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Originally published Saturday, September 22, 2012 at 6:09 PM

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MLB on slippery slope by disallowing Cabrera's batting title

Bud Selig and Michael Weiner shouldn't have agreed to a tricky rule change that takes the NL batting title away from Melky Cabrera.

Seattle Times baseball reporter

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Whatever was done, one problem remains the same. Baseball's records no longer have the... MORE
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Completely disagree, Larry. Cabrera was using illegal drugs to run up his numbers. ... MORE

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On the surface, the decision that disqualifies Melky Cabrera from the National League batting title seems like a stroke of wisdom, a win-win.

Cabrera, who initiated the ruling, gets to make a selfless gesture that may help restore some of his lost honor and dignity. And MLB gets to avoid the embarrassment of watching someone suspended for performance-enhancing drugs take one of the most prestigious honors in the game.

But, of course, it's not that simple. It never is.

The feeling I have is not out of outrage or righteous indignation. But it's just troubling. I wouldn't have done it, and I don't think Bud Selig or Michael Weiner should have signed off on it, either.

What they're trying to do is change reality — basically, sweep an unpleasant incident under the rug. And while it hardly hurts anybody's sensibilities to see the batting title go to someone besides Cabrera, it's the first step on a slippery slope that I think baseball should avoid.

Heck, even Selig realizes that. Just two days earlier, while taping an episode of "Center Stage" on the YES Network, Selig told host Michael Kay (as reported in The New York Times) that he didn't favor making any changes in the batting-title rules because of the Cabrera situation.

"You can't change records," Selig said, "because once you get into that, it would never stop. It would create more problems than it would solve."

Selig (correctly) followed that instinct when he refused to retroactively award a perfect game to Detroit's Armando Galaraga in 2010 despite a blatantly wrong call on what would have been the game's final out. Selig realized that had he done so, every blown call would become fair game for some revisionist history, and he wisely didn't go down that road.

The parallel isn't exact, but by manipulating the rules to disqualify Cabrera, you wonder what baseball has opened itself up to. Is everything accomplished by steroids users, or suspects, fair game for whitewashing? What about Barry Bonds' single-season and career home-run records, or Roger Clemens' Cy Youngs, or Ken Caminiti's MVP award, or Jose Canseco's groundbreaking 40-40 season? What if Alex Rodriguez passes Bonds in homers? It might sound appealing to wipe all those out of the record books, but that's some pretty murky territory.

Baseball's policy to cover drug violations is a 50-game suspension for the first offense, currently being served by Cabrera, ending his regular season. He was hitting .346 when he was busted, which, heading into Saturday's games gave him an eight-point lead over Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen and 11 points over Giants teammate Buster Posey — probably insurmountable this late.

Here's the catch: Cabrera had 501 plate appearances, while rules call for the batting champion to have 3.1 plate appearances for each of his team's games — 502 for a 162-game season. But under section 10.22(a) of the Official Baseball Rules, now informally called "the Gwynn Rule," a player can circumvent that if he still finishes at the top if you add in the extra at-bats needed to reach 502.

Cabrera's average stays at .346 with the extra at-bat to reach 502. The rule was first invoked in 1996 when Gwynn hit .353 in 498 plate appearances. Adding in four hitless at-bats to reach 502 lowered his average to .349 — still good enough to beat out Colorado's Ellis Burks, who hit .344, for the sixth of Gwynn's seven batting titles.

Friday's agreement between MLB and union was to suspend that provision — for this year only — for a player who "served a drug suspension for violating the Joint Drug Program."

Pretty clever, but one thought jumps to mind. What if Cabrera had somehow managed to come up with one more plate appearance before his positive test? Would MLB have let his batting title stand? The fact of the matter is, Cabrera is serving his penalty, and he outhit everyone else in the league by the established rules of the sport. He's thus the top hitter in the league, whether baseball recognizes him as "batting champion" or not. As many have pointed out, the batting championship is not an award, it's a statistic. Yes, you could say Cabrera benefited from his suspension by having his average frozen in time, but the same thing would have happened if he broke his leg.

It will make a lot of people feel good, I'm sure, that Cabrera was stripped of his batting title. But in cases like this — and baseball has had far too many records tainted by the stench of steroids — fans have learned to apply their own mental asterisk. Cabrera's batting title would always have been regarded as the one that was won while he was serving out a drug suspension, just as Bonds' achievements are duly downsized by those that choose to. To me, there's not much else to be done short of what MLB deserves credit for trying to do, which is come up with a viable drug-prevention policy.

This is a case where baseball should have gritted its teeth, swallowed hard, and done nothing.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @StoneLarry


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