Alex Rodriguez and Francisco Cervelli are not the only baseball players I’ve ever known who have been suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs. My real introduction to that world happened when I was covering the minor leagues, and it involved players hardly anyone would remember (or ever heard of in the first place). To be honest, I understood their decisions to use. Not that I agreed with it — and I never met a player who was proud of using — but there was logic involved.
Some players believed steroids were extremely widespread. Minor leaguers on the verge of the big leagues were being beaten out by guys who were using. There was some belief that steroids weren’t really a shortcut but simply helped a player workout more effectively; they didn’t instantly improve hand-eye coordination or pitching mechanics. I’ve known guys in Triple-A who spent their entire lives trying to become big leaguers, and for some of them, steroids seemed like a necessary final step toward getting there. It wasn’t really about money or records, it was about becoming a fourth outfielder or a long reliever or a September call-up.
Let there be no doubt, it was wrong — players who used were making a conscious decision to break the rules, which was continuing the ripple effect and impacting still other players who were trying to play the game clean — but I could understand the decision. I would never condone it, but I could understand it. As Geoffrey pointed out this morning, there are plenty of ways to justify the use of performance-enhancing drugs, which, I suppose, is a bit of a slippery slope.
I think the difficulty with Geoffrey’s “reasoned truth” defense might be this: At some point, PED use is not about achieving a dream. It’s about greed. Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds have become notorious in the PED era partially because they were such great players to begin with. Why would they have to cheat to become more than that? Why taint existing greatness in order to “achieve” something else? Their alleged decisions weren’t mistakes of desperation. They were mistakes of self-indulgence, and with their status and notoriety, those players had a impact well beyond that of a nameless minor leaguer trying to get a cup of coffee in the show.
Easy to understand the decision to use PEDs? Of course. We’ve seen the results, and we’ve recognized that baseball’s punishment isn’t severe enough to create a significant incentive to stay clean. As Geoffrey pointed out, Melky Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta can justify their decisions both financially and statistically. We can all understand the reason for using, even if we don’t think it was the right thing to do. And to some extent, we’ve seen that sort of justification take some players off the hook. When Andy Pettitte explained that he’d been trying to recover from an injury when he used PEDs, most people seemed to understand and forgive. It was possible for people to condemn the decision and still accept — even appreciate — the man. An honest discussion about when and why these drugs were used can certainly have a positive impact on public perception.
That said, for many, many, many players, there was no need for incentive. A lot of good people will make good choices no matter what, and certainly baseball includes a lot of good people who stayed clean because it was the right thing to do regardless of the potential reward. I certainly hope those guys are able to feel good about themselves regardless of where their careers ended. Trust me, they guys understood why other players were using PEDs, but they stayed on the high road anyway.
Associated Press photo