August 6, 2013 at 7:27 am

John Niyo

Tigers' Peralta owns up to steroids 'mistake' as Yankees' A-Rod fights on

The Tigers' Jhonny Peralta was one of 12 players who accepted a 50-game suspension for violating the league's joint drug policy. (Elizabeth Conley/Detroit News)

Cleveland — Jhonny Peralta only had a bit part in this morality play. A non-speaking part, in the end.

And Monday, as Major League Baseball raised the curtain on the latest tour de force in commissioner Bud Selig’s anti-doping fight — another sordid chapter to baseball’s so-called Steroid Era — the Tigers’ All-Star shortstop was among the dirty dozen who went away quietly, with an array of sheepish statements that dutifully expressed remorse via email.

Peralta was one of 12 players accepting a 50-game suspension for violating the league’s joint drug policy, part of the fallout from a six-month investigation into a South Florida anti-aging clinic that allegedly provided performance-enhancing drugs to pro athletes.

The unlucky 13th was the one dominating the news cycle again, however, as the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, defiant to the bitter end of his star-crossed career, vowed to fight his unprecedented punishment from the league, all but ensuring this dark cloud will stick around for months to come.

In a separate announcement Monday afternoon, Selig handed down a ban through the end of the 2014 season for Rodriguez, citing the “use and possession of numerous forms of prohibited performance-enhancing substances” — it’s a long list, league officials promise — “over the course of multiple years.”

Rodriguez, a three-time MVP and one of the game’s biggest stars, promptly announced his plans to appeal what amounts to a 211-game suspension as he joined his teammates in Chicago, where he was scheduled to make his 2013 season debut following a long injury rehabilitation.

So, to recap: A-Rod was in the Yankees lineup hitting in the clean-up spot Monday night, while the rest of the league was busy trying to clean up another steroid mess. That’s fitting, on so many levels. But particularly since this story has dragged on for so long that even the innocent were starting to feel dirty just talking about it.

“Players as a whole, we’re tired of cheating,” said Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer, who has been an outspoken critic of PED users, trashing former NL MVP Ryan Braun after his suspension tied to this same case was handed down last month. “We’re tired of guys who blatantly try to break the system. That’s something we have to find a way to shore up, so that this doesn’t happen again. Because the more days we have like this, the worse it is for our game and for our fans. It only drives fans away.”

That’s a debatable point, I think. I’ve posed this question for some time now: Do the fans really care who’s injecting what and where in professional sports? They sure don’t seem to in the NFL or the NHL or the NBA. And in this case, if anything, there seems to be more initial outrage from the fans in Detroit at Peralta for opting not to appeal than for actually doing whatever it is he did. Both were selfish acts, maybe, but cheat the game, just don’t cheat us.

Still, regardless of the motivations at play here — Selig’s legacy, A-Rod’s pathological past, whatever — baseball clearly had the goods on this lot, with all but the Yankees’ reviled slugger opting to admit guilt and accept suspensions even in the absence of failed drug tests.

That the players did so with the blessing — perhaps even the encouragement — of a players’ union that once fought to the death over the mere prospect of drug testing certainly can be viewed as progress by some. (As Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter said, “If guys weren’t getting caught, then I’d worry about it.”) Even the defense of Rodriguez, who previously had admitted to steroid use early in his career, seems forced, at this point.

The union’s executive director, Michael Weiner, called A-Rod’s suspension “way too harsh” and “way out of line,” but only after attempts to negotiate a shorter sentence reportedly were short-circuited by Rodriguez essentially accusing MLB and the Yankees of colluding to kick him out. He called it the “pink elephant in the room” in a bizarre news conference at a minor-league ballpark in Trenton, N.J., as if this wasn’t already enough of a circus.

For Peralta and the Rangers’ Nelson Cruz, both of whom are scheduled to be free agents after this season, there obviously were other considerations than, say, a guilty conscience.

The soft-spoken Peralta was enjoying one of the best seasons in an 11-year career, hitting .305 with a better slugging percentage than Prince Fielder and the second-best Wins Above Replacement (WAR) rating on the roster, behind only reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera. But he was also in the final year of his contract, and by forfeiting less than one-third of his $6 million salary this season he’ll head into free agency a free man, at least.

There’s still a chance he could return to play for the Tigers this season, of course.

Peralta’s suspension begins with the Tigers in Cleveland, where he spent the bulk of his career and still maintains a home. His suspension will end in time for the Tigers’ final series of the regular season — in Miami, of all places. But while Tigers president Dave Dombrowski wasn’t willing to discuss the possibility of welcoming Peralta back in time for the playoffs, his teammates indicated they would.

Justin Verlander, even after acknowledging “there’s a lot of things that go into that,” said he wouldn’t turn his back on a teammate he calls a “brother.”

“Especially if he owns up to it and serves his time,” Verlander said. “I don’t see how you can hold a grudge or anything like that.”

Scherzer, the Tigers’ alternate union representative, said he’d probably have “mixed emotions” about it.

“For me, I’ve made my statements,” he said. “It’s pretty apparent how I feel towards cheaters. With Jhonny, it’s disappointing. It really is. But he took ownership of it, and hopefully we can move forward.”

Peralta’s name first surfaced in connection with this case in early February, when Sports Illustrated reported his name appeared in documents held by Anthony Bosch, director of the Biogenesis clinic. In a statement released at the time by his attorney, Peralta insisted he “never used performance enhancing drugs. Period. Anybody who says otherwise is lying.”

Monday, Peralta finally fessed up, in abstentia: He was the one lying, though he didn’t offer an explanation — only an apology.

“In spring of 2012, I made a terrible mistake that I deeply regret,” he said in a statement. “I apologize to everyone that I have hurt as a result of my mistake, including my teammates, the Tigers’ organization, the great fans in Detroit, Major League Baseball, and my family.”

He went on to say he takes “full responsibility” and offered “no excuses” for what he called “my lapse in judgment.” Other suspended players followed a similar escape route, citing “certain errors in judgment” without really detailing those errors, though Cruz claims his were made as he tried to recover from a gastrointestinal infection early last season.

But the bottom line is they all got caught in a lie that keeps getting told at everyone’s expense. One of the game’s young stars, Evan Longoria, called Monday “a day of infamy” for baseball. Scherzer isn’t the melodramatic type, but he, too, called it a “disappointing day,” with players left to defend themselves and the game they play — again.

“It’s unfair to all of us,” Scherzer said. “But at the end of the day, that’s our reality.”

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