(Eds: Edits 1st paragraph. With AP Photos.)By TIM DAHLBERGAP Sports Columnist
Of all those penalized in baseball’s biggest doping scandal, at least Nelson Cruz had a good story to tell.
No, his drink wasn’t spiked with testosterone in a bar one night by a Texas Rangers fan desperate for a World Series win. That would be a bit hard to believe now, wouldn’t it?
What really happened was he had this mysterious illness called helicobacter pylori, or something like that. Hard enough to spell, even harder to prove, but apparently the only known cure for it is to take performance enhancing drugs.
Jhonny Peralta’s story is a bit simpler. He made a mistake, he said, before heading out of Detroit to take the rest of the summer off.
What’s not to believe? After all, didn’t we believe Peralta when he told us back in February: ”I have never used performance-enhancing drugs. Period. Anybody who says otherwise is lying.”
No one, of course, believes anything Alex Rodriguez says. Not even when he went before the media Monday in Chicago in a performance that should be required viewing for any young actors looking to make their mark in Hollywood dramas.
”I’m a human being,” Rodriguez said, in what may have been the only truthful thing to come out of his appearance. ”I’ve had two hip surgeries. I’ve had two knee surgeries. I’m fighting for my life.”
Here’s something you can believe. Barring further injury, A-Rod will be playing third base and batting in the middle of the lineup for the rest of the season, trying his best to help the Yankees make a run into the postseason.
You haven’t seen the last of Cruz and Peralta, either. Their teams are likely to make the playoffs and, if they do, both players are likely to join them when their 50-game suspensions conveniently end.
Regrets, yes, they have a few. They’ll miss out on some money while gone, and there’s only so much time a guy can spend hanging around the food court at the local mall. But if you’re going to miss some games, the dog days of summer have to be the best time to take an enforced break.
So go ahead and cheer Bud Selig for finally coming to his senses and realizing what drugs have done to the game he’s paid millions to protect. Applaud the players who have finally come to their senses and are speaking out against the cheaters who threaten both their jobs and their health.
But don’t call what went down Monday as one of the great days in the game. Don’t believe for a minute that this was a defining moment in the fight against drug cheats.
Not when the penalty for juicing is 50 games, or less than a third of a season. Not when the player Major League Baseball believes is the worst cheater of them all will still be playing third base for the Yankees in the heat of the pennant race.
And certainly not when Cruz and Peralta become free agents at the end of the season and half the teams in the big leagues chase after them with more money than they’ve ever made in their careers.
Baseball likes to tout its drug program as one of the best in sports and, to be fair, it has come a long way from a decade ago when players could load up on whatever they felt like and not worry about any penalties. But it remains a deeply flawed system that allows cheaters to remain ahead of the curve for the most part – and rewards them even after they’ve been caught.
Blame the players and their union for a lot of it. They fought testing for years and were so powerful that owners didn’t dare challenge them.
But blame the owners, too. They made their money and got new stadiums while looking the other way as all those mammoth home runs soared out of the park. They keep throwing millions at players like Bartolo Colon and Melky Cabrera even after they’ve been busted for juicing.
Nothing will totally to stop doping because the rewards are so great and there will always be those who try. That’s true in many sports but especially baseball, where the money is so big.
But here’s a place to start if both owners and players want to show they’re really serious about cracking down:
-Make the penalty hurt. Fifty games is a joke, and clearly not a real deterrent. Make it a year’s suspension for the first offense, and a lifetime ban if you’re dumb enough to be caught twice.
-Test more. The biggest hole in the baseball drug program is during the offseason, when players face just a one-in-six chance of being tested. With those odds, why not take the chance of bulking up during the offseason?
-Void contracts. Ryan Braun is losing $3 million for sitting out 65 games this season. Think he would be doping if he thought the remainder of the $117 million on his contract could be voided for cheating?
-Don’t reward juicers. Limit new deals for players caught cheating to one-year contracts for the MLB minimum. If they play clean for that year, allow them to become free agents once again.
It’s all relatively easy stuff that could be settled over dinner between owners and players if the rhetoric you hear now about everyone wanting a clean game is really true. It won’t be, because sometimes reality doesn’t match the rhetoric.
In the meantime, I know a story about helicobacter pylori that you’ll really find interesting.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg