Meet Bud Selig, Commissioner of Ken Burns's MLB

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Originally published in Bloomberg View

Major League Baseball has finally handed down its Biogenesis suspensions. Commissioner Bud Selig won’t be invoking his power to punish Alex Rodriguez in the “best interests of baseball,” after all. Instead, he’ll be suspending A-Rod through the end of the 2014 season via the Joint Drug Agreement between baseball and the players union.

Among other things, this agreement allows baseball to punish players for so-called “non-analytic positives.” In other words, the league doesn’t need an actual drug test to suspend a player for using a banned substance. Other proof of usage will do.

So in suspending A-Rod and 12 other players, baseball is acting within its legal rights. Fine. But I still have a lot of questions. For one, why didn’t A-Rod—or the others implicated in the scandal—fail any tests? Maybe the tests themselves are useless, a step behind the sophisticated chemistry of the drugs they are designed to detect.


We’d have a better answer to this question if there had been at least some conversation—amid the hysteria of Biogenesis-gate—about the specific substances at issue. Has anyone even bothered to determine what, exactly, these players were taking? According to this interview with ex-master doper Victor Conte, it was growth hormone and various forms of testosterone administered through troches, which he compared to Life Savers. Conte also said the drugs would likely have been flushed out of the players’ systems within hours. Pop one in your mouth before going to bed and your urine would be clear by morning.

Which leads one to wonder: How useful could these drugs have been? Was Anthony Bosch’s clinic basically just peddling placebos?

For that matter, how effective are any PEDs, at least when it comes to baseball? We are all familiar with the narrative of the “Steroid Era” and the game’s attendant power surge. But this is more myth than reality. Joe Sheehan, a former writer and editor for Baseball Prospectus, calls it “the Big Lie,” which he convincingly debunks with simple statistics in a recent newsletter. It’s subscription-only, but the gist of his argument is that home runs and slugging percentages declined in the post-testing era not because PEDs had been chased out of the game, but because of increased strikeout rates:

“Steroids didn't cause home runs. Testing didn't stop home runs. When a bat hits a ball, there is as much power in the contact as there was in 2007 and in 1995. That's the truth.”


Why is this so hard for baseball to accept? Why aren’t we talking about the actual legal and medical questions raised by the Biogenesis case? Because the Biogenesis case isn’t about legal or medical questions. It’s about the great scourge of steroids and the sanctity of one man's zealous vision of baseball.

I am not sure how, exactly, PEDs became such a morally loaded subject, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s a vestige of the Cold War and East Germany's Olympic doping program of the 1970s. We had met the enemy, and the enemy was a bunch of bulked-up female swimmers with deep voices who had been injected by their own government.


Now the enemy is an aging, overpaid, universally disliked superstar who seems determined to have his day in court. We keep hearing about the volumes of evidence baseball has against Rodriguez, but here’s what baseball doesn’t have: A positive drug test, or evidence that the drugs A-Rod allegedly took actually improved his performance.

You can argue that neither of those issues matter, but if they don’t, then what’s the point of all this? Whose interests are being served by this case? Certainly not those of the fans. They may hate A-Rod, but they don’t care all that much about PEDs. They don’t necessarily attach great moral value to the game of baseball; they just like watching it. Baseball is a distraction. And Selig keeps distracting fans from their distraction by playing the uninvited moral crusader with a trumped-up cause.


Selig is pandering to a constituency that barely exists. In the twilight of his tenure, he’s trying desperately to add another inning to Ken Burns' baseball saga, this one about how he restored the game’s integrity, like a modern-day Kenesaw Mountain Landis. The trouble is, Selig is the only one who seems to think baseball’s soul needs saving. He may be the commissioner of baseball. But at this point, it’s a league of his own.

Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

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