Can't shake the signs

IN THE 118 YEARS from 1876 to 1994 -- spanning the end of Reconstruction and the waging of two world wars and the cold one -- the 50-homer mark was reached in a single season 18 times among 11 players. In the 13 seasons from 1995 to 2007 -- the year the Mitchell report was released and baseball finally had to confront the drug problem that fueled the record books and the turnstiles and the cynicism -- the same home run mark was attained 23 times among 14 players.

The past five seasons were supposed to have been defined by reform. For a brief moment, it appeared that the steroids era had largely receded, in its place an awakened, vigilant commissioner who hired a muscular security force and strengthened a drug-testing program that wasn't afraid to net big fish (the freed yet tainted Ryan Braun, the exposed, fallen Manny Ramirez twice). The Hall of Fame voting was still messy, but that was a referendum of the older, dirtier days. The present was progressive and proactive. Even the World Anti-Doping Agency, which once laughed at baseball's Hula-Hoop-size loopholes in its testing, congratulated Bud Selig. The offensive numbers declined, and only once was the 50-homer barrier breached, by Jose Bautista in 2010. No more trips to Congress. No more books. The new system was working.

Of course, the lie of that clean little narrative is that PEDs never completely left. Pitchers and catchers reported just a few weeks ago, but not before Alex Rodriguez (again!) and Braun (again!), along with Francisco Cervelli, Nelson Cruz and Gio Gonzalez, showed up in the ledger of a Miami-area wellness clinic linked to performance enhancers. (Each player has denied that the clinic supplied him any banned substance.) And that's turned Selig into Michael Corleone from The Godfather Part III: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!"

For much of its history, baseball has been forced to skirt the third rail of gambling. Connections to the track or the fixers or the bookies have resulted in swift, severe responses. Joe Jackson and his 1919 Black Sox have been unredeemed for nearly a century. Leo Durocher was bounced for the entire 1947 season for conduct "detrimental to baseball." Bowie Kuhn banned retired Willie Mays, in 1979, and Mickey Mantle, in 1983, for taking jobs with casinos. (They were reinstated by Peter Ueberroth in 1985.) Pete Rose's gambling built, as he says, a prison without bars that so far has shown no hope of parole.

Wellness clinics are the new casinos, representing a vexing front in the drug game. Although many are disreputable, they are not illegal, making their prohibition difficult to enforce.

To baseball's leaders, this development must sting, not just because the sport was supposed to have passed this chapter but also because of the brazenness of the players. Visiting wellness clinics gives the appearance of cheating, that players are seeking treatments that legitimate doctors won't provide. The shame of being a steroids cheat does not seem to be a deterrent. If it is true that Braun is still associating with the medical underground after escaping a 50-game suspension based on a chain-of-custody issue, it's clear that certain players are now convinced of their invincibility.

Draconian penalties -- yearlong suspensions, prohibitions on Hall of Fame eligibility, college-style postseason bans for teams with offending players -- might disabuse them of that notion, but baseball could also help itself by being less duplicitous. Internally, MLB execs are infuriated that the sport has gone retro in a bad way, but they've fueled that development by employing lucrative, selective justice. After being suspended 50 games for PEDs and watching in street clothes as his team won the World Series, disgraced outfielder Melky Cabrera received a $16 million deal with Toronto. Mark McGwire was welcomed back to the game with jobs with the Cardinals and Dodgers. Roger Clemens, legally exonerated but hardly innocent, is back with the Astros as a special instructor.

Unless MLB clears up those mixed messages, history will be resolute in its judgment: For all the tough talk, owners and the league were still handing out handsome rewards after the syringes were discarded.

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