- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
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When Major League Baseball suspended Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun for the final 65 games of the season late on the afternoon of July 22, the news sizzled through big league clubhouses the way it always does in 21st century sports. Reporters, players and team staff scrambled for their smartphones, searching for the most reliable story link. Clubhouse televisions were tuned to the most updated crawl line for confirmation. Text messages crisscrossed the country, fragments of snap commentary from players heading to batting cages serving as the simmering aftermath.
Across one phone came a chilling five-word text from a high-ranking baseball official that read, "Still have players to go," a little news grenade that produced its own ripples about which players were next to be suspended and for how long. On Monday, Aug. 5, 12 more players had accepted 50-game suspensions for violating the league's Joint Drug Agreement, and a 211-game suspension had been issued to Alex Rodriguez. And a new paradigm had been created by the players, its union and the commissioner's office, which, for the first time in the nearly 20 years since performing-enhancing drugs have become the defining issue in the game, used its full power to discipline a player for PED use.
The day Braun was suspended, the first-place Red Sox were in Boston, hours from beginning a key four-game series with the second-place Rays. David Ortiz, himself part of a steroid scandal that four years later still has unanswered questions, sat in the home dugout, eager for each successive sliver of news.
"The way things are now, when you're in that room, and the guy is next to you, watching you pee, there's no way out," Ortiz said. "And if there's something in there, they got you, bro."
On Monday, when the announcement of the Biogenesis 14 was complete, absent were the old attitudes that once dominated the decades-old steroid era: the stances of defiance, denials and skepticism from the players that had been emblematic of their public solidarity even when there were private misgivings regarding individual players. In the old narrative, players and their representatives routinely countered a failed test result with subterfuge, the possibility of impropriety or pride debunking the science -- a false positive, the overheated rhetoric that players were the victims of a media "witch hunt" or the response that there is nothing in a bottle that can help a player hit home runs.
In the place of solidarity was an unforgiving anger directed at wrongdoers, once brothers in arms under the code.
"He got off easy," one American League player said of Braun's forfeiture of $3.2 million of his $8.5 million salary for 2013. "His real money doesn't kick in until next year."
Guilty or innocent or ambivalent, the players had always stuck together. That was the code. With Biogenesis, the code has changed.
"Today is a sad day for MLB, the fans of this great game, and all players who may have been negatively affected by others selfishness," Tampa Bay third baseman Evan Longoria posted on Twitter. "Ultimately, although today will be a day of infamy for MLB, it is a tremendous step in the right direction for the game we love."
Longoria's message was diplomatic. Other players have voiced anger, and by extension, support of baseball's drug agreement in unprecedented ways: by advocating lifetime bans and the voiding of guaranteed contracts -- the existence of which is among the greatest victories in both MLBPA history and professional sports -- of players caught using performance enhancers.
The PED battle is no longer just an ethical clash between users and testers, but also a fight for the direction and future of the Players Association. For the first time, perhaps in decades, the fight isn't only union versus management, but players versus players, some of them apparently willing to potentially undo some of the organization's greatest gains.
"In my opinion, [Braun] should be suspended -- lifetime ban," Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Skip Schumaker told the Associated Press. "One strike, you're out. It's enough. It's ridiculous. He lied to a lot of people. I was convinced, after that MVP, that he didn't do it."
How the players and their union have shifted from their denial of the existence of a runaway drug culture in the game is a story of evolution and competitive pride, of survival and, after so much damage, of the rediscovered value of reputation.
It is, in addition, the newest front in the historically contentious, evolving relationship between baseball and the union, which spent the first weeks leading up to and following the Braun suspension in seemingly uncharacteristic cooperation with the commissioner's office and its investigation and discipline. Following the massive suspension levied on Rodriguez, however, the MLBPA appeared convinced that commissioner Bud Selig had overreached.
"For the player appealing, Alex Rodriguez, we agree with his decision to fight his suspension. We believe that the Commissioner has not acted appropriately under the Basic Agreement," union executive director Michael Weiner said in a statement following the suspension announcement. "Mr. Rodriguez knows that the Union, consistent with its history, will defend his rights vigorously."
The sea change
As recently as 2006 and 2007, the players -- a total of more than 750 -- refused to cooperate en masse with the producers of the Mitchell Report, an investigation into the illegal use of steroids and other performance-enhancing substances in Major League Baseball. Throughout that process, George Mitchell, the former Maine senator who was appointed by Selig to oversee that probe and whose subsequent recommendations spurred the league to create the investigative arm that collected information on Biogenesis, and his staff voiced frustration that the union was thwarting the effort by not granting interviews.
Last week, Mitchell had no comment regarding the growing willingness on the part of the players to fight PEDs. By publicly advocating unprecedented levels of punishments for violators now (players such as Schumaker and Detroit's Max Scherzer publicly called for lifetime bans for first-time offenders), today's players are essentially repudiating those attitudes so prevalent as recently as six years ago and during the height of the steroid era. But as a consequence, they might be exposing themselves to fragmentations that could shift the balance of power in baseball's labor relationship in the favor of ownership. Biogenesis has inflamed the MLBPA's membership. But in pushing for increased sanctions for PED use, players might be weakening their union's longstanding position as the strongest negotiating body in the history of professional team sports.
"I don't think it's going to be that big of a deal," one prominent National League player told me immediately following the announcement of the Braun suspension. "The massive majority of players want this. I don't think now that we want to get rid of cheaters, we're going to turn on each other. But to be honest, players are all just sick of this s---."
According to interviews with members of the commissioner's office and the MLBPA, as well as several current and former players, the change is the byproduct of several factors: increased competition for contracts in a crowded free-agent marketplace, anger that repeated offenses make it more difficult for the public to separate the clean from the dirty players and a growing recognition of the level of cheating in the game. The players were cognizant of the Baseball Writers' Association of America not voting a single player into the Hall of Fame last offseason and aware that continued silence about PEDs could be considered to be as damning to their own induction chances as actually using steroids.
They also began to recognize their own fatigue from being defined by two decades of performance enhancers. Some say a maturing generation of players who now have seniority and influence in the locker room created a different institutional attitude.
The postures of the old union leadership were shaped by a history of mistrust between the owners and players, most especially over the collusion charges of the 1980s, when the owners and the commissioner's office agreed in secret not to sign free-agent players. That breach, plus the 1994 strike and the subsequent imposition of replacement players and a salary cap in 1995, made cooperation virtually impossible between the two sides on nearly any issue.
At the height of the union's power under the late Marvin Miller and, later, Don Fehr, players as often as not were told of the union's direction on a given issue. During the years of Miller and Fehr, the MLBPA generally spoke one message through one voice, forming a united front that ownership could not break. Thus, through the course of strikes and lockouts, the center of the union has always held.
Miller died in November 2012, but during the final decade of his life, he was adamantly against the union's decision to reopen an existing collective bargaining agreement to appease Congressional concern about the game's drug policies. Miller's position was that an agreement was sacrosanct and should be renegotiated only at its expiration. To do otherwise was to create dangerous precedent. There was no point in having a Basic Agreement, Miller said, if it was vulnerable to renegotiation. But between 2005 and 2009, the owners and the union reopened the Basic Agreement three times to amend PED provisions.
Miller also believed that even if the controversies of the steroid era weren't completely contrived, their harm to the game's integrity was minimal compared to collusion. To Miller, the greatest detriment in the history of the game was baseball's half-century of segregation, but he believed collusion to be second on that list. In both cases, he maintained, the owners had purposely refused to sign the best players to help teams win, which amounted to a fix of the pennant races. Steroids, in Miller's mind, would never compare to the damage done by teams choosing to try not to win.
During the collusion and strike years, most players were born in the 1950s and 1960s, when the labor movement in America was at its peak as an ally of workers. Today, there are no active big league players who made their major league debut in the 1980s, which means that none were affected directly by collusion and few were even at the Triple-A level during the 1994-95 strike. That generational shift in the union's membership might help explain the change as players redefine the union's attitude toward PEDs. With Biogenesis as a catalyst, players say they are angry enough now to go after their own, according to sources on both the players' side and the ownership side.
MLBPA sources say no formal discussions are underway to reshape the union's PED position or reopen the collective bargaining agreement to strengthen PED penalties. But an unintended byproduct of the opinions expressed by Schumaker and Scherzer could be additional pressure to back up the emotional rhetoric with policy.
"It's just a process trying to clean the game up," Longoria said. "We went through years of guys not speaking up. It hurts and is disappointing losing your job to someone who cheated. There are jobs and careers at stake."
Meanwhile, it is unknown if other factors are in play, such as information outside of Biogenesis that baseball's investigative unit has collected regarding PED use by players. Nor is it clear if the players are fully cognizant of the unintended consequences that could arise if they give teams the power to void guaranteed contracts.
After the release of the Mitchell Report in December 2007, players were still resistant to the reality that they themselves were the biggest victims of their members' transgressions. But now, the steroid discussion no longer seems to be a philosophical conversation but a personal one. Players now consider PEDs a violation of their personal baseball code, no different from standing in the batter's box too long after a home run or repeating what was said in the clubhouse. In the past, they had framed the drug conversation as an imposition of public relations pressure placed by grandstanding outsiders -- the public, the media, the front office or Congress.
Now, players are demanding an accountability from one another that didn't exist in previous years. For the first time, players no longer view steroids as a victimless crime. Users aren't cheating the public as much as they are other players.
"So, let me get this straight," an American League player said. "Guy uses steroids. He then puts up better numbers than I do. He goes to free agency and gets the years and the money, takes a job I don't get and now I have to scramble during the winter to find another slot. Then, he gets busted for steroids and we use my union dues for his lawyers, his defense and his appeal? And that makes sense to you? That bulls--- is fair?"
'The pure competition of it all'
Even before Braun, the tipping point, many players say, was Cabrera's two-year, $16 million deal with Toronto. Money was on the table. The Blue Jays were spending and a number of players might have been a good fit for them. Toronto was a bigger market with a need for a starting outfielder, and Cabrera -- who'd disgraced himself on the sidelines, suspended for testing positive for steroids last season while his team, the San Francisco Giants, won the World Series -- was the one who got the big money.
Cabrera inflamed his fellow players on two levels. The first was his selection to the 2012 National League All-Star team. He was a juicer who took a spot on the All-Star team away from a clean player, a situation made even more insulting to the rank and file when he was named the game's MVP. The second was his Blue Jays contract, which seemed so obviously a reward for a steroid user.
Then there was Braun, who won the NL MVP in 2011 and hit .500 in the National League Division Series to help knock out the Arizona Diamondbacks. Braun also angered his fellow players because of the guarantee of the five-year, $105 million extension he signed in 2011, making the total amount of guaranteed money the Brewers owe him -- money players say could have been spent on clean players -- to be in excess of $145 million through 2020.
Braun and Cabrera were major influences, but Oakland's Bartolo Colon also made the players look inward. Colon was suspended for 50 games last season for testing positive for a banned substance. Without him, the A's lost a deciding fifth game of the American League Division Series to Detroit, a series they might've won had Colon not been suspended. Because the Yankees (the Tigers' opponent in the ALCS) were struggling last October, Colon's suspension might have cost Oakland a chance for its first World Series appearance in 22 years.
And there was Manny Ramirez, caught twice for using PEDs, first in 2009 when he served a 50-game suspension while playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and then again in 2011, when he retired from the Tampa Bay Rays instead of sitting out a 100-game suspension. Sources recalled Ramirez hitting .396 in the 53 games after he was acquired by the Dodgers in 2008, almost single-handedly carrying Los Angeles to the NL West title over Arizona.
"The players finally started to see firsthand the damage being done to them. It wasn't this philosophical conversation about right and wrong or the place of drugs in our society, but about jobs and dollars and wins and losses being taken from them," said a source in the commissioner's office. "How do you think the Arizona Diamondbacks feel about Braun knocking them out of the playoffs when he was using? Maybe they were the ones who could've gone to the World Series."
That unfairness, players say, galvanized their new orthodoxy: PEDs were no longer a media creation, but the central ingredient to dirty players cheating the clean ones out of jobs.
"The pure competition is winning out," an NL player said. "The extra wild card rewarding division winners, all of it. We're not going to be protecting guys trying to get over on other guys."
In a series from July 7-10, 2005, the Baltimore Orioles took three of four games from the Red Sox. Unannounced to the public, Rafael Palmeiro -- who months earlier, under oath in front of Congress, famously wagged his finger in defiance of a steroid accusation by Jose Canseco -- had tested positive for steroids and was in the process of an appeal, therefore still on the field.
"I know Raffy. There's no way he's a cheater," Red Sox pitcher and former Palmeiro teammate David Wells said in Baltimore at the time. "And anyone who says he is can eat a cold bowl of d---."
Palmeiro destroyed the Red Sox, going 5-for-13 with three home runs and nine RBIs in the series. Six weeks later, he was suspended for 10 days for violating baseball's drug policy and never played another major league game. The Red Sox and Yankees finished the regular season tied, but New York was awarded the division title on a head-to-head tiebreaker. A furious Red Sox ownership pointed to Palmeiro's tainted series as a reason why they'd lost the AL East.
Today, the concepts of competition -- for contracts and financial security, for wins and World Series championships, All-Star Game appearances and awards -- are no different than they were then, during the height of the steroid era when the tainted Sammy Sosa, Miguel Tejada, Mark McGwire, Ramirez, Jason Giambi, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were winning, or were close to winning, MVPs, Cy Young Awards, home run titles and World Series championships. But the perception has changed dramatically.
"In every clubhouse right now, guys are on their cell phones, where you can go to any online betting site. Why don't they do it? Because they know the cost," Red Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes said. "They don't want to risk getting banned for life. They don't want to be Shoeless Joe Jackson. They don't want to be Pete Rose. Both never took PEDs. My buddy Josh Hamilton had baseball taken away from him for three years and didn't take PEDs. Why can't we do that with steroids? You think the threat of a lifetime ban wouldn't change things? Where are we hung up?"
The outcasts and the price
Unlike Palmeiro and, to varying degrees, Bonds and McGwire (who is working in the game as a hitting coach for the Dodgers), the sea change has left little room for sympathy for the Biogenesis 14. The players have adopted the position that the losers of the steroid era are no longer the fans or record book, but themselves. "Hey Antonio Bastardo, remember when we competed for a job in 2011. Thx a lot," former Phillies left-hander Dan Meyer wrote on Twitter after Bastardo was suspended for 50 games Monday. "Never said I was good enough but what about the players that never got their chance? Their lives could have been completely different."
Many players now privately scoff at the idea of a "false positive" test. The phrase "witch hunt" has disappeared from the conversation, replaced by action that old-line unionists might have never thought possible: talk of lifetime bans and voiding guaranteed contracts such as the one the Brewers gave Braun. The memory of his now-infamous 2012 news conference ("If I had done this intentionally or unintentionally, I'd be the first one to step up and say, 'I did it' … I would bet my life that this substance never entered my body at any point") only ratcheted up the anger in clubhouses around the league.
According to sources, baseball's security detail did not rely solely on Anthony Bosch and Porter Fischer to make its move this month, but also on an incriminating paper trail so complete that Braun had no choice but to accept the suspension. MLB sources said the 65-game suspension was a combination of the 50-game penalty he escaped when former league arbitrator Shyam Das overturned it and 15 additional games for verbally attacking the integrity of baseball's joint drug program.
As the Braun case unfolded, the apparent lack of desire on the part of the union membership to mount a pitched fight in support of players who didn't have a particularly strong case stunned some former players even as they understood it. Players were being encouraged to accept a suspension now or risk being penalized into next year, a potentially powerful incentive to admit guilt and a muscular tactic on the part of the commissioner's office that yesterday's union membership likely would have challenged. Two weeks before the Braun decision was announced, Weiner and union leadership had advised players facing overwhelming evidence in the Biogenesis case to make a deal with the commissioner's office. According to sources, Braun received union counsel, and both the union and league considered his 65-game suspension lenient. The union and MLB negotiated Braun's punishment and the press releases to the public.
"When I heard it, I was thinking, 'F--- yeah. Good. Nail this m-----f-----,'" said one Hall of Fame player. "You have to remember, we're all sitting there watching the TV and everything Braun said, and you're thinking, 'Wow, this guy is really convincing. Maybe there is some doubt there.' And then this happens? It's their game now. I'm not in the union anymore. I'm just an ex-player, and I remember the days when the union told you what to say and how to think, but I have to say, everything, Braun getting suspended, nobody getting into the Hall, the union not fighting that hard for these guys, it feels completely right to me."
The massive Rodriguez suspension, however, appears to have reignited some union members who have begun to see the larger implications of losing balance with management. The result could be internecine battles between players who want greater penalties and those who believe the commissioner and management should not wield so much power. Over the next several weeks, as the Rodriguez suspension is appealed, the players' challenge is clear: Do they further break with their old positions and venture into new, potentially hazardous territory even as a lack of solidarity could weaken their overall position in other areas of negotiation?
"It's outlined in no uncertain terms every spring to every team: These are the rules," Phillies infielder Michael Young said. "Don't effing test positive. Everyone gets due process, but the idea of a level playing field is now a union mantra."