Bud Selig's Misguided, Last-Minute Push Against Steroids in Baseball

Major League Baseball's soon-to-retire commissioner may have seriously damaged his own legacy by escalating the BioGenesis scandal.
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budseligbanner.jpgMajor League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig (Richard Drew/AP)

And to think, Bud Selig almost managed to pull off the impossible: being admired.

Major League Baseball's commissioner, in office since 1992, has never been particularly popular. Perhaps it's the way the former used-car salesman turned Milwaukee Brewers owner, who helped organize a putsch against his predecessor Fay Vincent, assumed the job in the first place. Or, more likely, how the devastating 1994's player's strike--which canceled the World Series for the first time in 90 years--occurred on his watch. Whatever the reason, the owlish-looking commissioner has always been rather unlovable.

But a year before his scheduled retirement, Selig can at least claim that because of his stewardship, baseball is in better shape now than it has ever been. The list of accomplishments is long: Alone among the four major professional sports leagues, Selig created competitive balance without implementing a salary cap. He introduced inter-league play and expanded the postseason, both popular with fans. Franchise values and television deals have never been higher. Baseball is now enjoying its 18th consecutive season of labor peace. And, after a major steroid scandal threatened to tear apart the sport's credibility in the middle of the last decade, Selig pushed through a regulatory system that brought the problem to heel.

So now that the commissioner has finally announced that he will retire at the conclusion of the 2014 season, you'd think Selig would kick back, anoint a successor, and coast to the finish line secure in the knowledge that he's left baseball in a better place than where he found it.

Instead, he's on the verge of suspending as many as 20 players for their role in a new steroid scandal, one revolving around a shady anti-aging clinic near Miami called BioGenesis. And even though none of these players failed a drug test, and even though BioGenesis' director appears to have little credibility, Selig and MLB's lawyers will not be deterred. When these suspensions occur--perhaps as early as this month--the result will be the biggest drug bust in sports history.

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How did this all begin? Though the full BioGenesis story is detailed and complicated, the broad outlines of the story are these: A former employee of the clinic handed over documents to the Miami New Times stating that the clinic, along with its director Anthony Bosch, supplied baseball players with illegal drugs. In order to go after the players, Major League Baseball attempted to obtain the documents from the newspaper. The New Times, citing the need to protect its source, refused. And in the meantime BioGenesis closed down, its various employees scattering throughout south Florida.

Then, in March, Major League Baseball sued Bosch in Florida state court in an attempt to obtain his testimony, which MLB could then use as evidence that its players were using steroids. Bosch at first denied supplying any players illegal drugs (he claimed he was merely a "nutritionist") but then turned to Alex Rodriguez, the New York Yankees slugger and alleged BioGenesis client, for money to help him fight the lawsuit. Rodriguez refused. In turn, Bosch then cut a deal with MLB in which, in exchange for immunity from prosecution and indemnity from any future repercussions from his testimony, he would presumably give the league the information it wants: which players used steroids. And as soon as MLB is satisfied that it has obtained all the information from Bosch that it needs, the league can then proceed with the biggest mass suspension in the sport's history.

Bud Selig has decided to end his 21-year tenure by creating a completely avoidable legal scandal against his players in a vain attempt to rid the sport of performance enhancing drugs.

But will that be the end of the story? Hardly. Each of the major league players implicated in the suspension will immediately file an appeal, and attention will then focus again on baseball's star witness: Anthony Bosch, a man who claimed he was a doctor (he isn't) and who said he had no information to give MLB (before turning around and giving them the information they wanted). And because none of the players have actually failed a drug test, Bosch's credibility--and that of the other witnesses MLB dredges up--will ultimately form the entire foundation of the league's decision to punish the players, a fact that won't be lost on the players' attorneys. To say that the suspensions will only be the beginning of the mess is an understatement.

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Above all of this is Bud Selig,  a man who has essentially decided to end his 21-year tenure by creating a completely avoidable legal scandal against his players--or, in other words, his employees--in a vain attempt to rid the sport of performance enhancing drugs.

Selig has chosen to do this despite the fact that a scandal of this magnitude would distract the country's baseball fans from action on the field, permanently scar the reputations of players who have never failed a drug test, lead to months (if not years) of expensive, complicated litigation, and still fail to fully rid baseball of drugs. In his zeal to punish his players, Selig is cooperating with a criminal whom the league was more than happy to sue just three months ago. And, Selig is doing all this despite the fact that MLB successfully implemented a testing and suspension regime that has greatly reduced drug use at no cost to the game's popularity or financial health. In fact, even with the drop in offense that has accompanied the new testing regime, baseball is as popular as ever.

It's a sad conclusion to the career of a man who tried so hard to shake a reputation for being the illegitimate commissioner who killed the 1994 World Series. There wasn't a whole lot that Selig, who has always lacked the lawyerly smoothness of a David Stern, could do to get people to love him. But by pursuing the Biogenesis suspensions with such prohibitionist zeal, the man who might have walked away as the most admired commissioner in major American sports has inflicted on himself a darker, tawdrier legacy than what might have been.

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Matt Schiavenza is a former associate editor at The Atlantic

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