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The Drug Culture: Houston Astros and the Minor Leagues

No doubt you heard about the four Astros who were suspended for testing positive for PEDs. It was a first-time offense for each player, so they will be forced to miss 50 games. Here's what Ed Wade has to say about them, from an article by Zach Levine.

"And yet, despite the best efforts of MLB and the Astros, we still have individuals who abuse our game by ignoring reality. We are embarrassed by these types of suspensions. They are a smear on our game and our organization, and we will redouble our efforts to make sure the message gets through."

In case you missed the subtext, the Astros are the parents and the PED users are unruly kids who just won't listen. They are now sent to their rooms to think about what they've done.

That's an incredibly simplistic metaphor and I only make it because I can understand the frustration Wade must be feeling. Any parent has felt that was a time or two, when you just can't get your child to listen. After all these years, all these allegations and names falling into disrepute, guys are still using performance enhancers and drugs of abuse. Even if you allow that it was a tainted supplement, they didn't check well enough before being tested. If the players had brought the supplement to the team's trainer and asked if it was approved, this would be an entirely different conversation.

Why, though, have these suspensions become so common? It's the fifth one this season for the Astros minor leagues and the seventh in the past two seasons. Granted, one of those was Mitch Einertson, who tested postive for a drug of abuse, but still. The major leagues have seen around five total suspensions in six years now, while the minor saw 66 in 2009 alone. The minor league testing policy is much, much stricter than the MLB one, too. Why would these young men voluntarily choose to put their careers on the line in a system where it's much easier to be caught?

We've talked before about the risk/reward for Latin American players, especially those from the Dominican Republic. The average annual income there is so low, making it as a professional ballplayer is like winning the lottery. They'll take every chance they can to make that payday happen. Think about this. One year in the majors will pay a player around 400,000 dollars. The average income in the Dominican is something like 4,000 dollars. Even if they doubled their yearly expenses, that's enough to double their income for 50 years. If someone offered you to double your salary, right now, and keep it that way for 50 more years, but all you had to do is take this illegal substance that may damage your body and may cause you to be branded a cheater, would you do it?

But that's not the whole issue either. Two American-born players were also popped this time. Danny Meszaros is one of my favorite players in the minors, for his story and his rapid ascent. Now, don't we have to question his turnaround in Corpus after struggling at the end of last season? Don't we have to question the reports of him hitting 99 MPH on the radar gun (though I doubt the reports. When I saw him, the ball just didn't pop like that)? We don't have to, of course, but some people may do that very thing now.

As for Fixler, he's proven himself to be one of the smarter players in the Astros system. Did you read those spring training updates from him over at Farmstros? I'm at a loss to explain why someone like him would voluntarily choose to risk his future. No, I take that back. I get why each and every one of these guys used performance enhancers. Every little edge they can find will help get them to the majors. That's the ultimate goal for some of the most competitive people in the world. Make no mistake, that competitiveness plays directly into this culture of PED use.

The ability to hit that fastball when it's just a couple MPH faster. The ability to pitch three straight days without your arm aching. The ability to gun down a runner at third from a crouch. That's what gets you noticed and that's what wins games. These guys have survived to this level by either being blessed with overwhelming natural talent, or, more likely, by being the most competitive and driven person on their team since Little League. That's the only way they could have worked hard enough to be drafted, to stick past that first extended spring training.

The "farm system" that Branch Rickey first created all those years ago is the perfect little model of an ecosystem. It's survival of the fittest. Only the strongest survive. Think about that for a minute when you read this next quote from Ricky Bennett.

"I’m always disappointed when our guys make those kind of choices," said Bennett, who stressed that performance-enhancing drug dissuasion takes place at every level of the system. "Unfortunately it happens sometimes."

Yes, they probably do stress heavily the dangers of using drugs of any kind. No organization can risk turning a blind eye any more. But, are they dissuading people with what they say and setting up a system that says the exact opposite? That's just the reality of things. The minor leagues are never going to turn into five-year old soccer games, where there are no wins and losses and everyone gets an orange slice at the end. The minors have to be a brutal, selective process if the major league team wants any chance to win. This culture of using PEDs thrives because it gives a guy that little edge to make it to the next level. In a bottom-line business, is there any way from stopping this kind of culture from continuing?