Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has been on a nice little run. Franchise values have sky-rocketed; hefty national television contracts have been signed to bolster lucrative regional deals; the game in general is flush.
Which is why many around baseball are wondering what he is up to with Friday's announcement that Major League Baseball is suing individuals connected to the now-closed Miami-based Biogenesis anti-aging clinic, in what seems to be a thinly veiled attempt to extract a pound of flesh from Ryan Braun.
This much is clear: Selig has chosen a strange time to pick a fight that is not a legal slam-dunk, a little more than a week from the start of the regular season. This much is also clear: Selig cannot be accused of playing favourites, as in filing a suit in the 11th judicial circuit in Miami-Dade County that accuses six individuals of bring part of a scheme to "solicit or induce Major League players to purchase or obtain … substances for their use in violation of MLB's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program," Selig is taking a run at the star player on the team his family used to own, the Brewers, in a city in which he still lives, Milwaukee.
The lawsuit looks for damages such as the cost of investigation, loss of goodwill and revenue and damage to MLB's reputation; what it really wants is documentation that will allow it to hammer Braun.
Some of the other players among the list of 25 names linked to the clinic in notes and documentation uncovered by a South Florida weekly, The New Times, are little more than collateral damage in the pursuit. It will be interesting to see if Alex Rodriguez, who has already been disgraced as much as a player can be, made a virtual pariah by his links to steroids long before developing a degenerative injury that has taken him out of the game, sees his ties to the game's steroid scandal cemented even further. He was one of the players featured in The New Times report. The Toronto Blue Jays will doubtless keep an eye out for anything involving free-agent signee Melky Cabrera, another of the players cited, but the club seems quietly confident that there will be no further sanctions beyond the 50-game suspension he was dealt last season. But it is Braun who, frankly, has the most to lose, here.
He is, after all, the one who got away.
On the eve of spring training in 2012, arbitrator Shyam Das overturned a 50-game suspension handed out to Braun for elevated testosterone levels, marking the first time a player successfully challenged a suspension for performance-enhancing substances. Braun, whose positive test was revealed in December, 2011, by ESPN, and his lawyers contended that the drug tester assigned by baseball failed to follow agreed protocol in the shipping of the urine sample. Das agreed – and was soon thanked for his efforts by being fired by the commissioner's office.
It is an open secret among baseball ownership that Selig and his lieutenants have been spoiling to get back at Braun, which is odd considering the former National League most-valuable player has the potential to be one of the faces of the game – he played for the United States in this year's World Baseball Classic.
It is also a further sign of how much the tone of debate around performance enhancement has changed dramatically: the Major League Baseball Players Association, which used to give ground on these issues grudgingly, has softened its stance, agreeing to blood-testing for human growth hormone (HGH). This spring, union chief Michael Weiner even opened the door to tougher penalties, saying it was the prevailing sentiment among the players.
Perhaps, as one long-time baseball executive predicted last year, the use of litigation to get to the suppliers of substances is a way of opening up channels that could lead to the investigation of some of the agents who represent players. It is a group that has largely escaped suspicion and seldom had its feet held to the fire, not just in baseball but in every other sport that has come to grips with the issue of catching drug cheats.
Whatever the reason, Selig – who used to wake up in a cold sweat before going to hat-in-hand meetings with bankers because so many of his clubs had dangerously high debt-to-equity ratios – now feels he can kick a hornet's nest at a time when the talk should be about forecasting pennant races and Cy Young winners and such. The game must be doing boffo business for Selig to be this emboldened.