Dee Gordon? One of baseball’s biggest stars tests positive for performance-enhancing drugs and it’s Dee Gordon? That’s about the craziest PED story that’s ever been told. Isn’t it?
“This is the single most bizarre case I’ve ever come across,” an executive of one club said Friday morning, “because he tested positive after signing a $50 million contract. He could have hit .220 and never stolen another base, and he still would have gotten paid for the next five years.”
Exactly. If a guy like this can get caught taking testosterone and a noted synthetic steroid, then it’s time to toss everything you thought you knew about PEDs, and the athletes who use them, into the nearest fireplace — and then light the match.
So what should we think after seeing a 170-pound, slap-hitting leadoff man get suspended for 80 games? We posed that question to executives around baseball Friday morning. They led us to this: five things we’ve learned from Dee Gordon.
1. Our stereotypes don’t match reality
Whatever you thought a “steroid cheat” looked like before you woke up Friday, it’s time to laugh at yourself. And at the millions just like you. If we’re merely comparing physiques, Gordon looks about as much like the late-1990s Mark McGwire as your kids’ playhouse looks like the Empire State Building.
“The fact is,” one NL executive said, “you say steroids and people think Superman.”
Yup. They think McGwire. They think Barry Bonds. They think Rafael Palmeiro. They think of home run records falling, pimples on backs and hats that don’t fit. Well, if that’s what you think, here’s the advice of many people inside this sport: Get over it.
“I think the conversation about steroids changes forever now,” the NL exec quoted above said. “I think for the first time, after this, people are having an epiphany. How could someone like Dee Gordon do steroids? He’s not some sulky superstar. … He’s not a home run hitter. He’s a singles hitter. He’s a stolen-base guy. He’s a 170-pound guy that ordinary people could relate to. When it’s somebody like this, it just feels different.”
And then nine words came out of this exec’s mouth that everyone should repeat to themselves the next time they try playing the totally futile “Who’s A Cheater” guessing game:
“If it can be him, it can be anyone.” Bingo.
2. The testing is getting better
It isn’t even May. But since Feb. 1, we’ve now seen seven major league players get stung with PED suspensions. That’s as many as in all of 2016, if you’re updating your PED scorecard at home. Yeah, already.
Six of those seven tested positive: Gordon, Toronto’s Chris Colabello, Cleveland’s Abraham Almonte, Philadelphia’s Daniel Stumpf, Cincinnati’s Juan Duran and the Mets’ Jenrry Mejia — for the third time. The seventh (free-agent catcher Taylor Teagarden) was nailed by MLB’s investigative unit after admitting he took PEDs on an Al Jazeera documentary. (The NFL had more than three times that many players suspended last year by the way, but we can get into that some other time.)
So what should that teach players everywhere — not to mention us interested onlookers? That’s easy. The testing might not be perfect and won’t ever be perfect — but it’s getting better all the time. Or at least it’s catching users who never would have gotten caught before.
Synthetic testosterone used to be a foolproof way to beat the system. But in a sport that is now recording baseline testosterone levels for every player and continuously tracking those levels, it’s not so foolproof anymore.
And without going all biology class on you, the testing has gotten more precise in other ways, too — at least in picking up even microscopic levels of known PEDs and in detecting elevated testosterone levels.
So there are indications, from what we’ve seen over the past few weeks, that MLB is now nabbing players who might well have been using these same substances for years without detection. And because of that, some folks were whispering Friday, “there’s more coming” just like Gordon. But that’s also a harsh reminder that this sport still has a higher number of PED users than it would like us to believe. And it probably always will.
3. 80 games isn’t stopping this
The punishments keep getting stiffer. The suspensions keep coming. So do the math. Even 80 games — suspending these guys for half a season — isn’t enough to stop professional athletes from doing what professional athletes have always done: looking for anything and everything that can give them an edge.
“It starts to make you wonder,” another longtime executive mused Friday morning, “if half a season is enough.”
“This should dispel some of the myths out there. You look at this guy, and he didn’t do it for the power. He didn’t do it for the money. He already got paid.”
A baseball executive on Dee Gordon’s PED suspension
Hey, guess what? Don’t we already know the answer? It’s obviously not enough. But what would be enough? Maybe 100 games? Maybe a full season? Think that would work? Guess again. Olympic athletes now get gonged for two years. That’s not stopping them.
As our colleague Buster Olney wrote again Friday, if you start talking about voiding contracts, you would think that would get players’ attention real fast. But don’t be so sure.
“People cheat,” the same exec said. “In every level of life. And in sports we’re talking about ultra-competitive people who are always going to be driven to look for ways around the system.”
So sure, stiffening penalties is a solution that needs to be on the table. But the more we learn about PED use in sports, the more we should begin to understand something important. It’s complicated. It’s always been complicated. It’s never fit the narrative that the masses have tried to attach to it.
“This should dispel some of the myths out there,” another exec said as he tried to make sense of the Gordon headlines of the day. “You look at this guy, and he didn’t do it for the power. He didn’t do it for the money. He already got paid.”
So why did he do it? It’s time baseball asked itself that question and asked whether the sport itself is contributing to the problem. Because …
4. … the schedule needs to be addressed
A word about the schedule: absurd.
Let’s look at the Miami Marlins because they’re Gordon’s team. On Thursday, they played a game in Los Angeles. On Friday, they play a game in Milwaukee. That’s challenging enough. But that game in L.A. started at 7 p.m. Pacific Time. It ended at 10 p.m. By the time the plane made it airborne on the West Coast, it had to be close to 1 a.m. in L.A. By the time the Marlins made it to their hotel in Milwaukee, it had to be close to 8 a.m. Central Time. Absurd.
Why were they forced to play a night game Thursday? Why were there zero off days in a 10-day, three-city trip through three time zones? Absurd.
“The schedule,” one of the execs quoted earlier said, “is a major, major issue. It does not excuse doing anything illegal. But the schedule must be looked at — and is being looked at. It’s impacting the health of the players. And it’s impacting the product on the field.”
Let’s take Gordon specifically. He steals bases. He plays every day. And the teams he played for the past two years have talked about how swiping all those bases beat him up and wore him down by the end of each of those seasons. Is that what inspired him to take what he took? Only he knows. It’s an unacceptable reason, but it’s not one baseball should ignore, either.
This sport is negotiating a new labor deal. The schedule is a huge topic. How can baseball not look seriously at 154 games instead of 162? Sources say it is, though with lots of resistance. How can this sport not look at, say, shortening spring training to build more days off into the schedule? Sources say that’s being considered, too.
If none of this happens, it will be an indicator of just how shortsighted the powers that be have become on issues like this. When the 30 teams are paying players on the disabled list a half-billion dollars a year not to play, it’s time to get the message.
“I hate to say this,” the exec quoted above said. “But there was a reason all the players were on amphetamines once.”
5. Players’ insecurity knows no bounds
Let’s end where we started. Whatever you used to think made players take PEDs, it’s now most likely officially defunct.
Players take what they take for many reasons. It’s about the need to add strength to survive the marathon. Or to turn outs into hits, singles into doubles, fatigue into energy. Or failure into success. Whatever level they perform at, there’s a constant pressure to reach a higher one. So you’d never believe this, but they’re more insecure than you’d ever imagine.
“You’d be surprised how they mask it,” one former manager said Friday. “The uniform is a tremendous mask of insecurity. And I think it’s actually growing. With all the social media and all the eyes that are on them, they feel like any little thing they do is magnified a million times.”
So did that insecurity gnaw at Dee Gordon, a little guy who had set a big standard for himself? In a year, he went from a shocking trade out of L.A. to an All-Star, a batting champ and a stolen-base king. And now, all some people will call him is “cheater.”
Whatever he did, whatever his reasons, he was one more reminder that players are still responsible for what they put into their bodies. And that 170-pound leadoff man for the Miami Marlins is just the latest to learn that lesson. And pay that price.