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Baseball still has stench of drugs

There’s something different about spring training this year. It came early because of the World Baseball Classic, and Tim Lincecum came without his long locks.

Much, though, remains the same.

The sweet smell of freshly mowed grass still awakens the dreams and hopes of baseball fans everywhere. All teams are World Series contenders, and all players are going to have the season of their lives.

And the stench of drugs continues to permeate the game.

The former MVP of the National League is under suspicion again, his name linked to a Florida anti-aging clinic. Ryan Braun hit more home runs than anyone in the National League last year after a 50-game suspension for testing positive to elevated testosterone was overturned. He said he could explain it and had nothing to hide.

Then there’s Alex Rodriguez, who admitted to using steroids during his biggest years but claims he is clean now. An investigation by the Miami New Times suggests differently, with A-Rod implicated in documents allegedly showing he received performance-enhancing substances from the now-closed Biogenesis of America LLC clinic.

Meanwhile, two players suspended for testing positive last year to PEDs arrived at spring training with new multimillion-dollar contracts.

And, just for old time’s sake, lawyers for Barry Bonds were in court Wednesday trying to get his steroids-related conviction overturned.

Let commissioner Bud Selig brag about improved drug testing all he wants. The fact remains that a decade after players were first tested for steroids in Major League Baseball – and more than two decades after steroids were added to baseball’s banned list – we still don’t know if what we’re seeing on the field is to be believed.

The drugs are different, that’s for sure. As testing has improved, players have for the most part moved on to better and less detectable performance enhancers like testosterone and human growth hormone. They’re still getting caught occasionally but, as usual, the users always seem to be one step ahead.

Those who do get busted probably figure the risk is worth the reward.

Melky Cabrera might have won the batting title had he not tested positive for testosterone just when the San Francisco Giants could have used him the most. He had to watch TV to see the Giants win the World Series. No matter, because the Toronto Blue Jays thought so much of his new prowess that they gave him a two-year, $16 million deal.

Bartolo Colon also got caught for testosterone and wasn’t around when the Oakland A’s needed him in the playoffs. The A’s punished him by giving him a million-dollar raise and a chance at $2 million more in incentives.

Baseball’s announcement that it would begin in-season tests for human growth hormone and increase efforts to detect testosterone was, surely, another step forward in catching cheats, even if it didn’t go far enough. Selig called it a “proud and great day for baseball” but the reality is there are still not enough tests, and certainly not enough targeted toward suspected cheaters.

But what is the incentive not to cheat? There is none, unless not getting in the Hall of Fame when your career is over counts.

Do the Blue Jays really believe Cabrera is a top-of-the-line slugger when he’s not on something? Maybe. Or maybe they’re just betting $16 million that he won’t be caught again.

As for Colon and the A’s, it’s possible the team just believes he’s suddenly a better pitcher at the age of 39.

Meanwhile, the Yankees keep defending A-Rod even while baseball investigators try to figure out what he did or didn’t get from the lab in Florida. Though they surely regret giving Rodriguez a contract that still has $114 million left on it, there’s always the chance he could find the fountain of youth, too.

And just the other day the manager of the Milwaukee Brewers was talking about how tough it was that Braun was linked to PEDs once again. What Ron Roenicke didn’t mention was that Braun’s suspension for elevated testosterone levels was overturned only because of a technicality.

Yes, improved testing will help ensure a more level playing field in baseball. Someday there might even be players we can induct in the Hall of Fame without wondering how they did it.

But until owners stop throwing money at players they know or suspect of being juiced, the game will always have a lousy smell.

Tim Dahlberg is a columnist for The Associated Press. His columns appear periodically in The Journal Gazette.