My first conversation with Dee Gordon, years ago, was about his perpetual fight to maintain weight and strength during the marathon of a baseball season. In just about every spring training that followed, I'd ask him for an update on that effort, to see how he had progressed. It was like monitoring the growth of a friend's child through annual Christmas cards.
As always, Gordon responded cheerily, habitually punctuating most sentences with a deferential "sir." No player in baseball is more gregarious than Dee Gordon. No player is more polite. His parents taught him well.
Gordon's 80-game suspension for testing positive for exogenous testosterone and clostebol, announced early Friday morning after he helped the Marlins beat the Dodgers, should (but probably won't) dispel a couple of stereotypes about the users of performance-enhancing drugs. We should know by now that they come in all shapes and sizes, from muscle mountains like Jose Canseco all the way to straw-thin players who struggle to fill out a uniform, like Gordon. And PED users aren't all sniveling schemers lurking in the corners of clubhouses: If I ranked players by likeability, Gordon would be in my all-time Top 10.
But being a model of comportment doesn't exempt Gordon from ambition — or greed. Until Gordon gives a full accounting of when, how and why he cheated, we'll never know all of the details of his use (and even if he offered a description, milligram by milligram or needle by needle, we'd never know for sure whether he was telling the truth). Gordon released a statement Friday saying he did not knowingly take PEDs but would not appeal the suspension.
It's possible he's been using throughout his professional career, having learned how to navigate his way through the testing. Maybe it was only this spring.
Maybe Gordon crossed the line as he sought a solution to maintain his weight and strength. When Gordon was on the cusp of the big leagues, after the 2010 season, he explained how he had disciplined himself to eat more and more, but he was blessed (or cursed, depending on your perspective) with a metabolism that seemed to chew through any ingested calories.
Gordon got his first chance to be the Dodgers' shortstop in 2011, but he had been so erratic, in his defense and offensive consistency, that within a couple of years he was relegated to a part-time player. The Dodgers decided to use his incredible speed off the bench.
A few springs ago, Gordon explained that he had decided that his favorite offseason training method — hours and hours of pickup basketball — was so counterproductive that he had cut back on his court time. Going into the 2014 season, he got an opportunity to be the Dodgers' everyday second baseman, and while the transition on defense was difficult for him, Gordon performed well initially, posting a .344 on-base percentage in the first half.
He faded somewhat in the second half, however, and this is probably why the Dodgers had been willing to trade him to Miami — to sell high quickly on a resurgent stock.
In the spring of 2015, Gordon talked happily about being with the Marlins, about getting a new opportunity. He looked older. He looked stronger. He had altered his diet, he said, to eat chicken and rice — lots and lots and lots of chicken and rice. And Gordon had the best year of his career, batting .333, good enough for the National League batting title. The Dodgers were criticized throughout last summer for trading Gordon to Miami, for misevaluating what he could be as a player.
When I first saw Gordon in spring training this year, in late February, I didn't bring up his fight for pounds. He was playing cards with a teammate at a table in the middle of the Marlins' clubhouse, good-naturedly slamming down each hand that didn't go his way. I could never figure out what game was being played, and didn't want to interrupt to ask, while waiting for a chance to mention his new contract.
Fifty million dollars for five years, a life-changing deal for someone who had seemed on the verge of losing his standing in the big leagues a few years ago. He had strived to find his place in the big leagues, to develop the strength to swing, to hit, to stay.
Gordon won't be around the Marlins for the next three months, as he serves his suspension, unpaid. But when he returns, his new contract will still be in place. He'll lose about half of his salary this year, or $1.65 million, and then the Marlins will be on the hook for $7.8 million in 2017, $10.8 million in 2018, $13.3 million in 2019, $13.8 million in 2020, plus a $1 million buyout on a 2021 contractual option. All guaranteed.
The Marlins have no idea whether Gordon's PED use contributed to his success in 2014, before they traded their best pitching prospect, Andrew Heaney, to get him. They have no idea whether PEDs were the backbone of his batting title last year. They have no idea what kind of player he will be for the duration of his contract.
They know only that they have to continue paying him, under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement and the Joint Drug Agreement between Major League Baseball and the players' association.
The union embraced drug testing and has taken it further than any other sports league. But for philosophical reasons, it has not seriously entertained the idea — to date — of allowing teams to void multiyear deals, like Gordon's, after a PED bust.
The practical reality is that until the players' association does this, the incentive to cheat will far outweigh the risks involved in being caught. Whatever the intent, whatever the justification, PED crime in baseball pays well.
1. Giving teams the option of voiding multiyear deals after a player is busted for PEDs.
2. Peer pressure. There's something incredible and counterintuitive about how PED users cheat their brethren of major league service time and money and are warmly treated in clubhouses. Look, the vault of money available to players is defined, and when players make the decision to use PEDs and gain a competitive advantage over other players — cheating in a system set up by the union — the practical impact is the same as if they’ve rifled through the lockers of teammates and taken dollars.