Thursday, August 23, 2012

On Bartolo Colon, cheating, and the human response

Yesterday, in the most unsurprising news of the sports decade, Oakland A's pitcher Bartolo Colon was suspended 50 games after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. This news followed on the heels of the similar suspension of San Francisco Giants' All-Star outfielder Melky Cabrera (wait... steroids... in the Bay Area?? Well, I never!), who went to some pretty extraordinary lengths to avoid punishment for his misdeeds.

For those of you not up to speed on the matter, Bartolo Colon was once a terrific pitcher, making multiple All-Star teams and even winning the AL Cy Young award in 2005 with the California/Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels. Then he got fat, injured, and generally useless, winning only 14 games (in 48 total starts) over the next four seasons with three different teams. He never threw more than 100 innings in any of those seasons, and he managed fewer than 60 in two of them.

After his ineffective 2009 season, the 36-year old Colon disappeared entirely for a year, presumed by many to be finished. But then, miraculously, amid reports of a mysterious and controversial stem cell procedure, Colon burst back onto the scene with the Yankees in 2011, making 26 effective starts (and tossing 164 innings, more than he had thrown since his Cy Young season in 2005) while helping the Yankees win their division. He continued that success this year in Oakland, where he made 24 starts (and may have made more than 30, without the suspension) while winning a team-best 10 games and posting a solid 3.43 ERA.

Great success! A modern medical miracle! All hail the mysterious and controversial stem cell procedure! Or... you know... plain old steroids. Whatever, what am I, a doctor?

Of course, by now, we shouldn't be surprised to hear about steroids in baseball, particularly among athletes from the Dominican Republic, where there's been a long line of violators at both the major league and minor league level, including stars like Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez. The only thing that's surprising is that we all continue to pay any attention (or feign outrage) when news like this breaks.

At the end of the day, in any world where there are great rewards to be had, there will always be those who are willing to cut corners to get to the top. It's a dynamic that I discussed at length in this post, in which I compared Roger Clemens (oh, and screw him, but that's a story for another day) to Bernie Madoff for their willingness to break the rules. It's even less far-fetched to assume that in a place like the Dominican Republic—where economic opportunities are few and far between—we might find even more people who are willing to fudge a few things in order to find success. On a similar note, think none of the Jamaican sprinters are into some similar stuff? Yeah, think again.

And of course, the teams that employed these players knew all of this as well, and assumed that the risks of signing a guy with steroid question marks were worth the financial rewards. Every GM in baseball is in possession of a chart that predicts rates of decline in production as players age—the charts are far from perfect, but they're in wide use, and especially smart teams like the Yankees and A's are well aware that a fat and fading guy like Colon is unlikely to make a dramatic comeback without a little "chemical assistance". So they knew, we knew, and yet we as spectators did nothing to prevent Colon from taking the field, demanding nothing of MLB until this inevitable day that he tested positive for PEDs. 

So ultimately, we as spectators get the product we deserve, the product we demand. We vote with our wallets and tell MLB that everything is a-okay with us, that we don't care if half the players out there are doped up beyond all recognition. And honestly, that's fine. I see no problem with that process in principle—it's free-market economics at its best. But when we vote with our wallets, with full knowledge of what's going on out there, we lose our right to feign outrage when the curtain is pulled back.

The same is true for us as consumers, as voters, as employees/pensioners, or even as family members. When something sounds or seems too good to be true, it very often is. And if we fail to hold people accountable when they've taken advantage of us, then frankly, we deserve what we get.

The fact is, for all the ranting that I do here on my blog about the banks, and the NCAA, and our broken political system, I continue to hold multiple bank accounts at a large bank (Wells Fargo), I'm a season ticket holder for multiple collegiate sports (at UVA), and I have never in my life voted for a third-party candidate (though that is likely to change, soon). So until I am willing to put my money where my mouth is, I too am part of the problem. The first step is recognizing it and admitting it. The next step is taking action. If we want a different world, we have to start by demanding a different world. Otherwise, we should all probably stop whining, myself included.

So until that day comes, this is America, where if you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'. Nice, huh?

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