MLB Won't Get Healthy Until Selig Gets Tough: Baseball's Fungible Steroids Rules

Did you know that there is no rule against steroid use in the rule book of Major League Baseball (MLB)? Swearing, spitting, fighting, and gambling, yes. Performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs)? No.

If you want to know the truth about what will happen in their "get tough" dealings with Alex Rodriguez and others who might be outed by the Biogenesis clinic scandal, look at what they did with Manny Ramirez.

The bigger scandal when Manny Ramirez was caught using steroids in May of 2009 wasn't the crime. It was the punishment. A 50 game suspension. Well, sort of.

Four years ago, one day a couple of weeks after Ramirez suspension was announced, I received a call from one of my reporters in San Bernardino. Manny was going to play with the Dodgers' High-A California League minor team there.

"It must be because it's the minors," said my reporter.

"No," replied, quite amazed. "Major leaguers can't be 'sent down' anymore. Their service time in rehab in the minors is major league service time. And this isn't rehab!"

Several weeks later, Chris Hadorn and I wrote At What Cost Peace, a complete indictment of MLB's media relations exercise and white-wash of steroid use by Ramirez and others caught that year for the minor league magazine (SZ).

To keep players in condition, and pad the bottom line of a few minor league clubs, the steroids "cheats" were actively playing to great fanfare in different clubs across the minors while allegedly serving their "suspensions."

We began our investigation into how this could happen. I called Minor League Baseball (MiLB), the overlord organization of the minor leagues. I asked Steve Densa, the Director of Media Relations for MiLB at the time, how Manny could be playing baseball on a minor team when he was on suspension. There was a pause, and then he came back and said: "It's rule 8H." I asked to see a copy of rule 8H. There was a hold. I was told "You'll need to buy the rule book."

So I did.

It took a week to get the binder-bound rule book sent to our office. Several of us read it cover to cover. What we found out was that there was no rule 8H in the general rules of baseball. There was no rule, in fact, against PED use at all, anywhere in that rule book.

I called Densa back.

"Where is this rule 8H?" I was put on hold. "It's there, you're just not reading all of it," I was told.

We ultimately found the "rule." It isn't a rule at all. It was located in a drug prevention deal memo tacked on to the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the MLB Players Association (MLBPA) contract with MLB called the "Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program (JDA).

Drug charges, we discovered, are not a rule. They are a negotiated penalty with MLBPA. Selig had no real power to directly assess a penalty, even though much fanfare was made that he could.

Bud had to dicker with the union. 50 games, for Ramirez and others caught using PEDs that year, was the deal.

Except that Selig and MLB didn't even stick with it. Ramirez was back playing in the regular season within a matter of a couple of weeks. Where? In the minor leagues.

The infamous Section 8H of the JDA has a sub-section, 8.H.2, which Selig used to put Ramirez in the minors.

Section "8.H.2." said: "During the term of his suspension, a Player may consent to an assignment to a Minor League affiliate of his Club..."

It goes on to explain how many games certain types of players can whittle off of their suspensions:

"except that such assignment shall not exceed five (5) days (eight (8) days for pitchers) for a Player suspended for a period of 25 games or less, and shall not exceed ten (10) days (16 days for pitchers) for a Player suspended for a period of between 26 and 50 games."

So hypothetically, a pitcher could whittle down their suspension from 50 games to just 34 by electing to play in the minors! Except, of course, they cant.

Read the whole of clause 8 of the JDA. Three things come up:

  1. Section 8 forbids any player on suspension to play in either the major or minor leagues during the regular season. Ramirez was assigned not to Spring Training games, for which this rule appears to have been built, but to regular season games in the minor leagues.
  2. Further 8 states: "A Player suspended under this Section 8 shall receive Major League Service while suspended." Which means that Manny was violating his "suspension" with every game AND that Selig was obligated to use the general penalty process available to him under the MLR at that point, which called for much, much stiffer penalties.
  3. Those MLR-based penalties Selig should have used, if following the rules, are harsh. MLR 15 of the Major League's rule book is not kind. Punishments range from a 30 day suspension for failing to report to being put on the "ineligible list" for at least 1 year for violating terms of the contract or engaging in acts of "moral turpitude," of which steroid use, a form of cheating, would seem to be a clear infraction. Ramirez and the others should have been suspended for a year for playing regular season games while already on suspension.

It got worse though. Selig's cherry-picking of the rules to give Manny and the other PED-suspended players playing time in the minors triggers another rule, MLR 15(c)(2). It states:

"No Major or Minor League player shall knowingly play with or against a team with which, during the current season, any ineligible player or person that has had any connection. Should a player knowingly play with or against any such team, the player shall be placed on the Disqualified List."

In short, Ramirez was not only "disqualified" because of his PED suspension for regular season play, but any players who played with him in the minors, which abide by the MLR for their rules, should have been put on the Disqualified List with him, and those teams should have forfeited every game that they played in those leagues on those days.

That would be, of course, if Selig and the associated minor leagues stuck to the rules. The minor league commissioners deferred to the MLB commissioner. Selig "interpreted" the rules to allow PED-suspended players to play professional ball in regular season games, and did not issue any instructions to MiLB leagues to deal with the infractions of MLR-15.

MLB's "get-tough" talk on drugs is generally nonsense. In subsequent articles "The Perfect Test" and "A Pound of Cure" Hadorn and I debunked the whole steroids side-show.

MLB is held hostage to their fear of another 1994 strike that cripples the game. Everything, then, is done to appease the Players' Association, and keep the peace.

If Selig and the MLB owners wanted to get tough on PED use, they would have tapped the trainers to refer for testing anyone they suspected of juicing. There is not a trainer worth their salt who can't tell, and, while there has been no proof that trainers abetted steroids cheats directly, they surely were not encouraged to report or get tough for their clubs on the practice.

Why? Steroids were good for business. Jose Canseco. Barry Bonds. Mark McGwire. Sammy Sosa. They were crushing baseballs. They were bringing people to their feet. They were spinning turnstiles at ballparks like they hadn't turned in years.

The independent sports media is still woefully uneducated about how drugs and baseball really work. How the testing labs are used, and often misused. Why MLB bucked testing for Human Growth Hormone (HGH) until this year, even though tests good enough for use in two Olympics have been in place for years.

The blank page in the New York Times where the Baseball Writers Association of America should have listed Hall of Famers this spring was a huge black eye for MLB. They are trying to recover from it by looking like they're doing something tough about drugs with this long-simmering lab scandal.

If Selig announced that PEDs would be put into the Major League Rules, that he was taking them out of the backroom deals with the Players' Association, and that strict fines and accountability of its member clubs for PED use by their players or by those supporting their players would be enforced, then you can believe that MLB is serious about ridding the game of juicing.

If not, it's just another PR exercise of a game that has gone from being the National Pastime to a national disgrace, in my opinion.

My shiny two.