Major and minor league baseball players have missed 21,695 games since 2007 while suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs. That’s after the era of Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. The figure is bigger than the number of games played by all 30 U.S. Major League Baseball teams over four seasons. It stands as evidence of the persistence of drug use in baseball, as in other sports, in the face of efforts to clean it up.
Alex Rodriguez, a three-time league Most Valuable Player, played this season while appealing the longest doping suspension in major-league history, 211 games. (After missing most of the season with an injury, A-Rod returned in August and batted .244 with seven home runs.) A decision by an arbitrator, Fredric Horowitz, is expected in hearings that will resume after the World Series. Rodriguez is one of 14 players linked to illicit treatments at a defunct Florida anti-aging clinic called Biogenesis. Twelve agreed to 50-game suspensions. Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, the 2011 National League MVP, accepted a 65-game sanction. None of them were caught through testing, as advanced performance-enhancing drugs are exceedingly difficult to detect. The Biogenesis scandal came 5½ years after former Senator George Mitchell’s searing 2007 report linking 89 players to steroid use — an assessment Commissioner Bud Selig termed “a call to action,” pledging, “I will act.”
Baseball was losing ground to other professional sports even before a players’ strike wiped out the 1994 World Series and undermined the game’s claim to be America’s national pastime. Drug use pumped up a subsequent rebound in popularity that owed much to an explosion of slugging records, including a 1998 home run battle that saw McGwire and Sosa break Roger Maris’s 37-year-old single-season home run landmark. The Mitchell Report named as drug users seven MVPs, two Cy Young Award-winning pitchers, and 31 All-Stars including McGwire and Sosa, and said Major League Baseball and the players’ union knew about illicit drug use and tolerated it. Since then the sport has handed down 435 doping suspensions throughout the major and minor leagues. With MLB’s average salary at $3.2 million (the minimum is $490,000), the side effects of drug use, the current penalties and the shame of being caught haven’t been enough to deter cheaters.
Are the tainted superstars of the steroid era an insult whose memory should be expunged from a history-rich game or legitimate athletes guilty of nothing worse than stretching for success in a medicalized era? The debate is under way. International cycling and track are plagued by drug use and the National Football League and National Basketball Association are working to head it off. But no sport cherishes its statistical heritage like 130-year-old Major League Baseball. Nobody was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame this year by the sport’s writers, who chose to shun the all-time home-run king Bonds and the seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens, both accused of doping. With Rodriguez nearing equal achievement and notoriety, his place among the game’s greats is also certain to be contested.
The Reference Shelf
- The Mitchell Report
- List of drugs prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency, which oversees Olympic sports. None of the major U.S. sports leagues have adopted the WADA code entirely.
- Text of Major League Baseball’s Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.
- Chart from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency detailing side effects of performance-enhancing drugs.
- A list of major and minor league baseball players banned for performance-enhancing drug use, published by USA Today.