July 18, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

PED cloud over baseball is getting darker

Tigers shortstop Jhonny Peralta's name has been linked to the Biogenesis scandal, but teammate Torii Hunter likens the rumors to a 'witch hunt.' (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)

Everything about it was right, with the possible exception of the timing.

Some blamed Tigers manager Jim Leyland for that, of course. But Mariano Rivera sure didn’t. Not after he’d soaked in one of the more memorable moments in All-Star Game history Tuesday night, stepping out of the bullpen and into the spotlight to pitch the eighth inning —not the ninth —for the American League.

Metallica was blaring and the New York crowd was on its feet, as were the players in front of the A.L. dugout, staying off the field while Rivera began warming up — manager’s request — to give one of baseball’s all-time greats the stage all to himself.

“I think the plan was perfect,” Rivera said after he’d accepted the MVP award, adding later, “It almost made me cry, too.”

Now that everyone’s had a good cry, though, here comes Major League Baseball’s second half. And scripting a perfect ending for this season is going to prove even trickier.

Timing isn’t everything, but at the moment, it’s the only relevant question as the game braces for another round of rancor and ridicule stemming from its latest doping scandal. The investigation into players’ ties to an anti-aging clinic that allegedly provided performance enhancing drugs is nearing completion. And even the players’ union is acknowledging that suspensions are imminent in this Biogenesis case.

'Like a witch hunt'

The list of those involved reportedly includes as many as 20 major-leaguers, headlined by former MVPs Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun. Tigers shortstop Jhonny Peralta’s name also has been linked to Biogenesis, though I can’t argue with teammate Torii Hunter’s assessment of the persistent leaks in this case — “It’s like a witch hunt,” he told me last month — and wonder if the evidence is going to live up to the hype.

Mostly, though, I wonder how this whole mess will affect the pennant races this fall. Or perhaps more accurately, how it’ll affect the public perception of them. Do the fans care about drug cheats? Or do they only care when it affects the home team?

It’s one thing to hold a Hall of Fame induction ceremony without any modern-day players being enshrined, as they will next week in Cooperstown. But it’s another to have the Boys of Summer hitting home runs for World Series contenders while they appeal 50- or 100-game suspensions.

That’s a very real possibility, by the way, since commissioner Bud Selig insists the truth will come out “no matter what time of the season it is.” And the chances of keeping whatever truths or half-truths this investigation produces under wraps until appeals are heard aren’t good, despite what union leader Michael Weiner publicly hopes.

“The only thing I can say to you about the investigation is that it’s thorough, it’s comprehensive and it’s aggressive,” Selig said during a luncheon with the Baseball Writers Association of America on Tuesday.

Added Selig, “We have to do what we have to do.”

What will the players do? That’s another complicated question, especially since we don’t yet know what any of them might have said already in interviews with MLB investigators. Clearly, these are individual cases and there are conflicting interests at play here.

Still, once suspensions are handed down, will the union push them all to appeal? Will some players cop a plea for a lesser sentence, or an expedited one?

Weiner sounded surprisingly confident Tuesday when he said no appeals will be held until September at the earliest. He also suggested the 50-game penalty spelled out in the league’s Joint Drug Policy doesn’t necessarily apply in this case, one that appears to be built on circumstantial evidence rather than failed tests.

But that may just be public posturing in advance of the real showdown here. And that’s just a sampling of what’s to come, I’d imagine.

If casual fans and baseball traditionalists (whatever that means) were put off by all the talk about WAR and advanced metrics in the MVP debate last fall, just imagine how much they’ll enjoy all the discussion about “just cause” and “nonanalytical positives.”

There will be baseball, sure. But there will be lawyers. And probably asterisks, too, before this season is over.


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