"Let us go forth a while, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our closed rooms...
The game of ball is glorious."

--Walt Whitman

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Rincón Question

"It was like hearing that my church had sold out."
--Babe Ruth, on the Black Sox scandal

I find myself today in the invidious position of being very sad without knowing precisely why. Am I sad because my favorite baseball player knowingly used steroids or some other banned substance? Am I sad because he was dumb enough to put something in his body without knowing exactly what it contained? Or am I sad because he's the innocent victim of some horrible mistake, like a sample swap?

I don't know. And I'm made more sad by the very real possibility that I'll never know. Unless it was a sample mixup, and that sample still exists to be DNA tested, the chances are we will never know with any real certainty. We will be told things, conflicting statements from opposing sources. We will be offered evidence, perhaps. We will most likely be required to form opinions, make decisions, and then find a way to live with that seed of doubt.

We have read only the opening chapter of this story. This afternoon, Juan Rincón himself will add to it, by holding a press conference. The Twins organization has said little, but what is there to say? They cannot say they believe he is innocent, and risk being shamed by their own naivete should hard evidence of knowing culpability arise later. They cannot say they think him guilty, and risk being shamed by their own faithlessness should events conspire to exonerate him.

Some have already tried him and found him guilty, unable to conceive of any circumstance in which science might be flawed or incomplete. Some have tried him and found him innocent, incapable of believing that he might be so grievously flawed. I wish I could make my decision so easily--it would be a comfort to believe something, and be able to cling to it.

Last night I intended to spend the early evening writing. My hero is being presented with something of a conundrum, a vast variance between the official version of certain events and the story offered by an alternate source. He has an opportunity to learn some troubling truths about the effects of myth, slander and selective history on the world around him, and on his own assumptions and prejudices. But thinking about that led me to thinking about the story likely to unfold in the coming weeks, the cut-and-dried official version which in essence says, "a substance was found, therefore guilt is known", and the more human, less concrete, story Juan Rincón will probably tell us, about how a single test can be misled and misleading.

It is easier to accept the official version, backed as it is by science and carrying the weight of policy and administration. But the story that is recorded for posterity is not always correct, as my hero is learning. Sometimes the much-maligned villain was actually a decent guy who just made some mistakes, or worse yet, was punished for someone else's. Then again, sometimes a villain is a villain is a villain. And sometimes ballplayers take things they aren't supposed to.

It is terrible to me that an innocent man might be forever tarnished by an unproven, but compelling, accusation. It is terrible to me that a guilty man might be forever excused by an unprovable, but plausible, alibi. It is terrible to me that a sentence must be served before an appeal is heard.

I've said before that the MLB testing policy needs revision. I believe that now more strongly than ever. Before, I was concerned entirely with catching the guilty. Now I see clearly that the reputations and livelihood of the innocent (and, to a lesser extent, the merely foolish) must be protected as well. To that end, I propose:

  1. All testing shall be done on blood samples, not on urine. (Some of the best steroids are not detectable in urine, and you bet your ass any "big name" guys who are using, are using those.) Any sample testing positive shall be immediately subjected to a DNA test. Substance testing results are not to be released or acted upon until player identity is verified through a genetic match. Samples testing positive are to be retained in cold storage until all appeals have been exhausted.

  2. Penalties for verified positives are not to be imposed until an initial appeal has been heard. This first appeal will be heard within one week of the reporting of positive results to the player and his team. This serves to minimize both the time the guilty continue to play before serving their suspension, and the time the reputation of the innocent is called into question. A second appeal may be filed after commencement of suspension. Full transcripts of all appeals will be made public within three days of the hearing.

  3. Positive results will be reported directly and simultaneously to the commissioner's office, the player, his agent and his team, by the lab. There will thus be no question that positive results for marquee players may have been suppressed by the commissioner to preserve the good name of baseball; this good name will be best preserved by a transparent testing system.

  4. Annual testing will be done at a rate of 140%. To wit, all players shall be tested at least once per season, at random intervals and without prior notice, and a further 40% will be subjects of additional random testing. Spring training is considered part of the season for testing purposes.

  5. A first offense which stands after appeal will be punished with suspension and substance abuse counseling. A second offense which stands after appeal will be punished with suspension, substance abuse counseling, and ineligibility for postseason play for five seasons. A third offense which stands after appeal will be punished with immediate and permanent removal from the MLB and all its affiliate organizations and ineligibility for the Hall of Fame.

For baseball to be a truly clean game, everyone must be tested. Every user (famous or obscure) must caught, punished and treated. Every mistake must be corrected openly and swiftly.

We, as fans, deserve a clean game. We deserve to know the name of every steroid user. We deserve the opportunity to forgive or not forgive, as we choose. We deserve to know, with as much absolute certainty as is possible in human matters, whether our favorite player is innocent, guilty, or just stupid.

Because doubt is infinitely more corrosive than knowledge.

1 rejoinders:

Fourth pew, center sounded off...

Excellent plan. Only slightly less strict than my own second-time-you-get-dumped-on-Mars-without-supplies plan, so I can live with it.
Now, if only Selig and the union would show some sense . . .
(oh, my, it has been a long day; I put "Selig" and "sense" in the same sentence).