Zero Tolerance on Steroids: It May Happen

If major league owners are smart, they’ll soon demand a lifetime ban for steroid use on the first offense—and the clean players within the union may go for it.

By Eric Gouldsberry, This Great Game—Posted May 17, 2009

TGG Opinion

Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement is set to expire on December 11, 2011. Usually, this fact is followed up by someone warning you to “enjoy the game until then, because after that…”

Actually, it’s the players’ union that should cherish this time. Because it may never be the same after the next basic agreement is hashed out. 

And it’ll have the steroid cheats to thank. 

The double whammy of discovery in which Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, two of the game’s premier sluggers, were found to have taken performance enhancing drugs has eroded what little trust fans have left for Major League Baseball and its players, and will likely provide a fitting end to a decade in which one baseball hero after another has been brought down by the admission and/or strong accusations of taking steroids. The marquee achievements of the decade—Barry Bonds’ career and season home run records, Roger Clemens’ 354 wins, numerous suspect sluggers with 500-plus homers, Eric Gagne’s streak of consecutive save opportunities converted—all mean nothing now, except to exist in infamy within a recordbook. 

The owners are not fed up over all of this from a financial point of view, but they do listen to the fans from time to time and understand the writing on the wall when they see it. They know that the fans still love the game, but are shellshocked from steroids fatigue, watching star after star get pegged by a positive test or a personal whistle blower. For the ticket buyers, it’s come to this: We can’t trust anyone on the field anymore. Someone’s leading the league in home runs? He’s juiced. That guy on the hill throwing 99 MPH? Can’t be natural. The environment has become fouled with the perception that major league players are guilty until proven innocent. 

Who suffers the worst from this? The clean players, that’s who. 

And that’s the critical base that will come into play when talks between the union and management begin heating up in 2011. 

If the owners hope to finally weaken—or perhaps even break—the players’ union, the next basic agreement will offer them a golden opportunity.

It will have nothing to do with money. The owners need to know this. Forget the money. The average player is making $2 million. The average owner has enough revenue streams to fill up an ocean with greenbacks. The commissioner is making $17 million, for God’s sakes. Everyone’s rich in the wallet. 

So what’s the ace hidden up the owners’ sleeves? Two words: Zero tolerance. 

If the Lords were wise, they would sit down across the table from union boss Don Fehr and his Number Two, Gene Orza, and say to them that they’re fine extending the current basic agreement, as is—with one exception: That the penalty for a first-time offense for use of performance enhancing drugs be increased from 50 games to a lifetime ban. One strike, you’re out. 

It won’t be difficult to forecast the reactions of Fehr and Orza. They’ll dismiss it immediately. The two union stalwarts are children from an era of distrust, militantly skeptical of any intention coming from the owners’ side after dealing with collusion, unilateral salary cap imposition and the elimination of the entire 1994 postseason. They’ve been hardened to the point that Bob Costas once opined, in Howard Bryant’s book Juicing the Game: “…If the owners ever got their act together and presented a clear and reasonable vision for the reform of the game, that the players, meaning Fehr and Orza, would still resolutely resist it.” 

At their most optimistic, Fehr-Orza would see the proposal as an attempt by management to intentionally aim high in hopes of receiving a counter-proposal that would ultimately end with a compromise to the owners’ liking. But the reality is that they would see zero tolerance as another iron-fisted attempt by management to take back control of the realm, as it occasionally has tried for 35 years since the death of the reserve clause. 

An outright rejection of zero tolerance from Fehr-Orza would play right into the owners’ hands—so long as the owners remain inflexible on the issue. If they’re smart, they’ll stick to their guns and clarify to Fehr-Ozra that this is less of an offer and more of an ultimatum. Baseball has suffered too much because of the steroids, they’ll say, and we need to scare the kids straight. Zero tolerance would do the trick. Accept the offer, or we’ll lock out the players. Fehr-Orza will shake their fists as always, walk out, and declare an impasse. And baseball will be on hold. 

But not for long. 

Fehr and Orza will notify the players of the situation and anticipate the usual union loyalty that has been so utterly remarkable in the past. Forging a unanimous allegiance comes easy when the brotherhood is threatened by owners attempting to keep player salaries artificially low. This is different. 

The clean players, for whom we assume represent the vast majority of major league players, will sit down, absorb the zero-tolerance proposal and, by and large, come to the conclusion that this is not worth the battle. Their thinking will be that the juiced players cheated them out of bigger paychecks, stole their headlines and, worse, made everyone on the outside believe that no player was without suspicion. And now they have to fall on the sword and forfeit their wages and the game they love on behalf of the cheats? From the clean players’ collective point of view, this is not a noble cause. They’ll grumble, vent, rise up and Twitter amongst one another, call for a union meeting with Fehr-Orza and strongly suggest that the union accept the deal. Sure, go ahead and negotiate some safeguards into zero tolerance to protect the players and keep them from being wrongly ousted from the game for a false positive. But that’s the extent of the compromise. Nothing more. “Let the owners have their zero tolerance,” the clean players will say. “After all, we’ve been practicing it for our whole careers.” 

Fehr and Orza will be floored—as they were when the players went against their advice in 2005 and approved the increase in steroids suspensions to the current penalty levels—but they’ll have no other option. Either they’ll have to go with the will of the majority base or risk a split—or worse, a complete breakdown—within the union, an unthinkable premise just 10 years ago. 

For the owners, this is a scenario where they get their cake and eat it, too. They’ll have their zero tolerance on steroids testing and weaken the union as they know it in the process. 

For the union, a diminishment in power would be a good thing. It might lead to the ouster of both Fehr and Orza, the old guard whose views on baseball labor matters have been drifting apart at an accelerated rate from those of their constituents. New blood couldn’t be injected into union leadership soon enough. 

For the cheats, if zero tolerance doesn’t scare them off steroids, nothing will. Today’s 50-game penalty for first-time cheaters is tough, but it’s not a career-killer; there’s little deterrent when a cheater knows he can return from his sentence and resume making the voluminous wages that steroids helped him earn in the first place. Being caught under zero tolerance means no more baseball, no more money. That will make even the most defiant of cheaters to think hard about the path they are taking. 

For the clean players, zero tolerance is the godsend. They’ll play on, no longer under an umbrella of suspicion, no longer angry that others are getting away with it. 

It will be the clean players who benefit the most, financially and philosophically. They deserve zero tolerance. And if they’re as smart as the owners who forced this proposition to the union, they’ll force an acceptance of it.

2005 Baseball History2005: At the End of the Primrose Path After years of looking the other way, baseball is publicaly forced to confront its dirty steroid laundry.

2007 Baseball History2007: Bow if You Will, Spit if You Wish Barry Bonds breaks Hank Aaron’s fabled career home run mark, but few people are happy about it.

2009 Baseball History2009: The Salvation of Alex Rodriguez Baseball’s biggest star embarks on a long, tough road from injury and damning steroid evidence.