Like the rest of the country, I woke Monday morning to see exactly how big of a hammer the NCAA was going to drop on Penn State, and by proxy, Joe Paterno’s legacy. The news had leaked that PSU was not going to face the “death penalty”, but would still receive a severe disciplinary action. What Penn State ended up with was a $60 million fine, along with each of their wins from 1998-2011 being vacated. The end result of the penalty is PSU has to rebuild its football program, and Joe Paterno is no longer the FBS win totals leader. Others who have followed the case more closely than I will argue that either the penalty is wrong, or that it is not harsh enough. There will be time enough in the coming days for each side to make their points. What I would prefer to look at is the message that the NCAA sent, and see whether or not it can be applied to MLB.
In no way am I attempting to compare the seriousness of the charges that have been levied against Joe Paterno, Jerry Sandusky, et al with baseball’s steroid scandal, however there can be a parallel drawn between the reasoning behind the punishment that was handed down against Joe Paterno and the punishment that should be in place for MLB’s steroid cheats, specifically Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Alex Rodriguez. Why only those four? Because like Joe Paterno, they reached the top of their field (or would reach the top of their field if only those in front of them were penalized.) We as fans know those four players cheated their way to incredible success, MLB knows they cheated their way to the top, and so do each of their respective organizations. We also reserve the right to add to the list as new information becomes available.
To be very clear, from the beginning of professional baseball through the 1997 season there had been exactly two seasons in which a player hit 60 or more home runs. Babe Ruth was the first to accomplish the feat in 1927, and Roger Maris eclipsed his mark 34 seasons later.
Between 1998-2001, there were six different occasions where a player hit 63 or more home runs (Sosa- ’98, ’99, 01; McGwire- ’98, ’99; Bonds- ’01) which includes the only two 70+ home run seasons in the history of the game. Since Bonds hit his 73 in 2001, there has not been one single season of 60 or more home runs. Not one.
As much as I dislike Bud Selig, I do believe he actually cares about baseball and the big-league game. I just think he is much more concerned with his own legacy in most instances instead of always looking to do what is best for the game, and that is the reason he has chosen to ignore the problem that the game’s steroid abusers has caused. The steroid issue allows for him to cement his legacy in one of two ways: either he will go down in history as the commissioner who turned a blind eye to bulging biceps and moonshot home runs, or he can follow in the footsteps of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis and take whatever steps are necessary to protect the integrity of the game.
To this point, Selig has taken the easier path of pretending that baseball’s steroid problem has been solved while at the same time pretending that the steroid era had no long-ranging effects on the game and its history. The problem with both of those arguments is that they are pure fallacy. Last season’s NL MVP, Ryan Braun, managed to avoid a 50 game suspension for using steroids due to a technicality. Everyone associated with MLB has taken the tack that since he got off on that technicality, everything is hunky-dory and we can all pretend that the tremendous season Braun is having this year is due to his incredible athletic ability alone.
While Selig would rather focus on short-term issues such as increased revenue and ticket sales, those are not as important to his legacy as the steroids era will be, if he chooses to not take corrective action. Luckily for him, the NCAA has laid out the exact path he should take to correct errors that have occurred in MLB over the last 20 or so years. While vacating wins or seasons may be old hat for the NCAA (just ask John Calipari), it would be a bold, new stroke for Selig and MLB to take.
The process is very simple: start with the four guys mentioned, go to the point in time where we KNOW they began cheating, and vacate everything they did from that point forward. For Bonds, it’s highly likely that he began cheating no later than 1999, but we absolutely know without a doubt that he was cheating by the beginning of the 2001 season, so anything he accomplished after the 2000 season will be stricken from the records. This leaves him with a grand total of 494 career home runs, good enough for 25th on the career list just ahead of Lou Gherig and Fred McGriff. That solves our all-time home run champion list, as Hammerin’ Hank’s 755 would still top the list. As a preventative measure, we’re going to go ahead and simply vacate Alex Rodriguez’s entire career. Some might think this is a spite move, but it’s not. He has confessed on the record to cheating through his three most productive seasons as a big leaguer. Who’s to say he didn’t always cheat, and he doesn’t still cheat now? I’m sorry, but once you’ve cheated, you give up the right to say when and for how long you did so. This sends the message that MLB does take its record book seriously, and they will not allow for those who cheat to lay claim to glory that is not theirs.
Correcting the single-season home run record is just as simple. Once again, it’s highly likely that McGwire didn’t just start cheating for the 1998 season. With the benefit of hindsight, the evidence suggests that it is highly likely that his injury-riddled run in the mid-90s may have been the result of his steroid usage, but as he was smart enough to get out of the game before he could get near Aaron’s career mark, we’ll only dock him his production from 1998 on. This leaves him with a career total of 387 home runs (57th all-time, sandwiched between Dwight Evans and Johnny Bench), and strips him of any claim to the regular season home run total. Last but definitely not forgotten, we hand down the same punishment for Sammy Sosa. Starting with the 1998 season, we vacate everything he did on an MLB field. This removes his claim to the single-season home run title, and also takes away his status as the only MLBer to have three 60+ home run seasons in a career. It also knocks him down to 228 career home runs, and puts him in a four-way tie for 156th place all-time (with Ryne Sandberg, Eric Davis, and Ken Boyer.)
The final step in this plan is to increase testing for all players, and hold organizations that employ cheaters responsible. It is inconceivable to me that Oakland Athletics, San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, and Texas Rangers did not know what their players were doing. They knew, and they did nothing. There must be consequences for their actions, and for the actions of organizations that choose to allow their players to cheat in the future. Following the NCAA model again, I would suggest a $5 million fine and loss of a first round draft pick for the first time a player on an MLB roster fails a PED test, and escalate it from that point forward. If an organization feels that cheating is alright, and is willing to pay the price, then that is on them, but it is unfair to blame only the players for what it occurs on the field. Management tacitly, if not overtly encouraged the players to use PEDs, and should bear some of the punishment as well. Given that MLB has proven themselves incapable of being trusted on this issue, a completely autonomous outside company would need to be in charge of the tests and the corresponding results.
If Selig and MLB would take these actions, it would restore Aaron and Maris to their rightful place in the record book. It will send the message that cheating your way to the top will not be tolerated, and in a historical context will elevate Selig to the upper echelon of great MLB commissioners. The parallel between Paterno/Penn State and MLB and their cheaters is that actions (or inaction) have consequences. JoePa may not have sexually assaulted anyone, but he stood idly by while Jerry Sandusky did, as did others at Penn State. His penalty is to lose his legacy and his record. The penalty for those who cheated in MLB should be the same. There are those can argue that it might not have been the proper call for Penn State, but I believe firmly it is the proper path for MLB to take.
Think I’m wrong? Are you okay with players juicing up to increase performance?