04 April 2005

Alex Sanchez: Scapegoat or Closet Body-Builder?

The first casualty of the new MLB drug-testing policy was felled yesterday. Tampa Bay outfielder Alex Sanchez, an otherwise largely unremarkable player, now has a place in the record books. That is, besides being perhaps the only player ever to play on a 106-loss team and then get traded to an even worse one the folowing year. How's that for being born under a bad sign?

Actually, Sanchez was born under the Communist regime that rules Cuba, and having escaped from there in 1994, Sanchez now works in the Communist regime known as Major League Baseball. Well, Commissioner Bud Selig would like it to be Communist, or at least he'd like you to believe that it needs to be Communist in order to survive. But enough about politics.

Sanchez' suspension is not, to return to the battlefield metaphors, the slaying of Goliath by David. (Goliath was placed on the DL by, ironically enough, the Giants.) If anything, this is Goliath (MLB) stringing up David (Alex) by his thumbs for the rest of the Israelites to see as an example. This is the Philistine army taking a squire, nay, a waterboy, and having him dragged around the field by his ankles, except of course without all the glorious history that Hector had before Achilles so shamed him. Sanchez is nothing more than a display, a warning to the rest of the players, that they too could be so shamed.

But is Sanchez more than that? The suspension of Sanchez makes for headlines only for headlines' sake. He's not a star. Heck, he's barely even employed. Despite having hit .322 last season and stealing 19 bases, Sanchez was released by the Tigers this spring, and was competing for a spot with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a team so bad that they set a franchise record last season by winning 70 games.

The reason for this is that while he did hit .322, he did so in only 79 games, and his measly seven (7!) walks gave him a .335 on-base percentage, good for 176th in the majors among the 276 players who got at least 300 plate appearances. As a leadoff hitter, Sanchez' OBP ranked 22nd out of 26 major leaguers with at least 300 plate appearances in that role. And he more than engulfed those 19 successful steals with 13 unsuccessful ones, costing his team more runs than he produced in doing so. Even the Tigers can do better than that, they hope.

The Devil Rays, who never met a toolsy, impatient outfielder they didn't like, snatched him up to fill that role for them, at least while toolsy, impatient Rocco Baldelli is busy knee-habbing. D-Rays manager Lou Piniella complained about having to make a lineup change the day before the season began, saying, "Sanchez had come in here and hit the ball. Now we've just got to make adjustments, and we will." The Tampa Bay front office did not comment, at least not to me.

Generally speaking, I'm usually one of the first people to try to shoot down a conspiracy theory. The more people involved in an alleged conspiracy, the less likely that the conspiracy actually exists, as radio host and monthly conspiracy theory killer Michael Medved often explains. But this one has potential. Lemme 'splain:

MLB has a new drug testing policy. Lots of new substances banned, year-round, random testing, blah, blah, blah. You know this. Someone has to be the first person suspended. There are about 1200 players on the 30 teams' 40-man rosters, plus maybe another 300 or so on the DL or being shuttled back and forth between AAA and the majors. That's 1200 players, or an average of 100 or so being tested per month. We know that in 2003, with a much weaker testing policy, somewhere between 5% and 7% of the random tests came up positive, triggering the completely inneffective 2004 policy, probably because a player knew that once he'd been tested, he was in no danger of being tested again, making it much easier to avoid detection.

Even if only 5% of players are currently using banned substances, and I don't think any reasonable observer believes that the number is actually that low, we should be seeing an average of approximately five players suspended every month. Sanchez makes one. Where are the other four, or ten, or even one?

Are you going to try to convince us that Alex Sanchez, generously described as "5'10", 180-lbs", with 4 career home runs, is the only player among the 100+ players tested last month who came up positive? Such an assessment would be doubtful at best, downright preposterous and deceitful at worst. The management of MLB never ceases to amaze me in their underestimation of the intelligence of its own fanbase.

I expect that in actuality, Bud Selig had in his posession something like 6-10 or more "positive" test results, and wanted to set off this timebomb with as little "ka-boom" as possible. Let's see...suspend Bobby Superstar? Bad. Hmmm...Alex Sanchez? Who's he? Nobody. Expendable. A simple casualty of war. Good!

Better yet, perhaps a scapegoat, so the commissioner's office can say they're doing their jobs, suspending players who test positive, and prompting figures like Joe Torre to say stuff like,

"The fact that the testing evidently worked, that's what we want to find out. We want to get the fans' trust back, and that's the only way it's going to happen. This is a good sign - not for Sanchez - but it gives credibility to the way they are testing."

Actually, Joe, the fact that you seem to think it's working lends more credibility to the process than the suspension of some pip-squeak nobody on a team that will contend only for last place in the standings and in attendance.

And no kidding, "not for Sanchez". Alex has had a roller coaster of a month. He saw his mother and brother, recently escaped from Cuban opression themselves, for the first time in 11 years in mid-March. Then, two days later, after having hit OK but apparently playing lackluster defense for the Tigers, he was released. Picked up by a team with even worse prospects than Detroit, he hit extremely well and won a starting job, only to find out that he had become an unwilling pawn in the chess game between the MLB Players' Association and the Commissioner's office. Sanchez was sacrificed to appease the gods, or more precisely, the beat writers and by extension, the fans, that all is well with MLB and its shiny, new drug testing policy.

For his part, Sanchez contends that he's never taken steroids "or anything else like that", and it's hard not to believe him when he looks like that. But he apparently took something, and he and his colleagues ought to be a bit more careful about what they ingest from here on out, because now that this scapegoat has been loosed into the woods, there's nothing keeping El Bud from naming more positive test result victims. And the next set of names will probably be a bit more familiar to us, and not so easily forgettable as Alex, um...Alex..., er..something.

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