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THE HOT CORNER: High time to stop playing dumb

by Jim Allen (Feb 19, 2009)

There's plenty of blame to go around now that baseball's biggest "clean" star admitted using steroids in the past. The news is yet another obstacle in the sport's efforts to return to the Olympic calendar.

Of course, those marketing the sport around the world would love to have baseball in the Games. But with doping the greatest danger to the Olympic brand, the game's advocates have their work cut out for them.

Every setback, however, creates an opportunity for dramatic change. If Major League Baseball and its union seize the opportunity presented by Alex Rodriguez's admission of steroid use to make a statement to the world, it could convince the International Olympic Committee to reconsider baseball's place.

The obvious move is for MLB to urgently comply with international norms of punishment. Anything less will send the message that MLB's teams and players don't give a hoot about what the world thinks of their sport.

After pressure from the U.S. Congress, MLB adopted a tougher drug policy in 2005, handing out 50-game suspensions for first-time offenders and 100-game suspensions for the second offense. Three-time losers get life. Although this is harsh, it pales in comparison with the International Cycling Union's bans: two years for the first violation and life for a serious second offense.

Because the MLB Players Association holds most of the cards in its dealings with ownership, it is not surprising the union has fought the inclusion of drug testing and suspensions.

Yet, the irony is that it is in each player's best interest to have a game free of performance-enhancing drugs. Without stringent testing and suspensions, players will cheat and risk their health to remain competitive.

Economist J.C. Bradbury speculated in his book "The Baseball Economist" that it would be natural for athletes to avoid testing in order to avoid positive results for recreational drugs, most likely cannabis.

On the other side of the equation is management.

Commissioner Bud Selig blasted Rodriguez for doing the deed while denying that he himself was part of a conspiracy to overlook doping's danger to the sport.

Still, Selig was there applauding with the rest of the baseball world as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa obliterated the sacred home run record in the summer of 1998. In a telephone interview with Newsday's Wallace Matthews on Monday, Selig said: "[A lot of people] ask me, 'How could you not know?' and I guess in the retrospect of history, that's not an unfair question."

Selig could have been wiser and acted then, but he had already done his part in 1995. That's when he drafted a memo saying steroids would not be acceptable. But because the union would not agree to anything and no suspensions were possible, its only purpose was to cover the commissioner's butt.

The toothless but politically correct stance allowed the commissioner to have his cake and eat it, too. While he opposed doping on paper, drug-boosted power displays pulled in more and more publicity. The owners could say they were taking a tough stance against something that it was in their short-term best interests to allow.

It's just like the scene from the film "Casablanca" when the local police chief is forced by the Nazis to close a gambling club where he is the best customer.

"I'm shocked...to find that gambling is going on in here," says Claude Rains' character, as he pockets his winnings from the casino.

MLB owners are in a similar fix. They may be shocked that this sort of thing is going on, but none will talk about returning incremental profits steroid ball may have earned them. While the union has a tremendous amount of influence on the direction the game takes, the owners ostensibly lead the discussion. Yet, the best they can say is: "We couldn't do much because the players wouldn't let us."

That is almost as lame as Rodriguez's story of a "cousin" supplying and injecting him with unknown over-the-counter drugs from the Dominican Republic.

It may be late in the game, but if anyone in MLB thinks its product is ready for the Olympic stage, it's time to stop playing dumb.


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