WHEN I WAS traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in the winter of 1997, I was walking into a competition with Lenny Dykstra. He was at the end of his career, injuries were plaguing him and the cloud of performance-enhancing drugs swirled around him.
So right out of the gate, I had to beat out a player later named in the Mitchell report. He ultimately retired that season, and so began my starting years in Philadelphia. Within five seasons, I was aging and less productive and the next center field era was knocking on the door. By 2002, my days were numbered.
It was then when Marlon Byrd swept into Philly.
Although I started as a mentor to Marlon, we also built a friendship. I looked out for him like Shawon Dunston and Garry Maddox once did for me. He was the two-time minor league player of the year (in 2000 and 2001) in the Phillies’ organization and would ultimately replace me as the team’s center fielder. In 2002 (still before any significant PED testing program), when I was turning 32, I was losing my starting job, and by the next year, the writing was on the wall that if I stayed with the Phillies, I would be backing up Byrd. So I left for Texas as a free agent in 2003.
In 2004, I was back in Philly as the veteran wise man. Byrd struggled that season, but I was no longer considered a starter, and by 2005, I decided to retire. Byrd went on to have a 15-year career framed by many successes but also two suspensions for banned substances, both of which he denied were taken to enhance his performance on the field. I felt pride in his successes, but when his suspensions came down, I felt a sense of betrayal. The second of the suspensions — a 162-game ban — pushed Byrd to retire, which was a gut punch of two fists — disappointment and responsibility as his mentor. Even though his first suspension did not occur until 2012 and I retired in 2005, I still reflexively asked myself the question: Did he replace me fair and square? I even questioned a common tradition in baseball — assisting your replacement.
The inequities of PED use make it personal. With the proliferation of PEDs, there was always a chance you could be supporting a teammate who was using in order to replace you — even if that was not his original intent. It can be right under your nose. As players started to fully understand the impact of PEDs on their careers, clean players became unsure who was friend or foe when it came to their job security. If you are clean, PEDs immediately put you on the downhill side of your career, and if you are already declining like I was in 2002, PEDs push you off a cliff.
Sign stealing does none of that.
THERE ARE A few steps you need to climb to make the major leagues and stay there.
First, you need to get an opportunity. Next, you must put up the numbers or show enough value to earn a consistent role. Then you must maintain that level — and, hopefully, get paid accordingly. And then you must keep proving yourself, again and again.
If you can stay healthy, a long-term salary and continued production are the keys to your security and leverage. If you have either, you will get an opportunity. Somewhere. Some time.
It certainly helps to have both.
So what do PEDs do to damage a clean player’s future in this equation?
A whole lot more than a team stealing your signs.
Remember how you get security in this game. Every year you survive in the major leagues, you will be compared — directly, to the people inside your organization for a specific job, and indirectly, to others with your seniority and who play your position. This assigns you a value in the marketplace.
Any time a player comes to the negotiating table, he is compared to other players based on three primary data points: productivity, service time, position.
In the PED era, numbers got juiced, and when enough players juice up, it raises the bar at any given position. And I don’t mean in a spiritual, greatness kind of way. It shifts the expectations of how that position should produce, artificially. It influences the money an organization will commit to you and it directly influences your opportunity.
In my case, if eight more center fielders juice up, I have a career advancement problem. I can lose eight job opportunities. All of a sudden, the average center fielder has higher power standards than he did before, and if I stay a singles hitter, my career changes for the worse. I could be relegated to a fourth outfielder (if I am even still on the team). It happens quickly enough without PEDs involved, let alone with them.
After looking back and seeing who I was compared to during this time, I realized I had been competing against demigods.
The Astros — or any sign-stealing team — benefit as a unit, but from the perspective of a center fielder who needs to look for work the next season, outside of the cheating club’s center fielder hitting well because of the sign-stealing system, it does not elevate the entire position throughout the league. If the season ends and I am compared to one sign-stealing center fielder, it might hurt a little, but not like it would if half the league’s center fielders were on PEDs.
And you can substitute “center fielder” there for any position player; the effect is the same.
You can factor in one team’s transgressions more easily, too. I can tell my agent, “Well, it is unfair to compare me to an outfielder who knew what pitch was coming the entire season,” and it would be a compelling argument. We can make the case to treat Houston outfielders as an aberration like we might for Colorado players and the high altitude. An outlier. One “clairvoyant” center fielder in Houston probably does not keep me out of the big leagues. Seventeen juiced outfielders does. And keep in mind, I also had to hit off of juiced pitchers. Sign stealing doesn’t help pitchers — they are the doormats in that scheme (and if anyone can claim to take sign stealing personally, it’s them, though still on a much smaller scale).
If half of the league’s offenses illegally steal signs for an extended period of years, the expectation for a center fielder could shift, but it takes an enduring league conspiracy to shift it significantly. A leaguewide epidemic would collectively inflate the offensive numbers, but that was not the case with the Astros. Even if we accept the likely case that it was more than just the Astros cheating, we still can’t say it was prevalent throughout all of Major League Baseball. This, of course, depends on what MLB and the MLBPA do next to curb it.
Although I cannot claim to know the exact percentage of players who used PEDs during my playing days, there were more players juicing than a single team’s worth, and it endured. If you just peel the numbers out of the Mitchell report (89 players listed), and consider this report only scratched the surface given the names implicated since, it is clear this was not just one rogue group of players at BALCO or Biogenesis.
IN 2003, I signed as a free agent in Texas, but two weeks into the season I tore a hamstring tendon running to first base. After I rehabbed my way back from surgery and after hours and days in the training room and on minor league assignments, I made it back in June. Then-Cardinals infielder Fernando Vina had the same injury a week before I came back from my six-week rehab. He called me to help him get back to health. He wasn’t a teammate, he was not a friend, but he was a colleague in the fraternal order of MLB, so I helped.
So years later, when Vina admitted to his HGH use that landed him on the Mitchell report, I took it personally because he cited the injury we both had as to why he regrettably took HGH during his recovery. We were both in our early 30s at the time, and any player who has an injury that late in his career faces the possibility of being discarded like the weekly trash. Every player knows that fear. His desperation, he said, led him to make a poor choice. Yet I had openly helped him by sharing my rehab workouts … underwater training, ultrasound therapy and so on. Seeing his name in the Mitchell report made me feel like I had aided and abetted the enemy.
I was traded to the Cubs in July 2003 and saw Vina when we played the Cardinals in September. He was still hobbling around from his injury. When the season ended, at age 34, he got a multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract with the Tigers. At age 32, I signed a one-year deal with the Phillies at a near 50% pay cut, in the final year of my career. Although we did not play the same position, we were both leadoff-type hitters with comparable careers, but the difference in opportunity at the end of our careers was stark.
Illegal sign stealing doesn’t pit players against one another directly in this way. Yet sign stealing and PED use share the elements of greed and cowardice. With PEDs, it makes you paranoid that anyone could be the enemy of fair competition, even your own teammates. It isn’t a level playing field — you are playing on a completely different field altogether.
Competing in the big leagues, like any sport, is more than just beating the team in the other dugout. It is outlasting some people on your own team. You are fighting for a position and the guy in your way is wearing the same uniform, even as tradition insists that you help your fellow brother. Pass the game on. Sure, you want to win, sure, you will pull together when the bell rings, but when the other guy is on PEDs, your career gets shorter.
And where you are in your career will dictate the risks you are willing to take. It will also dictate the impact of not taking certain risks. When you are on the bubble and need an extra boost, when you are injured and mapping out a recovery, when you are in a contract year, when you are going to arbitration or into free agency, when you are aging out, all of these numbers swirl around your head and dangle the temptation to do something “extra” for just this year, knowing it might become a career habit. Stealing signs is not an individual choice like taking PEDs. Your team might get away with it, you might even win a World Series, but the leaguewide statistical inflation, which is how you are compared in the game, is relatively minimal when it is contained to one team.
Still, there is no doubt illegal sign stealing is a serious threat to the game’s integrity, toxic to the value of a championship, and poisonous to the core value of fair play. We cannot underestimate the enduring and indelible damage caused by what we learned about the Astros’ championship season in 2017 and how they abused technology. But when we say it is worse than PEDs, we still must be clear about which lens we are looking through. Through the eyes of a position player who chose to play clean during the steroid era, PEDs stalked you until aging prevented you from outrunning it anymore. Then, it was over.
It is important to weigh what any scandal does to people who are following the rules. Those clean players are not just playing a few games tilted against them by stolen signs — they are competing for years while a legion of superhumans tilt the entire field against them.
In hindsight, it is disheartening to know my career was framed entirely inside the steroid era. That when I broke in, when I fought to keep my starting job and when I was holding on to my last baseball breath, PEDs put a finger on the scale. But I was far from alone. My story is the story of many players.
PEDs have the power to push you out of the game much more quickly and thoroughly than one team illegally stealing signs.
And maybe most cruel of all, sometimes that final push can come from the guy high-fiving you in the dugout, wearing the same uniform.