Crash Bag, Vol. 64: Truth and Reconciliation
Okay, let’s get this over with.
@BerenstainGer: “I don’t care about steroids in baseball. Am I normal?”
I care, I guess, just not very much. I think if you’re of a certain age, you don’t really remember a clean game. I was in fifth grade when they found Andro in Mark McGwire‘s locker–the baseball of jacked-up freaks is the only world I’ve ever really known. And if you’re in the same boat, I have to imagine that you’d view PEDs the way we view speeding, as an activity lots of people do, but the prohibitions against which are only sporadically enforced. That’s not the best analogy, but particularly after the hand-wringing and garment-rending and demands, simultaneously, for truthfulness and vengeance, I can absolutely understand why a fan would want to just move on and get back to baseball. I know I do.
@VojirEsposito: “if you were Selig, how would you enforce anti-doping rules? What kind of penalties?”
That said, we shouldn’t just ignore PED usage. There’s the argument about setting a bad example for the kids, which is often-mocked and completely overblown, but not entirely without merit, but mostly you don’t want your sport to establish a culture where, in order to remain competitive, athletes have to fill their bodies with often illegal and sometimes dangerous chemicals.
But there’s no need to turn the regulation of illegal drugs in the game into a witch hunt, or some desperate attempt to reestablish moral superiority. Baseball has never been more profitable, and once MLB and the union finally got together on a credible plan for detection and punishment, the game is increasingly considered to be clean. At least more clean than it was 15 years ago, which is a good thing. I don’t judge Bud Selig, or the union, or the writers, for failing to be ahead of the curve on the PED era. Baseball was becoming increasingly popular, bouncing back from the 1994 strike, and even if the powers that be decided to get into the business of drug testing before public opinion forced them to, baseball is a large, slow-moving institution. I do, however, find it disingenuous to turn a blind eye to drug use in the game in 1998 and come around in 2007 or 2013 like it’s the root of all evil in society. Set your rules, conduct your test, suspend guilty players. Turning drug testing into a holy war only exacerbates the public relations disaster that is the ongoing steroid scandal.
So what would I do? Keep the rules more or less the way they are. The escalating penalty scale of 50 and 100 games, then a lifetime ban for three positive tests seem reasonable, and fit with the idea that because this is baseball, there has to be a three-strikes policy. In fact, I might even go further, maybe to 80 games for a first positive test and a lifetime ban for a second.
Here’s my problem with how MLB is conducting itself now: if there’s a process, you’ve got to stick to the process, even when you don’t like the outcome.
In 2011, Ryan Braun submitted some dirty pee for a drug test but evaded suspension when it was found that the sample had been handled improperly. (See: Bill Parker on SB Nation earlier this week.) Major League Baseball had a goat when this happened, firing arbitrator Shyam Das, who found in favor of Braun. If you’d asked me the day after Braun won his appeal whether I thought Braun was guilty, I’d have probably said yes. But that’s not what we’re after. All investigations of wrongdoing–criminal or otherwise–have to be conducted by a set of rules. Without rules, there is no legitimacy to whatever discipline is meted out. (See: Tim Marchman on Deadspin earlier this week.) Major League Baseball violated its own rules and Das (correctly) found that there was not enough evidence to convict Braun. That this ruling was inconvenient to Major League Baseball shouldn’t matter.
It certainly shouldn’t allow MLB to engage in the Wyatt Earp Revenge Ride of athletic drug testing. It shouldn’t compel MLB to file frivolous lawsuits against people who can’t afford to defend themselves properly as a smokescreen to produce documents used to further pressure Braun, Alex Rodriguez and others into falling on their own swords. It shouldn’t vindicate them when they (allegedly) intimidate witnesses. And most of all, it shouldn’t motivate them to suspend players without publicly produced evidence, particularly when the media at large is just willing to accept, on faith, that the selectively leaked evidence is truly damning.
Because you know what? If Braun or whoever gets away with a bad drug test because of a broken chain of custody, everyone’s going to live. It’s just not that important. If a player tests positive, suspend him. Period. If not, let him play. The less hysterical Major League Baseball is about this issue, the more it’ll look like they’re in control of the situation. The more they scramble to save face, the more it’ll look like PEDs are still a serious issue in the game. (See: Drew Magary on Deadspin earlier this week)
So having the toughest (and fairest) testing regime in the world, and having the strictest penalties will show anyone who’s interested that you mean business, particularly if you execute those tests and suspensions with a little goddamn professionalism. Make the penalties harsh enough and the tests stringent enough and eventually you’ll tip the scale of incentives away from PED use. It’ll look like a serious attempt to clean up the game, rather than a panicked attempt to convince a gullible public that you’re in control.
The other thing I’d do is an idea I stole from cycling, perhaps the only sport that’s had a tougher time with drugs than baseball. Jonathan Vaughters is the team manager of Garmin-Sharp and a former professional teammate of Lance Armstrong’s. During the height of the Armstrong disaster last year, Vaughters called for a Truth and Reconciliation commission for professional cycling, essentially granting amnesty for any rider who comes clean publicly about past doping offenses. You’re never going to get Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens or whoever to come clean if he knows he’s going to get publicly crucified for it. It’s so obviously disingenuous for pearl-clutching national baseball columnists to demand players tell the truth about drug use when everyone knows the only thing that will happen is that whatever player comes clean will be crucified for doing so. You’d have to be an absolute idiot to tell the truth under those circumstances.
I have no idea how to persuade players to come out, even with the promise of amnesty–MLB doesn’t control what the BBWAA writes or how they vote for the Hall of Fame, nor should they. But if you want truth, you’re going to get more of it if there’s some credible assurance that the truth won’t be met with constant, vitriolic and universal condemnation. But it goes back to the fundamental conflict–do you want to actually clean up the game, or do you want everyone who’s all of a sudden pissed off about home run records falling to have his pound of flesh?
@j0brown31: “isn’t MLB helping Braun out with suspension? Misses terrible season and rests thumb injury that was lingering throughout year?”
Yeah, but that’s how plea bargains work. Braun’s losing somewhat less money and not costing his team a shot at the playoffs, and if he appealed the suspension he might win, he might miss 50 games or he might miss 100 games, but he’s not willing to take that risk. Just like a sloppy chain of custody on the only piece of incriminating physical evidence isn’t “a technicality,” getting a 65-game suspension, losing $3.4 million in salary and suffering the permanent, irreversible oil rig fire-style destruction of your professional and personal reputation isn’t “getting off easy.” Just because Braun didn’t come clean immediately, put on a crown of thorns and beg Bud Selig to execute him between two thieves doesn’t mean this punishment is trivial at all.
@Cody011: “Consider the phillies to be ’09 champs since its proven that A-Roid is a juicer and basically killed them in the WS?”
No, absolutely not.
This kills me. Absolutely kills me, that whenever a doping scandal hits a team that succeeded in the playoffs, fans of all the teams that lost along the way suddenly stake a claim to the title, as if finding guilt in one place precludes it from existing in another. You want to talk about drugs affecting the 2009 World Series? Let’s talk about how, at this moment, Carlos Ruiz has endured more PED suspensions than Alex Rodriguez has. How sure are you, really, that none of the key Phillies players were on drugs at the time?
I don’t consider the Phillies to be the 2009 World Series champions because of A-Rod’s PED use any more than I consider the Dodgers to have won the 1951 pennant because the Giants used a telegraph to steal signs at the Polo Grounds the entire second half of the seasons, or any more than I consider the 1962 Dodgers to be the rightful champions because the Giants’ grounds crew flooded the infield dirt in their playoff series to the point where Maury Wills couldn’t run. Or are the Braves the rightful 1991 World Series champions because Hrbek shouldn’t have been allowed to wrestle Gant off the first base bag? Spare me. It happened. Don’t ignore history just because you don’t like it.
@The_Reddgie: “Can you tell when you get a crashbag question from someone who doesn’t view your site? Asking for a friend . . .”
Of course not. The only time I know for sure if the person who asked the question actually bothered to read the answer is when he (or she) yells at me for not actually answering the question and going off on a tangent about Jackie Bradley.
@tholzerman: “Mandatory cocaine for baseball players. Great idea or the greatest idea?”
@MPNPhilly: “you’re Benito Mussolini in 1936 what do you do to increase the strategic position of Italy by 1945? Show your work”
Well, if memory serves, the strategic position of Italy in 1945 was “conquered” and the strategic position of Mussolini himself was “dead, hanging upside-down from a meathook outside a gas station.” So let’s just say improving on that doesn’t seem like a particularly difficult thing to do.
For starters, I wouldn’t take up with that Hitler fellow across the way in Germany. I know it’s attractive to ally yourself with the biggest bully on the block, but something about him seems kind of unbalanced. And I’d know that my military wasn’t well-enough equipped to withstand a prolonged war against the British, Soviets and Americans. And even if it were, it’d be manned by Italians, a nationality that until 50 years previous hadn’t been well-enough organized to even get one country together. No, the smart thing to do would be to sit the war out entirely and focus on that trains thing. I hear Mussolini was good with trains.
@asigal22: “What character from Little Big League can should the Phillies trade for in order to improve their team. #pleasesayBowers“
Well, I do love Bowers, but do you really think a middle reliever whose success is mostly BABIP-aided is what this team needs now? I say no, no matter how many times I order Night Nurses From Jersey to my hotel room on his recommendation. No, I think you have to go with Lonnie Ritter, a switch-hitting All-Star center fielder. Certainly fits the Phillies’ area of need most….WHOA HOLD ON A SECOND 1994 KEN GRIFFEY JR. IS IN THIS MOVIE I WANT JUNIOR. Boom. Pennant.
@LonettoMB: “Thoughts on Rogers statue outside the Rogers Centre?”
It’s a statue of the dead owner outside the stadium–seems as logical a place for such a statue as any. Though I must say that living in a world where Fulham has a terrifying likeness of Michael Jackson outside its stadium has skewed my barometer for what constitutes appropriate stadium art.
@SoMuchForPathos: “Which Star Trek/pop culture before and after is most horrifying: Wyclef Jean-Luc Picard, Tom Paris Hilton, or Chakotaylor Swift?”
That last one could really have thrown off the entire arc of Voyager–Janeway asks the Maquis crew to join the Voyager crew and come back to Starfleet, but Chakotay politely declines and says “We are never ever ever getting back together.” Completely different show if that happens.
I don’t know that any of those would be as weird as (if Enterprise counts) Randy Travis Mayweather. Or Commander Elizabeth Shelby Miller. This is a fun game.
@CF_Larue: “It seems to be the cool thing to do to rip the Phillies for being resistant to adopting analytics for their decision-making from evaluation of players, treatment of injuries, roster-building strategies, and in-game tactics. At the same time, most agree that many front offices (i.e., Rays, Athletics, Cubs, Astros, Red Sox, etc.) are doing much more advanced work than can be found online. Where do the Phillies fall on this spectrum. Even though they “don’t adopt analytics,” does their integration of analytical thinking still exceed the quality of work available on the internet or are they as firmly in the Stone Age as many writers have suggested?”
I have no idea, though I think this is a good question to ask. One hopes that if the Phillies aren’t looking for an edge by doing any sort of in-house research or data mining, they’re at least keeping up with what’s publicly available. I really think we’ve got to stop pretending like there’s still a stats-versus-scouts divide in baseball, because there isn’t and there hasn’t been for years. I really think the release of Moneyball as a movie did a lot of damage in that respect, because the names and events are recent enough that they could be viewed as contemporary, when everything that was described as revolutionary–data analysis, on-base percentage, gaming the trade and draft markets–at the time was already common knowledge when the book came out, let alone the movie almost a decade later.
I think it’s fair to view certain front offices as “smart” or “innovative.” But to conflate “smart” with “data-savvy” is foolish. The Astros are a fascinating study in creativity of baseball ops, in part because of their raid on the staff at Baseball Prospectus over the past year. Never mind that one of the BP guys they hired away is Kevin Goldstein, who, to my knowledge, doesn’t use numbers for anything more complicated than ordering Chinese food. Being smart and being creative isn’t “sabermetrics,” nor is being numerically savvy. Understanding advanced stats and being numerically literate isn’t a talent in baseball writing anymore, let alone front office work–it’s a requirement. I’m not a sabermetrician, nor is Bill or Ryan or Paul or Eric. We’re writers who understand logic and aren’t afraid of math. In fact, the cutting edge of public research long ago passed the point where I’m interested in any new developments beyond a conceptual level. The guys at the real cutting edge are chasing small advantages, too small to be useful to someone like me, who’s interested in making simple connections and telling stories to a mass audience.
Which doesn’t answer your question at all.
Even if you’re not hiring dozens of nerds and poring over mountains of data, it’s the responsibility of a front office to keep abreast of the public research. If the Phillies aren’t generating and using their own theories for player use or valuation, the bare standard of competence is to be aware of what other people are doing. Because that’s fine if you don’t want to use data analysis to find an edge–I don’t get the sense that the Cardinals have a bullpen of MBAs and economists running regressions, but they’re the best-run organization because they seek out advantages in the draft, make creative moves in free agency and have perhaps the best player development program perhaps in all of North American sports. (That’s where the next market inefficiency is going to be, by the way. We’re kind of tapped out on player valuation and acquisition–the next gold rush is going to be in maximizing the assets that you have)
So that the Phillies seem to have punted on analytics wouldn’t be concerning in the slightest if they hadn’t had a run of shit drafts and a run of shit player development and a run of expensive, uncreative free agent signings. It doesn’t matter if your organization is bad at or apathetic about one potential organization-building advantage, but it’s rough going if you’re bad at or apathetic about all of them. Doubly so if you’ve failed to notice.
@dschoenfield: “Is J.D. Drew the most underrated or overrated player of the past 15 years?”
Yeah, like I’m going to get suckered into calling J.D. Drew underrated on a Phillies blog. Nice try.
@jagenic15: “if all current players in the MLB were the population of a new planet who would be in the positions of power like pres/vp etc?”
I think this new planet would rapidly descend into anarchy and unchecked violence if there were no groupies. Failing groupies, I give the ballplayers a matter of days before Planet MLB turns into the State of Nature. So let’s put some groupies on this spaceship too.
But given that consideration, I find it extremely likely that the ballplayers would form a stable and lasting government. Team sport athletes are generally fairly well-adjusted and big on community and social order. I think this is how things shake out (and for the sake of simplicity and my not having to go check rosters to answer this silly hypothetical, let’s include in this colony everyone who’s played at least one game in the majors this season):
- A provisional government is established under a temporary ruler, probably a well-respected, established veteran. Some years ago, Greg Maddux or Mike Sweeney might have filled this role, but I think the players naturally turn to Mariano Rivera, who would decline and support Ichiro.
- Ichiro’s protectorate rules Planet MLB while a constitutional convention drafts the laws of the new government, with one delegate from each team. Nationals pitcher Ross Ohlendorf, a Princeton graduate who interned with the Department of Agriculture one offseason, serves are the secretary of this convention and is remembered as its Jean Monet or John Hancock.
- A planetary assembly is formed, with each team electing one representative and electing an executive from within its own ranks. A separate judiciary is formed, with five justices: Derek Jeter, Roy Halladay, Mark DeRosa, Carlos Pena and Rivera, who accepts a judicial position on the condition that he never be asked to run for executive office. They do not give the groupies the franchise.
- David Wright is elected Lord High Protector and Premier of the Planetary Republic of Major League Ballplayers, and he appoints Michael Cuddyer as his Prime Minister and Vice Premier because they’re both from the Chesapeake Bay area. Figuring out a cabinet would be easier in, like, the NHL, where you can tell who the most important and respected guys are because they put letters on the front of their sweaters. Also, Canadians, using all the free time they have after not bothering to throw off the imperialist yoke and instead submitting to the indignity of overseas rule, love talking about norms, and how old guys love following them. I wanted to build a cabinet based on the list of MLBPA team representatives, because you’d figure that anyone who gets elected to such a position would be ambitious, responsible, intelligent and well-liked. But apparently there is no such easily accessible list, because the MLBPA is a junta and its leadership is listed somewhere in a circle so nobody can tell who the ringleaders are if they all get caught. So I’m guessing they put Curtis Granderson in charge of something and Luke Scott in charge of hunting, because he loves guns and if he’s out in the woods stalking elk all day he can’t go around camp saying overtly racist things to his fellow citizens of the Planetary Republic. Chris Davis is exiled from the colony after he eats Michael Martinez.
I bet the PRMLB does well. Let’s shoot some ballplayers into outer space and find out. Starting with Delmon Young.
@benafflacco: “What will the Red Sox blogging equivalent of you be writing about the Pedroia extension in 4, 5, or 6 or so years?”
I think he’ll be in favor of it. Pedroia is, from what I can tell, quite popular among the noisy folks with weird accents and inflated self-importance. And for one of the best second basemen in baseball, seven years and $100 million is an absolute bargain, even if it covers the back end of Pedroia’s career. Look at it this way–$14.3 million a year is not a lot, relatively speaking. Kyle Lohse is making $11 million this year. Andre Ethier is making $13.5 million, going up to $18 million in 2015. Pedroia, who’s good for five or six wins a year, would be a bargain at $20 million.
So maybe if he trails off by age 36 or so, I think there might be some disappointment that he’s not performing up to what his salary would suggest, but the Red Sox version of me would acknowledge that 1) Pedroia had provided substantial surplus value in his early 30s and 2) $14.3 million is even less of an outrageous salary in 2021 than it was in 2015. I bet $14.3 million is middle reliever money by then.
But why take my word for it? Let’s go to the actual Red Sox blogging equivalent of me, which is, near as I can tell, Marc Normandin of Over the Monster, the SB Nation Red Sox blog. Normandin is quite bullish on Pedroia’s contract. I asked him over Twitter directly what he thought he’d think in six years, and he said this: “With any luck I will have enjoyed the preceding years enough to not be concerned. AAV is fairly low, his D should age well. Tough to say he’ll be worth the back-end, but should make up for that in the earlier years when he’s likely underpaid.”
So, yeah, applause and handclaps all around.
One housekeeping note: I will be indisposed next week and unable to do the Crash Bag. But because this column has a run of 64 uninterrupted weeks of publication (two of which have already been completed by guest authors), I’m handing it over to Justin Klugh of That Ball’s Outta Here and The Fightins. He is very tall, very bearded and very funny, and I hope you treat him with the reverence and respect with which you refuse to treat me. You can find him at @TBOHblog, so please direct any questions for next week either there or to the #crashbag hashtag. Be Well.