'Increasing frustration from players' could lead to harsher PED penalties

Michael Weiner recently acknowledged that players are frustrated with current PED penalties. (Getty Images)

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Who’s next?

Dustin Pedroia of the Red Sox lashed out this week calling for stricter penalties for drug cheats. The NationalsRyan Zimmerman, too.

Earlier, it was the RockiesMichael Cuddyer calling for a 100-game suspension for a first flunked PED test.

Cuddyer was echoing the same thing the Cardinals’ Matt Holliday said over the winter. One-hundred games. Make it hurt. And surely, if these guys are starting to go public with their growing disgust, there’s more where they come from.

So, c’mon. Who’s next?

One of you $100 million free agents ready to throw your weight around?

You, you minimum-wage utility infielder: Care to lobby for a sharper sword, one that, oh, I don’t know, could one day prevent some cheater from stealing your job?

The players union, which already has moved far out of the Dark Ages under tough-but-reasonable boss Michael Weiner, is treading on a new Age of Enlightenment.

Now, if the steady drip, drip, dripping of smart players taking ownership of their game can turn into a monsoon.

“I don’t know about momentum, but there seems to be increasing frustration from players,” Weiner said at the Red Sox camp here Monday morning. “They want a clean game, and they have very little patience for players who are trying to intentionally cheat the game.”

Weiner and several union officials are making their annual tour through spring camps, meeting with each of the 30 clubs to discuss assorted issues.

As they do, players are peppering him with more questions regarding PEDs and enforcement than about any other individual issue.

Intelligent players. Caring players.

Innocent players sick and tired of the guilt by association world they live in every time someone turns over a rock at a clinic in, say, Miami and the cockroaches go scurrying away into the dark corners.

“There’s no question, the changes that we made this offseason were meaningful,” Weiner said. “Year-round HGH testing and enhanced testosterone testing.

“The message that I give every clubhouse is, I can’t promise that every single player that cheats is going to be caught. We don’t test every single day. That’s not practical.

“But the chances of getting caught went up substantially. We already had, on the testosterone side, the most sophisticated methods, scientifically, that existed, before we made changes. And now it’s even tighter.”

Listen to Weiner, and then try to imagine a players union official addressing, say, the Barry Bonds Giants of 2002 or the Mark McGwire Cardinals of 1998.

“I can’t promise that every single player that cheats is going to be caught. ... but the chances of getting caught went up substantially.”

Time was in this game, he would have been hooted out of the room.

Today, players are listening.

And, perhaps more important, they are talking.

“There is a healthy discussion among players as to what the best way to deal with the program is,” Weiner said. “Some players want stricter penalties. Some players believe the penalties we have are sufficient -- they are stronger than any other team sport -- and many players want what I call a 'differential penalty.' A higher penalty for intentional violation but a lesser penalty for unintentional violation.”

Weiner said the union broached this “differential penalty” idea with the owners heading into 2013 but that the idea was rejected.

“I’m not being critical of them,” Weiner said. “I think that this was before the Miami story broke.

“There is a virtue to having a common penalty for all players. I understood the argument for that. I think there’s also a fairly compelling argument to say that someone who intentionally tries to cheat the system and intentionally tries to defraud the system should be treated more harshly than someone who makes a negligent mistake.

“That second person should still pay a consequence. Our program requires people to be more vigilant, but a lot of players don’t think that individual should pay the same penalty as an intentional violator.”

Without question, baseball has taken a sizable bite out of its PED problem.

But what we’ve learned over the past year is, not a big enough bite.

It is absolutely insane that both Melky Cabrera (Blue Jays) and Bartolo Colon (Athletics) get popped for 50 games and wind up with raises for 2013.

Cabrera signed a two-year, $16 million deal with Toronto, effectively combining last season’s one-year, $6 million contract with the Giants plus his PED usage into a launching pad toward greater personal bling.

Colon re-signed with Oakland this year for $3 million, apparently because the Athletics determined that the $2 million they gave him last year merited a 33 percent raise -- even though his 50-game suspension eliminated him from their stretch run.

Increased penalties for 2014 are far from a given because Wiener notes that “there is a lot of criminal justice literature out there that supports” the notion that “if you really want to prevent people from engaging in misconduct, the best way to do that is to increase the chances that they’re going to get caught. Not the severity of the penalty, because no matter how severe you get, there are some people who just don’t think they’re going to get caught.”

Heartening thing happening now is, between today and the next time a guy’s test comes back dirty, maybe another All-Star will loudly lobby for harsher penalties. Maybe a couple of All-Stars. Maybe more.

“We don’t ever put a gag order on our players,” Weiner said. “Players are entitled to say whatever they want. I’m sure it’s a sincere feeling by Michael Cuddyer that we should have increased penalties.

“At the same time, the players association has not come through his [Rockies] camp, he wasn’t at our board meeting where we discussed the issue -- potential increase in penalties, potential differential penalties, keeping it the same -- with 40 or 50 player reps.”

That said, what a growing number of today’s players are doing, to their everlasting credit, is taking responsibility for their game.

It's exactly what a generation’s worth of players failed to do as Bonds’s head grew, Sammy Sosa’s home run totals bulged and so many of the clean players inexplicably stayed quiet even as the cheats were stealing their jobs.

“There’s no question that the frustration level with players is such that many of them are calling for higher penalties,” Weiner said.  “That may be the solution. I’m not trying to rule that out.

“All I’m saying is, it’s a 2014 issue and as we do with any issue we’re going to generate a consensus among the players. And then we’ll negotiate with the owners.”

Which means: There's still plenty of time to board this train.

And plenty of room.

So c'mon: Who's next?

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