Melky Cabrera and Baseball's New Steroid Problem

Melky Cabrera’s suspension for the use of testosterone is a blow to the pennant hopes of the San Francisco Giants as Cabrera was having a great year and had been a key ingredient to the Giants being in first place at the time of the suspension. The impact of this event, however, goes far beyond one team. Cabrera’s steroid use demonstrates that while steroid abuse is probably not as rampant at it was 10-15 years ago, the steroid era is not as firmly in the past as many in baseball would like to believe.

Until he tested positive for banned substances, Cabrera had been one of the feel good stories of the year. The former Yankee, Brave and Royal was proving that his solid 2011 season was not a fluke and at 27 was ready to take his place among the game’s most solid hitters. He had been hitting .346/.390/.516, while bringing excitement and energy to his new team. Cabrera had also begun to make a national name for himself by winning the MVP for the All Star Game in July. Now, all of that is obviously tainted by Cabrera’s steroid use.

Cabrera’s decision to use a banned substance was a colossally bad one. He will miss the rest of this season and will be damaged goods when he seeks a new contract with any team for next season. Had Cabrera not used steroids he might have had a good year and been in a strong bargaining position as a free agent, or had a poor year and signed on somewhere as a fourth outfielder for less money. Now even that may be tough.

It is impossible to know for certain the extent to which steroid use is responsible for Cabrera’s emergence as an elite player, but it doesn’t really matter. The perceptions and suspicions of this are legitimate. Unfortunately, the specter of Cabrera’s steroid use will now shadow any player having an exceptionally strong season or emerging from a few years of being an ordinary player into being a star. This suspicion is very damaging for the game and will inform how players are covered and how fans view these types of players.

Giants fans, for example, are disappointed because losing Cabrera means the team’s playoff chances are slimmer, but they also should be angry because Cabrera deceived them. They put their faith in him, and he betrayed that faith. One can certainly argue that adults who are fans should know better than to place this kind of faith in a player who has major financial incentives to cheat, but being a baseball fan is rarely the most rational of adult behaviors. An industry that makes billions of dollars by exploiting irrational attachments between adults and their teams, as well as the journalists, bloggers and others who benefit from the profits generated by that sentimental relationship, should understand that faith and belief in the honest good intentions of the players is at the heart of the game’s economic model.

Although it is the case that the worst of the steroid period is probably over, steroids remain a problem for baseball; and the inability to address steroids or their impact on the game remain a concern, but in different ways. One obvious example is that the biggest and highest profile concerns about steroid use over the next several years will be in the context of voting for the Hall of Fame, not anything that occurs on the field. The Hall of Fame concerns will involve issues of excluding an entire generation of baseball’s best stars, accidentally letting a steroid abuser into the Hall of Fame or letting a presumption of guilt, without any concrete evidence, damage a candidate’s chances of elections.

The on-field questions are also not the same as several years ago. In the days when many players were using steroids, it was easy to say that whoever won the World Series did not cheat because the steroid use kind of evened itself out. Today it is different. While Giants fans may be upset now, if Cabrera’s team narrowly wins the division, it will be Dodgers fans who will be furious. They will argue, with some credence, that if Cabrera had been caught and suspended sooner, the Giants would not have been able to win the division.

Because of the difficult challenges involved in eradicating steroid use as well as the flawed way MLB addresses this problem, Cabrera’s suspension does not give fans reason to think that baseball is doing its best to catch steroid users, but on the contrary, makes many fans wonder who else is using banned substances. It is a reminder that steroid use may still be widespread and that MLB knows little, and is able to do less, about it.