Some of Major League Baseball's smartest and most prominent voices will address the pressing issues of the game when the Players Association holds its annual executive board meetings next week in La Jolla, Calif. The assembled players will discuss instant replay and scheduling problems and lay some early groundwork for the next collective bargaining talks, with the existing labor deal set to expire in 2016. They're also expected to nominate Tony Clark as the union's new executive director in place of Michael Weiner, who died last week of brain cancer at age 51.
Between the strategy sessions, lunches and watching the ocean waves roll in, Jhonny Peralta's four-year, $53 million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals is virtually certain to come up in conversation.
Maybe not Jhonny Peralta per se, but the concept Peralta represents -- that a player with a recent PED violation can be rewarded for bad behavior or a questionable moral compass with bags of money from one of baseball's signature franchises. Peralta certainly won't be the last player in the spotlight under these circumstances; he'll soon be joined by outfielder Nelson Cruz, who also received a 50-game suspension as part of the Biogenesis scandal and probably will make significantly more than $53 million when he signs later this offseason. Catcher Carlos Ruiz, who was suspended 25 games to begin last season after failing a second test for amphetamines, recently re-signed with the Philadelphia Phillies on a three-year, $26 million deal.
Without referencing specific signings, Clark acknowledged the topic is on the agenda.
"Our executive board meeting is designed to bring our player leadership together to discuss any number of issues of the day, and this issue is one that players have been concerned about and are looking forward to discussing as a group," Clark told ESPN.com. "We're going to do our best to make sure the players' voices are heard."
The inflammatory nature of the issue came to the forefront Sunday when Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Brad Ziegler reacted to news of the Peralta signing with a provocative comment on Twitter. His sentiments were echoed by veteran reliever David Aardsma, and the debate quickly escalated.
— Brad Ziegler (@BradZiegler) November 24, 2013
Apparently getting suspended for PED's means you get a raise. What's stopping anyone from doing it? #weneedtomakeachange
— David Aardsma (@TheDA53) November 24, 2013
If 1,500-plus retweets are a sign that an observation has resonated with the general public, Ziegler clearly hit a nerve.
Opportunity versus opportunism
Players have always advocated and benefited from a free market system in which movement is based on supply, demand and the skills they bring to the table. But now the concept of unfettered movement is colliding with the players' desire to deter or (in a perfect world) rid the game of steroid use. It's a big enough challenge to preach the gospel of a "level playing field" without eight- and nine-figure profit motives getting in the way.
"I think it's a snapshot of what the issue has been for years," said Kansas City pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, who serves as one of the game's two MLB union reps along with outfielder Curtis Granderson. "Teams wouldn't bring on players who have tested positive if they didn't feel they could help the team. And players are willing to take the risks to improve their performance and get a contract that matches up with it. The players who are cheating are being penalized in the short term. But for the most part, from what we've seen recently, they have been rewarded in the long term.
"I don't cast the blame on the owners. I will always cast the blame on individual players for the decisions they make. But it's clear there are owners that don't necessarily care if players take steroids. There are players who don't care if they take steroids. And to some extent, there are probably fans that do not care. At the end of the day, I think what everybody wants is accountability."
Under typical circumstances, St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak might have spent the Peralta news conference fielding questions about the prudence of giving so much money to a 31-year-old shortstop with limited range in the field. But now he's dealing with questions about Peralta's character and the Cardinals' perceived willingness to lower their standards out of expediency. Mozeliak previously tackled the issue in 2009 when he hired Mark McGwire as St. Louis' hitting coach, so he was ready for the inevitable questions about Peralta. Among other things, Mozeliak said it's not the Cardinals' responsibility to be the morality "police" when they make baseball decisions.
A shared burden?
As players grapple with the issue, the dialogue has recently spread to embrace the idea of shared responsibility. Might teams send a message about steroid use and be more wary of rewarding PED users if they had to pay an additional premium in conjunction with big-ticket signings? One idea that's being bandied around among players involves taking a portion of the money that teams spend on convicted steroid users and funneling it toward PED education programs or some other worthwhile cause. But that feel-good concept is still in the formative stages.
Understandably, the idea may not develop much traction among the clubs, who already navigate a minefield of potential problems in signing PED users. The Cardinals knew they faced a fan backlash in signing Peralta, and also run the risk that his career numbers have been inflated by steroid use and could easily decline in coming years.
The Cardinals signed Peralta with a Biogenesis cloud hanging over him, but other clubs are seemingly blindsided by players signed in free agency or already under contract. Consider the Milwaukee Brewers. In April 2011, they signed left fielder Ryan Braun to a $105 million contract extension that takes him through the 2020 season. The Brewers committed to Braun with the expectation that he would compete for MVP awards and one day enter the Hall of Fame in a Milwaukee cap. Then Braun beat the rap in a controversial grievance in 2012 and accepted a 65-game suspension in July. Now he's damaged goods, hoping to rehabilitate his image while cold-calling season-ticket holders to apologize for his sins.
Braun's reputation has been so tarnished by PED use that the Brewers can't stick him on the cover of a pocket calendar or a season-ticket brochure without incurring anger from the fan base. He's marketing poison and a likely magnet for boos. And if his performance declines in coming years, there's no mechanism in place that would allow the team to void his contract because he flunked a drug test.
In the eyes of some observers, the Brewers are already paying a significant penalty. One MLB general manager said the impetus for change probably has to come from the players who suffer from the riches that flow to steroid users. He pointed to Milwaukee shortstop Jean Segura as an example.
"If I'm Jean Segura, I'm making minimum salary this year," the GM said. "I would love to sign a multiyear deal, but the Brewers' books are clogged up by Ryan Braun. And now a guy in my division that I have to watch 19 times this year [Peralta] is a user who just got $53 million. Something doesn't quite add up.
"Is it the club's burden to solve that beyond the CBA? I don't think so. It's probably for Jean Segura, to say, 'I feel like a piece of the pie that should be mine is given to guys who fail tests. And that's not right.'"
Owners and executives know that fan outrage is fickle. The same Cardinals die-hards who were holding their noses over the Peralta signing are likely to be less judgmental if it's August, St. Louis is in first place and Peralta is on his way to hitting .280 with 20 home runs. His past PED offenses are more likely to be fodder for the talk shows if he hits .230 with diminished power this season.
Stiffer penalties inevitable
Bargaining is such a delicate and complicated proposition, players would rather keep their disagreements in-house than air them publicly. Hypothetically, if owners think there's division in the ranks on the PED issue, history says they might tuck it away and exploit it down the road to extract concessions from players in other areas. You want changes in the joint drug agreement? Sure. Maybe we can also discuss the service requirements for players before they become eligible for salary arbitration.
Many observers are convinced that the current system, which calls for bans of 50 and 100 games followed by a lifetime suspension for a third failed drug test, isn't enough of a deterrent and that stricter penalties are in order. But players are adamant that lines need to be drawn between hard-core cheaters and players such as Philadelphia infielder Freddy Galvis or former San Francisco Giants pitcher Guillermo Mota, who stumbled into lengthy suspensions for using a steroidal foot cream and a children's cough syrup, respectively.
Beyond the question of suspensions, the union leadership will discuss a number of other changes to the system that could be additional disincentives to cheating. Perhaps players could lose service time in conjunction with a failed test, or run the risk of being banned from postseason play in the same year they test positive. This year Peralta missed 50 games in August and September only to return and hit .333 for the Detroit Tigers in the playoffs.
Guthrie, who declined to speculate on specific remedies, said players are seeking "creative" solutions to help punish players who cheat and create a fair playing field for those who don't. Ideally, the union leadership would like to achieve those ends without sacrificing the free market ideals that big leaguers hold dear.
"You try to find other solutions besides telling someone they can't sign a player," Guthrie said. "I don't think the teams want that, clearly, and I don't think the players want that. But ultimately, we would like to see the players play the game clean. And if they don't, we'd like to see them pay an appropriate penalty."
One thing is eminently clear: Players have come a long way on the PED issue since Texas Rangers pitcher Rick Helling was a rare voice of caution and reason 15 years ago. According to a vignette in Joe Torre's book, "The Yankee Years," Helling sounded a warning on steroids during the union's 1998 executive board meeting only to encounter resistance or apathy from his peers.
Now players are shouting from the rooftops -- and their laptops -- and a few voices on Twitter could be a harbinger of a more spirited debate to come among big leaguers and the owners who sign their checks. There's no turning back.