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Baseball suspensions need to be just a start

As star Shoeless Joe Jackson left a courtroom amid a baseball gambling scandal in 1920, a young boy approached him and said, hopefully: “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”

That’s the legend, anyway. Jackson himself later said the story was a myth.

Either way, no such youthful optimism surrounds Major League Baseball’s current scandal, its biggest since that Black Sox disgrace of 1919. By now, it’s evident that baseball has been marred for years by players’ illicit use of performance-enhancing drugs. The guilt of the 13 players disciplined Monday, for most fans, is not in doubt.

The question, rather, is whether this week’s suspensions mark the end of cheating in America’s national pastime or will prove to be just a speed bump in the long-running wink-and-a-nod among the sport’s administrators, players and fans. While Commissioner Bud Selig’s rousing from a long slumber is welcome, baseball’s risk-reward calculus is still tilted enough to motivate some players to take shortcuts in search of the next mega-millions contract.

Baseball on Monday suspended New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez for the rest of this season and all of the next, and imposed 50-game bans on three All-Stars and a handful of other major- and minor-leaguers. The punishments culminated a seventh-month investigation around Biogenesis, a Miami-based anti-aging outfit that, records apparently show, provided human growth hormone and testosterone supplements to the players. All but Rodriguez accepted their fates and began serving their sentences immediately. (Rodriguez, immune to embarrassment and ethics, will play, perhaps the rest of this season, while his appeal is heard.)

It’s tempting to see the clampdown as an encouraging sign that baseball is ready to clean up its act once and for all after basking in, and profiting from, a decade-plus home run binge fueled in part by steroids and other banned PEDs. It better be, for the sake of the game.

There’s reason to doubt it, though. While baseball touts its drug-testing program as the most stringent in pro sports, the Biogenesis episode suggests it is deeply flawed. In fact, none of the dozen players serving suspensions tested positive. They were brought down not by MLB’s drug testing but by an alternative newspaper in Miami and a disgruntled Biogenesis employee who leaked documents. Without that employee, it’s likely that this dirty dozen would still be playing today and baseball would be blissfully unaware of their transgressions.

Selig and other administrators were right to aggressively pursue the Biogenesis leads. But the sport can’t just hope to luck into disgruntled employees going forward. Is there any reason to think Biogenesis is the sole source of PEDs in baseball? Does anyone believe that the 13 suspended this week (plus Ryan Braun and three others suspended earlier) are the only active players to have used banned substances?

We don’t. The owners and the players’ union need to toughen the drug testing and stiffen the penalties for violations. Testing during the off-season, not just in-season, would be a good start. And baseball should void the contracts of those found to have broken the rules, putting real financial teeth into the sanctions.

What do you call the suspension of 13 baseball players for drug use? A good start.

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