LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Mixed messages are all around the baseball landscape, even at the winter meetings.
While Major League Baseball wants to eliminate performance-enhancing drugs and has spent a fortune trying to keep Biogenesis suspect Alex Rodriguez off the field, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny is forced to defend his team’s four-year, $53 million deal for suspended shortstop Jhonny Peralta.
While the Baseball Hall of Fame wants to keep suspected PED users outside its doors, manager Tony La Russa, who won hundreds of games with admitted juicer Mark McGwire in the middle of his lineups with the Athletics and Cardinals, was elected to the Hall unanimously Monday by the veterans’ committee.
It’s an issue that never will die, and has no clear-cut answers.
“There is always going to be a cloud,” Matheny said of Peralta’s signing. “That’s part of the risk you take when you start trying to fight the system and beat it. It’s not fun, not easy and we’re not trying to cover up (and say) that’s not true, because it is. There’s a negative that comes with those decisions.
“But at some point, they pay and then they move. And that’s where we are. We’re in the healing process moving forward. And if there are other people out there who may not like our stance or think we’re hypocritical, so be it. But for us, we see a guy who made a decision that he regrets. He didn’t fight, he paid the price, and now we’re part of his future.”
After the Peralta signing, Diamondbacks pitcher Brad Ziegler tweeted “it pays to cheat” and thanked owners for “encouraging” PED use.
But general managers are only playing by the rules collectively bargained between the union and MLB.
“I haven’t spent a ton of time thinking about ‘mixed message,’” Pirates GM Neal Huntington said. “I know the union and Major League Baseball and people much smarter than I am are going to get together and figure out ‘Is the current system working?’ And if it’s not, how do they make it work better? We’ll operate under that system, and I’ll leave it to them.”
Huntington traded for Mets outfielder Marlon Byrd last summer, knowing Byrd’s 2012 season ended after a 50-game PED suspension. Byrd had to play in Mexico last winter just to get a minor league invite, and parlayed a strong 2013 season into a two-year, $16 million deal last month with the Phillies.
Byrd said his story proves “the joint drug program works.” He paid for his crime, and knows he’ll wear a scarlet letter the rest of his career.
“That’s a definite,” he said. “Every year I put up numbers, people are going to have to talk about it, and I’m going to have to talk about it. I wasn’t trying to cheat, so I have nothing to hide. I had surgery and started getting a pain in my chest and was stupid, using (a banned substance). Just being dumb. Not doing my homework.”
GMs obviously have to evaluate PED users’ stats differently. But White Sox GM Rick Hahn said “in terms of a moral responsibility it’s not our role” to simply ignore a PED user who can improve the team.
“That’s up to collective bargaining,” he said. “That’s where the punishment comes in. It’s not incumbent on clubs to individually dole out punishment. Our role is to offer them a contract we think is fair based on his true ability, which, again, gets a little tougher to evaluate in these situations. So maybe it’s a little harder to do a deal.”
But the stigma attached to PEDs seems to depend on whether the player is a “star” or not. The last generation of ballplayers included cocaine users like Dwight Gooden, Steve Howe and others who got multiple chances.
So what makes PED users any different?