’t so implausible after all.
Alex Rodriguez’s claim that he only used steroids while employed by the Texas Rangers seemed pretty convincing at the time, too. He went on national television to blame his drug use on being young and naive, saying he didn’t even know what he was taking.
There was a day when baseball would have taken both at their word, thanked them for their cooperation, and made sure they signed up for the next Home Run Derby. Bud Selig and the owners who pay his salary weren’t terribly interested in busting superstars for steroid use, not when new stadiums were going up everywhere and television money kept pouring in.
Just why that has changed is debatable. The fact that it has, isn’t.
Investigators are going after the biggest stars of the game, and they’ve reeled in a big catch to get them. The same snake oil salesman in the Miami area that Braun claimed his lawyer hired as a consultant has agreed to cooperate with Major League Baseball, a development that has to be making a lot of players nervous.
Among them should be Braun, who took the day off Wednesday not because of all the headlines, his manager insisted, but because of a sore thumb. The night before, Braun refused to talk about the investigation, declaring it little more than the kind of distraction all ballplayers face.
“The truth has not changed,” he said.
On that, we can all agree. And the truth is that Braun tested positive for elevated testosterone in October 2011, only to have a 50-game suspension overturned after his attorneys blamed it on a hapless sample collector who didn’t understand FedEx schedules.
No one declared him innocent of doping, though he acted as if that’s exactly what happened. He got off on a technicality, something so infuriating to baseball that the arbitrator in the case was later fired by management.
The truth is also that A-Rod scammed his way to not one, but two, huge contracts that made him rich beyond belief. He’s both an admitted juicer and a liar, and the fact he remains the highest-paid player in baseball at $28 million this year is something that’s wrong on so many levels.
Their day of reckoning may still come, though. MLB investigators now have persuaded clinic founder Anthony Bosch to talk, and there are reports that some 20 players could face possible suspensions for either using performance enhancing drugs or lying to baseball about them.
Whether any player ultimately is punished will depend a lot on the credibility of Bosch, the records he kept of transactions at the now-defunct Biogenesis of America clinic, and how hard the union representing baseball players will fight what may be the most widespread steroid scandal in the history of a sport long tarnished by drug use. Union chief Michael Weiner served notice Wednesday that there could be a fight ahead if baseball tries to impose suspensions on players who haven’t tested positive for drugs.
“Every player has been or will be represented by an attorney from the players’ association,” Weiner said. “The players’ association has every interest in both defending the rights of players and in defending the integrity of our joint (drug) program. We trust that the commissioner’s office shares these interests.”
Unfortunately for the players and the union, the commissioner’s office appears to have its own agenda. Selig seems determined to win a big battle in the steroid fight, and his investigators have done everything from going to court to buying documents from the Biogenesis clinic to do just that.
It might be out of anger of the Braun decision, or the embarrassment of no big stars being elected to the Hall of Fame this year because of steroids. Or simply that Selig, in the twilight of his career, finally understands that his legacy will forever be tied to the steroid era and he needs a major score.
Whatever it is, it’s a major turnaround for a commissioner who for years was more concerned with making owners money than making sure the playing field was level. Selig stood by silently as players made a mockery of the game, even going so far as congratulating Barry Bonds on breaking Henry Aaron’s career home run mark in 2007.
“I’m not passing judgment – nor should I,” he said when asked at the time about the legitimacy of the record.
Actually that’s exactly what he should have done, but he’s not alone. His owners keep rewarding players with big contracts – see Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon – on the basis of numbers skewed by steroid use. And fans forgive and forget with each home run, as evidenced by the 45 percent of Brewers faithful who responded affirmatively to an online poll in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel asking if they still had faith in Braun.
The slugger may wiggle out of this one, too, though he’ll need a better excuse this time. Maybe he’ll throw a clubhouse attendant or someone else under the bus the way he did the poor sample collector.
As for A-Rod, who really cares? He’s an unpleasant reminder of everything that is wrong with baseball and pretty much washed up anyway. Even Yankees fans would rather see him leave and not return for any old-timers days.
The bottom line is baseball finally is doing something proactive, and for that some applause is in order. Selig and his minions could easily have ignored the Biogenesis reports or made only a token effort to investigate them, but they didn’t. It’s part of a seismic shift in attitude that goes hand-in-hand with last year’s implementation of blood testing for human growth hormone and the commissioner’s call in spring training for increasing the 50-game penalty for first offenders.
The fact that some 20 current players are under investigation shows we still can’t trust what we see on the field. Players have been using PEDs for at least a quarter century and they’ll continue to try to outwit the testers because the rewards that come with big numbers are big themselves.
Just maybe, though, this is a step toward regaining that trust again one day. This could be the turning point of a battle baseball joined far too late.
And if that ends up being part of Selig’s legacy, too, then more power to him.
(Copyright 2013 CBS San Francisco and the Associated Press. All rights reserved.)