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Inside dope

Players union's position on steroids still has two serious flaws

Posted: Tuesday March 9, 2004 12:27PM; Updated: Tuesday March 9, 2004 4:37PM
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Timing is an important part of baseball fundamentals. It's also an important part of steroid testing. One of the less publicized loopholes of baseball's steroid testing this season -- the first in which penalties are attached to positive samples -- is that 200 fewer samples will be taken (1,200 in all) than were taken last year in the so-called anonymous survey testing with no penalties. The difference? There is no second round of tests this year. Pass one test, and you're free to use whatever illegal substances you want until March 2005. And most players understand this. "I don't know if they could do it, but they should hold off testing the guys everybody suspects [of using steroids] until late in the season," one veteran pitcher said. "The way it's set up now, a lot of guys are practically volunteering to be [tested] in March. As a pitcher, I'd love to see them wait on all the hitters."

Baseball likes to claim that each player on every 40-man roster will be tested twice. Actually, those tests occur within five to seven days of one another and count as one total "sample." A player is tested once, told to immediately cease using all over-the-counter supplements (which might have influenced the initial test results), then is tested again within a week. A player would have to flunk both tests to be considered a positive. (According to a player and a team official familiar with testing procedures last year, players needed to show the lab representative a picture I.D., such as a driver's license. The player then provided his sample out of eyesight of the representative, such as in a bathroom stall.) Last season, 200 players were randomly selected to go through a second round of such tests. That provision does not exist this year, hence the importance in the timing of the tests. A player who wants to use a banned performance-enhancing drug, for instance, might logically wait to begin such use until after he gives his sample. If the testing agency asks for that sample in March, the player is free to use drugs throughout the season and most of the offseason without fear of being caught. (The earliest he could be tested again would be early March 2005.) Meanwhile, a player he is competing against might not be asked for a sample until August, leaving him to play with a sword of Damocles over his head that the first player does not have.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has admitted that the sport's drug policy is an "incremental" one designed as a first step toward getting to a tougher one with smaller loopholes, if any. On Wednesday, Selig will testify before a special Senate panel chaired by John McCain that the sport's minor league drug program is his model, and that the minor league program shows that where baseball has complete control -- minor leaguers not on 40-man rosters are not union members, thus the testing program in the minors is not subject to collective bargaining -- owners have proved they are serious about a "zero-tolerance" policy. Minor league players are subject to four random tests each year. Players are suspended without pay for 15 days upon their first offense. (Major league first-time offenders receive only counseling, and their status as an illegal drug user remains confidential.)

When baseball began minor league testing in 2001, nine percent of the samples were positive. That rate has since been cut by more than half, to four percent last year. The problem in enacting a tougher drug policy is the huge ideological gap between the union and owners. Selig, for instance, told Sports Illustrated that he intends to fight for a renegotiation of the drug testing policy before the labor agreement expires in December 2006. The union, of course, isn't interested in any do-overs that were collectively bargained. More important, the union, unlike the majority of the medical community, does not view steroids as a significant health risk -- as evidenced in union official Gene Orza's infamous recent "not worse than cigarettes" quote.

A recently retired player, who is now a coach, told me that as far back as 10 years ago a doctor for the union spoke to his team about steroids during an annual spring training meeting. The doctor, the player said, told the team that steroids used in moderation did not pose a serious health risk. "We walked out of the meeting saying, `Wow, I think he just told us it's okay to go do steroids,"' the coach said.

The union's position, even if you regard it as believable, has two serious flaws. First is baseball's responsibility to young people. Like it or not, the players are "aspirational" even more than they are inspirational. Teenagers will copy the batting stances, pitching deliveries and, yes, training techniques of those at the highest level. Androstenedione, for instance, was virtually unheard of when Mark McGwire admitted to using the legal supplement in 1998. Andro sales then skyrocketed. Teenagers were among the many new customers. Moreover, as The Washington Post has reported, young players in the Dominican Republic, where steroids are plentiful and legally available (though many of those steroids are intended for use on farm animals), are literally dying in their quest to copy their major league role models.

The union admits that steroid use by women and young men who have not reached full physical development is dangerous. It does not, however, connect that danger with ballplayers' social responsibility. The other flaw in the union's position is a matter it never had to deal with in previous arguments over privacy concerns about drugs of abuse such as cocaine: competition. As many players have complained, steroids and other similar drugs, such as human growth hormone, create an uneven playing field. Those who cheat have an advantage over those who don't. And those who cheat with cutting-edge stuff and the advice of drug gurus have an advantage over those who cheat without those resources. I've heard from too many players that steroids increase bat speed (it's not just about sheer size and power of the player), help players train harder than they otherwise could (especially older ones) and assist in quicker muscle recovery (especially for pitchers) to think they are benign. Those 70 to 100 players who flunked the test last year were using steroids because they wanted improved performance.

BALCO is the impetus for baseball to slam the door shut on steroids, human growth hormone and all performance-enhancing drugs. If you leave that door open, you are allowing for a brave new world of next-generation drugs in sports. Dianabol and the other steroids purchased in and smuggled from places such as Mexico are ancient history. Remember, THG, the designer steroid that was undetectable in tests, was discovered only when a track and field coach turned over a syringe of the stuff to anti-doping officials. The pharmacological pursuit of getting bigger, faster, stronger and better never ends, nor do the means employed to improve the stealth factor. Leave the drug door open and you move closer to a time when it is not the team with the best players or best manager that wins, but the one with the best chemist. That is a baseball not worth having.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci covers baseball for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.