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Major League Baseball Works To Win Fans' Trust


So now the challenge for Major League Baseball: Winning back the trust of fans. The suspensions themselves were a start but there is a wrinkle because, as we've heard, Alex Rodriguez is appealing his 211-game ban. It means the narrative in baseball will continue to be about suspicions rather than the play on the field.

Joining us now to talk about the league and its efforts is NPR's Mike Pesca. Good morning, Mike.


MONTAGNE: This is the largest group of players ever sanctioned at one time in an anti-doping action. Is baseball hoping the scope of this sends a message?

PESCA: Well, it certainly does. In one way it sends the sort of message as when the Justice Department trots out, you know, a big bust of a crime family associates and they all do the perp walk. And the statement can be made, see how aggressively we are in our prosecution. And that's not untrue. But the other side of it is, it really shows how or gives an indication how widespread the use of use of performance-enhancing may be in baseball.

I mean before the last couple of weeks, we spoke of this thing called the steroid era and that was supposed to be a few years ago. And since then home runs have gone down and the pitchers' ERAs have been better.

So we say to ourselves, oh good, we rooted out that problem or it's no longer showing up in very obvious ways. But you know, I think we're probably right now in another cycle of a PED era.

MONTAGNE: And in a statement, baseball commissioner Bud Selig said, quote here: "As a social institution with enormous social responsibilities, baseball must do everything it can to maintain integrity, fairness and a level playing field." Is baseball really doing that?

PESCA: Well, it's certainly making an effort and the effort has certainly improved. And I don't doubt Bud Selig's intentions. He did get religion late on this steroid issue, but he seems to be going after it hard. The things is, when we say are they doing everything they can, quite literally there are a few very aggressive and very expensive tests for PEDs that they're not using at least as a blanket test for everyone.

They're using this thing called a carbon isotope test only when they get a positive the first time. So if they really wanted to root everyone out, it might cost them a lot of money. But the other thing is, when you look at just the statistics involved of who's gotten busted, it always seems to be, in fact it literally always is, stemming from a whistleblower or someone who worked for the company that supplied the drugs, you know, turning state's evidence or telling other people that there was drug use going on.

The drug tests themselves are not very effective. The 13 players who were banned yesterday, none of them tested positive for a PED. Now, to be fair, there were a couple other players who were involved in Biogenesis, this South Florida clinic, like Bartolo Colon and Melky Cabrera, and they were nabbed in drug tests. Ryan Braun also belongs on that list.

But that's three out of 16. So that's fewer than 20 percent of the people busted were busted via a drug test, so drug testing is batting lower than the Mendoza line, I think you could say.

MONTAGNE: Well, since catching cheats simply by relying on tests is hard, what else can a sport like baseball do?

PESCA: Yes. And they know they can't rely on the tests, so they've entered a new aggressive era. In fact, part of the statement that you just read from Bud Selig, he talked a lot about, quote: "We vigorously pursued evidence that linked those individuals to violations of our program. We conducted a thorough, aggressive investigation." And they certainly did that and Bud Selig doesn't mind the message the gloves are off, because it's a popular message and it's also what needs to be done.

It's what international organizations like track and field and like certainly cycling have done. They know they can't rely on what's called analytic positives. You know, they can't just rely on blood tests so they have to really aggressively be open to rooting it out.

MONTAGNE: And Mike, as we just heard in Nathan's piece, A-Rod was booed last night, but was the booing really more than the usual booing?

PESCA: No. He gets booed harder than that at Fenway Park, you know. Of course the Red Sox fans hate him a lot more than the White Sox fans. But I think the fans, I mean as Nathan said and polls show, the fans are weary of this issue. They definitely don't want steroids in the game. But I think there was a time where it really weighed on the aesthetics of the appreciation of baseball where players just looked bigger.

And this was maybe more in the first or maybe first A(ph) steroid era where players had huge thick necks and gigantic arms and homeruns were flying out of the park and also records were being broken. And now that that is happening less and less, fans know it on an intellectual level. They might not feel that the game of baseball they always loved is being ruined by PEDs, but I've got to tell you, PEDs are rife throughout the game.

MONTAGNE: Okay. Next steps for Alex Rodriguez.

PESCA: Well, he has a few days to file. The mediator has 20 days to rule. We'll see what Major League Baseball's justification is for the 211 game ban. He probably will play much of the season.

MONTAGNE: NPR's sports correspondent Mike Pesca. Mike, thanks.

PESCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.
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