With Little to Gain, Whey Did Marte Use PEDs?

Six-foot one, 190 pounds, strong, lithe, fast, quick, powerful, graceful, it doesn't matter what sport you are designing the perfect athlete for--soccer, tennis, baseball, hockey--Starling Marte would be the universal, can't-go-wrong mold. The Statue of David feels like covering up when Marte's around. 

Much has been written in the last 48 hours about Marte and the 80-game suspension that was handed down by MLB Tuesday afternoon. Having digested all the hot takes (Buster Olney has an habanero-hot one), having talked to people in the industry, I keep coming back to the same thought: It doesn't make any sense--largely because it doesn't make any cents.

In 2014 Starling Marte signed a 6-year, $31 million contract with the Pirates that includes incredibly team-friendly options of $11.5 and $12.5 million that are virtually certain to be exercised in 2020 and 2021. Coming into this season Marte had made about $5.5 million in his major league career. This year he stood to make another $5.3 million of which he will now forfeit roughly $2.5 million. He is locked-in to making $18 million the next two years, which is really $42 million over the next four. Whether Marte were to morph into Mike Trout or Jose Tabata those numbers weren't going to change. (If he morphed into Tabata it's possible the Pirates wouldn't pick up his options, but even the first of those decisions won't be made until October 2019.)

So why put any of that at risk? With virtually zero possibility of financial gain in the near future, why use PEDs, particularly the "kiss-of-death" drug nandrolone, an old-school steroid? Marte's explanation and public apology were not well-received. Nobody wants to hear about "neglect and lack of knowledge." It's disingenuous at best and an outright lie at worst.  

So what happened?

Victor Conte, founder of the infamous Bay Area Labrotory Co-Operative (BALCO), in commenting on nandrolone, noted that it can stay in a person's system anywhere from six to eighteen months and can be detected at  parts-per-trillon levels. With today's more sophisticated testing methods that virtually guarantees a positive test. How could Marte possible be this negligent or just this plain dumb?

As Conte speculates it is very possible that Marte was using another banned drug, likely testosterone, that was manufactured in a lab that didn't have the necessary levels of quality control and in reusing equipment the newly-manufactured substance was tainted. With Marte in his native Dominican Republic in the offseason and the failed test having taken place upon his return to the US for spring training, that seems like a plausible scenario.

Ok, that may be how Marte potentially got caught using a banned substance, but the question of why still remains.

The impact of a failed test on a baseball player is much different than the impact on participants in other professional sports. Jeff Passan wrote an excellent piece discussing MLB's unwillingness to have an open and honest discussion about performance enhancing "drugs" and how the game needs to move forward from a policy that obviously doesn't serve as a strong deterrent, particularly at the minor league level. As Jeff points out, rather than take the lead and try to advance understanding and control of the issue, MLB has taken the opposite approach, enforcing increasingly harsh penalties and forcing any discussion on the topic back into the basement.

I'm fascinated by the question of why sports fans generally look at PED use in baseball very differently than in other sports. PED suspensions handed down by the NFL are seemingly quickly forgotten while those handed down by MLB brand a player with a scarlet letter. And we rarely even see suspensions in the NBA, Joakim Noah the recent exception, or the NHL. And let's not be naive enough to believe that with just as much money and fame at stake, athletes in those sports have somehow subscribed to and accepted the idea of fair competition. Either they are smarter than their brethren or their leagues are less inclined to shine the white hot spotlight of negative publicity that comes with failed tests onto themselves.

The answer that most resonates as to why the societal perception of baseball players running afoul of the rules is different is the argument about individual records and their significance in baseball versus football. Joe Sheehan, one of the game's best writers and a guest on my show every Tuesday, wrote about home runs and baseball's duplicitous history. The games stars were never more celebrated and the sport never more popular than at the height of the Steroid Era. But the game got burned by Congressional investigations and the Mitchell Report and now is determined to whitewash its image to appease all critics.

The result is a game stuck in the middle, unable to move forward into a more enlightened era, driven partly by players who often call for the most Draconian measures of all, and fearful of a return to mass use and public scorn.

Which brings us back to Starling Marte.

It made me think of Theodore Roosevelt's speech Citizen in a Republic, where he talks about The Man in the Arena. Roosevelt wonderfully encapsulates the nobility of effort and the quest to achieve. He talks about failure and daring greatly. What he doesn't talk about is fear. The fear of failure. And when trying to understand why Marte chose the path he did, it's that fear of failure that seems like the most plausible explanation. 

This spring Starling Marte was going to represent the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic for the first time. In April he was going to take over for Andrew McCutchen in center field for the Pirates. His contract was escalating. He was on the cusp of superstardom. The pressure on Marte this offseason was probably different than anything he had known. I'm guessing in wanting to take that last step forward, to ensure he was up to the task, he turned to PEDs to make sure he didn't fail. We look at Starling Marte and see the gifts. We wonder why PEDs are necessary, particularly when tangible proof of the positive effects on baseball performance are limited at best. It's harder to see uncertainty or even imagine fear in one so talented. But I'm guessing that is what drove him.

That answer, and it's my speculation, nothing more, doesn't make what Marte did any less wrong. He ended up hurting himself and his team far more than any PEDs likely would have helped. But, at least for me, it gives a plausible answer to the question. 

I don't view Starling Marte as a bad person through all this. I can't get on that moral high ground. He made a mistake and he's getting punished. He's still a fantastic baseball player who is tremendously entertaining to watch. We'll have to wait awhile to see him again, but I'll root for him when he's back on the field in July.

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