There's more to MLB's Biogenesis scandal than suspended superstars. The story is as much about cold, hard—and desperate—economic facts that reveal an uncomfortable truth: For players from poor countries, taking PEDs is the sensible thing to do
This is an article from the Aug. 19, 2013 issue
The two most prominent players implicated in the Biogenesis scandal are now yoked together, faded stars who damaged their credibility—to say nothing of their Hall of Fame credentials—with fraudulence and deceit. But Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun share something else as well: Of the 14 players suspended by Major League Baseball for allegedly obtaining performance-enhancing drugs from a bogus Florida antiaging clinic, they are the only two Americans. The other dozen players are from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
This distribution is in keeping with the history of PED suspensions in baseball. While 28.2% of the players on MLB Opening Day rosters were born outside the 50 United States, foreign-born players account for 63.2% of the PED suspensions since 2004, when baseball's penalties for failing a test went into effect. This is more than twice as many as one would expect if drug suspensions were proportional to demographic representation. Americans account for 71.8% of big leaguers yet only 36.8% of the suspended players.
Why the disparity? There are a host of plausible explanations, touching on everything from culture to education, and we shouldn't discount any of them. Perhaps American players use PEDs just as frequently but are simply more adept at masking their use or cycling off their regimens before testing. Given that amateur Latin players are signed through free agency—and not acquired through the draft like their American counterparts—they often start their professional careers at an earlier age and are maybe thus more prone to immature decisions. Consider that in 2008, only two major league players were suspended for PEDs, while 42 players from the 37-team Dominican Summer League (a branch operation of MLB) tested positive.
But ultimately, simple economics does the best job of explaining why players from well-off countries (the U.S., Canada, Japan, Australia and South Korea) are roughly five times less likely to test positive for PEDs than players from impoverished countries. When players cheat, they consider a trade-off between risk and reward, balancing the potential gain against the possibility and cost of getting caught and the punishment they would face—whether in terms of money, their own sense of guilt or the condemnation of their peers.
Under baseball's testing program, the economic incentives to cheat are high for most players. The difference between making a major league roster and slogging around the minors can amount to millions of dollars. The difference between being an everyday player and being an All-Star can amount to tens of millions. A first-time offender is suspended without pay for 50 games, forfeiting less than one third of his annual salary. As Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer correctly framed it to reporters last week, "The punishment doesn't fit the crime yet. You can still benefit financially from doing it."
For some players, the benefits can be pronounced. Consider Everth Cabrera, the Padres' All-Star shortstop who got a 50-game Biogenesis suspension. The amount of salary he'll forfeit is $348,361, which amounts to immense wealth in his native Nicaragua, where, according to the World Bank, the annual per capita income is $4,072. But his penalty pales in comparison with the $926,639 he will make for 2013. There is a strong inverse relationship between the likelihood of a player failing a drug test and the per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of his country of origin. In other words, the players from the poorest countries face the most suspensions.
This doesn't, of course, mean that Latin players are less honest. Rather, it confirms that ballplayers, like most of us, are rational actors. Those with greater economic incentive are more likely to cheat.
The irrational actors? The two guys who'd already made it big and were still willing to jeopardize contracts worth $275 million and $145.5 million, respectively. That gives Rodriguez and Braun still another point of commonality.
Who's Getting Busted?
A disproportionate number of players from Latin countries are suspended for PEDs—and not just in the big leagues. Well over half of the 9,062 players on major and minor league rosters are from the U.S., but they account for barely one third of all suspensions. Dominican players, on the other hand, are suspended at a rate twice what would be expected based on the number of pros from the island. Below are the rates for the five countries with the most suspensions since 2005.
[The following text appears within 2 charts. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual charts.]
DOMINICAN REPUBLIC (252 suspensions*)
REST OF THE WORLD (21)
UNITED STATES (206)
*not including suspensions for non-performance-enhancing drugs of abuse