Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 19, 2012

Melky’s Miserable Mess

At first, the most depressing aspect of the news that San Francisco Giants left fielder Melky Cabrera had been suspended 50 games for testing positive for a banned substance was the degree to which it failed to shock. Not that one had any particular reason to suspect Cabrera of juicing. Yes he was in the midst of a career year at the plate, leading the majors with 159 hits and ranking second in the National League with a .346 batting average. But in 2011 with Kansas City Cabrera had batted over .300 for the first time and stroked 201 hits while setting career highs in several offensive categories, so his numbers this season could be fairly seen as more steady improvement rather than some suspicious quantum leap forward. Rather the lack of surprise was a more generalized reaction, reflecting the degree to which fans have become inured to the unpleasant reality that far too many of their heroes are profoundly flawed human beings.

Some sports writers were harsh, in part because many had written favorably about Cabrera and no doubt felt duped. Tyler Kepner of the New York Times tweeted about Cabrera’s press conference after July’s All-Star Game, where he homered and won the MVP Award, recalling Cabrera’s citing his hard work and thanking the Lord. With the benefit of hindsight, Kepner’s one word evaluation of the performance was “pathetic.” On Wednesday when I read Kepner’s tweet I could understand how he felt, but the words rattling around in my head were the old phrase “stupid is forever.”

This was especially the case once I learned that Cabrera would not appeal his ban, instead issuing a statement which read, “My positive test was the result of my use of a substance I should not have used. I accept my suspension under the Joint Drug Program and I will try to move on with my life. I am deeply sorry for my mistake and I apologize to my teammates, to the San Francisco Giants organization and to the fans for letting them down.”

A few months short of free agency, Cabrera had reportedly recently declined a three-year, $27 million extension offer from the Giants; and why not? He was having the best year of his life, keeping his team in the post-season chase, winning fans in a new city, performing admirably on a national stage at the All-Star Game, all in the final year of his current contract. His agents should have been fired had they told him to do anything but test the free agent market this fall, if for no other reason than to force the Giants to sweeten their offer. Still just 28 years old, likely just entering his prime years as a player, Cabrera stood to reap a windfall.

Except that he was doing it all while apparently believing that he could either beat or fool the major league’s random drug testing program. Did he seriously think that he wouldn’t be tested at some point during the season, or that he would magically be given enough notice of the test that he would have time to get his testosterone levels back to something approaching normal? Did he somehow imagine, even in the wake of the Ryan Braun fiasco last off-season that the testing procedure itself would be sufficiently slipshod as to enable him to win an appeal? Any such notions certainly qualify as prime examples of stupidity; or more likely one more case of a millionaire athlete (though certainly no superstar) whose handlers and hangers-on do too good of a job insulating their meal ticket from reality.

But then this weekend the Cabrera case went beyond being one more sad example of an athlete breaking the rules in an effort to get an edge over everyone else on the field and getting caught in the process. As reported first by the New York Daily News and since confirmed by various media outlets, Cabrera’s statement of contrition and apology wasn’t his initial reaction to the positive drug test. One Juan Nunez, described as an “associate” of the Giants left fielder, paid $10,000 to acquire access to a website which was then doctored to include advertisements for a non-existent topical cream. The plan was to claim that Cabrera had ordered and used the cream, not knowing that it contained synthetic testosterone. By doing so Cabrera was relying on a clause in the collective bargaining agreement that allows a player failing a drug test to avoid suspension by proving that the banned substance got into his body inadvertently.

If citing a fake website selling a nonexistent product sounds like something a college freshman needing a “source” for a term paper might try, it’s because the effort is about as amateurish as one can imagine. The doctored website was part of the presentation Cabrera and his representatives made to officials of MLB and the players association; but the lie quickly fell apart when they were unable to answer basic questions about the website or, obviously, produce any samples of a product that didn’t really exist.

The bizarre scheme has attracted the attention of federal investigators, including self-appointed head steroid cop Jeff Novitzky of the Food and Drug Administration, creating for the moment at least the possibility that either Cabrera or someone in his circle might face something far more serious than a 50 game suspension. In the end that probably won’t be the case, and either a week into next season, or sometime during this fall’s playoffs if the Giants make the post-season and play more than five games, Melky Cabrera will be eligible to once again play ball. He will return to a game and its fans that have obviously given him a great deal more than he has so far returned.

Despite that, it’s virtually certain that when the free agency period opens, a GM in some city will be willing to offer Cabrera a contract; though it will certainly be at a fraction of what he stood to make just a few days ago. There is nothing wrong with that per se. Life would be cold and harsh indeed without second chances; and a game in which heroes are often made from their ability to fail less often than their counterparts is one which accepts imperfection for the reality that it is.

Perhaps Cabrera will make the most of that second chance in whatever city he next plays, by putting up big (and clean) numbers and serving as a role model for the young fans who will come to the park wearing t-shirts with his uniform number on the back. Perhaps. But until he does one has to conclude that “stupid” doesn’t begin to describe Cabrera’s actions. Seems more like the reaction from the Time’s Tyler Kepner was the right one all along.

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