Alex Rodriguez Is a Bad Argument for a Zero-Tolerance Steroid Rule

Rodriguez reacting after striking out Photograph by Kathy Willens/AP Images

Alex Rodriguez is baseball’s leading heel. Over his career, the Yankees third baseman has done more for New York Post headline writers than anybody not named Weiner. He kisses mirrors. He has popcorn fed to him by hand. He sunbathes in Central Park. He hangs portraits of himself as a centaur over his bed. He cheats at base running. And he’s an admitted user of performance-enhancing drugs. This history makes him an ideal poster boy for the campaign to strengthen Major League Baseball’s penalties for performance enhancing drugs.

The league tested the limits of its power when it suspended Rodriguez for 211 games earlier this month for his alleged involvement with the shuttered Biogenesis drug clinic in Miami. The current joint drug agreement calls for a 50-game suspension for a first offense, 100 for a second, and a lifetime ban for a third. Rodriguez, who is appealing the suspension, will surely have questions about how the league arrived at 211. For many, this is not enough. On the eve of the suspension, former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent argued in the pages of the Wall Street Journal that drug offenders should face lifetime bans after the first offense. Earlier this week, last year’s American League Rookie of the Year, Mike Trout, joined the chorus when he told New York radio station WFAN, “I think you should be out of the game if you get caught.”

It is an appealing argument, especially when thinking of a clown like Rodriguez or a hypocrite like Ryan Braun. A one-strike-and-you’re-out policy would serve as a stronger deterrent for players like them. While no one can say for certain how much PEDs actually enhance performance—or even if they do—Rodriguez and Braun apparently believed in their effectiveness. And their performances, enhanced or not, helped them land massive contracts. Braun, who was suspended for 65 games, will lose $3.25 million in salary out of the $140 million he is due to be paid through 2020. Rodriguez stands to lose about $32 million out of $93 million still due him. Both could reasonably look at those figures and decide it was worth the risk. That calculation almost certainly changes if they were to face losing the balance of their contracts.

Attempts to assess the risk/reward balance for players have put the added salary value of PED use between $700,000 and $2 million (PDF) per year for the typical major leaguer. But those analyses, as in the cases of Rodriguez and Braun, deal with the elite subset of professional baseball players eligible for free agency. As a rule, these players already know they can compete at the Major League level. For them, the appeal of PEDs is a marginal improvement on at least adequate play. For many others, the potential gains from PEDs stand as the difference between making a major league roster and not. For those players, under a zero-tolerance policy, the risk of taking drugs and of not taking drugs is exactly the same. As long as baseball trumps whatever other work is available, drugs might be a rational choice.

The thought of A-Rod getting his comeuppance may make lifetime bans seem appealing, but a rule change now would leave him unharmed. Imagine instead that it’s your favorite young player who’s been caught, that’s he’s apologetic and says he didn’t know he was taking a banned substance. Imagine you believe him. How does one-strike-and-you’re-out sound then?

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