102 Million Reasons to Cheat: Why Baseball Players Juice
by Jason Stern
It started with an early morning phone call: “Can you believe it? Ryan Braun just got popped again for steroids.” There was a distinct tinge of disappointment at the other end of the line. A mixture of shock and awe. How could he be so STUPID? How could a superstar like Braun who previously got busted (and then technically exonerated) use steroids AGAIN in light of him being a target with a giant bullseye on his back and subject to frequent drug tests?
Duh! Ryan Braun used steroids to help him put up MVP numbers. Those numbers got him a $105M contract extension. His 65-game suspension will cost him about $3M. Let’s do the math together:
For those who majored in chemistry and not economics, that’s a net gain of $102M. That’s $102,000,000 for those of us who need to see all the zeroes to feel sufficiently inadequate. Even with the 65-game suspension, something tells me that Ryan Braun won’t be losing any sleep over his decision to continue using steroids. In terms of ‘movin’ on up’, a premeditated decision to use anabolic steroids paid off for him BIG-TIME.
It’s no different for any other athlete. Despite a history of steroid use that includes a positive (anonymous) test for steroids in 2003, Alex Rodriguez signed a 10-year contract with the New York Yankees in 2007 worth a guaranteed $275 Million Dollars. In 2009, he admitted to using steroids, begged for our forgiveness and asked us to “judge him from this day forward.” With that admission, his Hall of Fame hopes were all but extinguished. But the public is not the Baseball Hall of Fame. We judge our athletes FIRST on their PERFORMANCE. Character, on the other hand, is somewhere further down the list.
With $275M guaranteed, Alex could have made the decision to go au naturale and watch his numbers plummet, but that’s not what MLB and the Yankees (and their fans) want to see. You see, Alex Rodriguez simply wanted to please his fans and his employer. After 3 MVP awards and a career of steroid-padded stats, A-Rod wasn’t going to take any chances: He wanted to earn his keep, lest he overtake Carl Pavano as #1 on the Yankees list of all-time salary busts.
You see, there is little reason for an aspiring athlete to NOT take steroids. Without steroids, most athletes will never achieve the $105M contract extension or the $275M free agent contract. It’s a calculated risk with a huge payoff and very little downside, but it doesn’t start in the big leagues. No, it starts far earlier.
Let’s take the talent-heavy baseball nation of Dominican Republic as an example. In a poverty-stricken country (Venezuela works just as well), baseball is just about the only way out for most kids. Hence, they play baseball 365 days a year for hours on end. Without a major league contract, a young Dominican entering the workplace can aspire to one day earn close to the nation’s average income of about $5,500 per year. But with the average MLB signing bonus for a Dominican player approaching $200,000 (and up to $4.5M for DR prospect and current Oakland A minor leaguer Michael Ynoa), why on Earth would a Dominican teenager NOT resort to steroids to better his chances to attain a life for himself? A few cycles of steroids can easily be the difference between doubles and home runs — the difference between a life on the streets and a MLB signing bonus– the difference between working for THIRTY YEARS in the DR and playing a half-season of minor league baseball in the US!
But we don’t need to look to the DR to find players juicing at young ages. We can start in our own back yards. With college tuition surpassing $200,000 for a 4-year private school, a college baseball scholarship is now worth about the same as a Dominican Republic MLB signing bonus! What’s going to stop a high school sophomore from running a few cycles of testosterone to gain an extra 5mph on his fastball or an extra 25 feet on his hitting distance? A lecture about the integrity of the game?
Let me try to control my laughter while I take in this capitalist irony: As parents, we’re going to preach to our children the need for a college education based on the fact that this education represents their best chance to earn a good living. We’re going to use every advantage we have in life — financial, social, and yes, chemical — to further our children’s chances to succeed, and then, when they have an opportunity to earn more in a month than we do in a lifetime, we’re going to preach to them about the integrity of the game?
Baseball has lost its integrity, and not because of the rampant use of steroids by every top player of the past twenty years. No, baseball lost its integrity by virtue of its laissez-faire attitude towards performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Players right out of high school and college are given multi-million dollar signing bonuses and guaranteed contracts without player scouts or management even asking about steroids. A Five-Tool (Hitting for Average, Fielding, Running, Throwing, Hitting for Power) player gets paid. A Six-Tool (plus steroids) player gets paid even more. It’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell all over again, except this is not the military excusing discrimination — it’s Major League Baseball excusing the use of PEDs.
Let’s face a cold, hard reality: We will only see a change in steroid use in baseball when the reasons NOT to use steroids outweigh the benefits of using them. When a first offense means not the loss of 3% of one’s income as in Ryan Braun’s case, but 97%. When a positive steroid test results in the VOIDING of a multi-million dollar contract or a LIFETIME suspension. When the financial risk of using anabolic steroids finally outweighs the financial reward.
Right now, Major League Baseball isn’t even close. The fans know it. The players know it. And Bud Selig knows it.