Cabrera case should lead to major changes in joint drug program
Melky Cabrera was suspended for 50 games last week for failing a drug test
An independent agency should be put in charge of running the program
The penalty for a first-time offender should be moved up to one full year
Melky Cabrera kept the Giants in the pennant race, twice knocked Willie Mays out of the franchise record book and helped decide homefield advantage for the World Series this October, but if there is any sense of logic left in baseball his greatest legacy should be that he provided the tipping point to getting Major League Baseball and the players association out of the drug testing administration business. It's time for an independent agency to run the program.
When the union brings a grievance to prop up a cheat and a wholesale liar the very nature of the joint drug agreement -- that is, a system built and maintained by both the owners and the players -- becomes comically inadequate. The union does what it can to challenge the system in the name of dirty players. I get it and don't blame it. It's the union's job to represent its members to the best of its ability, which occasionally means attacking a specimen collector (it worked in the Ryan Braun case) or being party to one of the most far-flung tales since hiking the Appalachian Trail took on new meaning (it didn't work this time, either).
The point is that the co-authors and co-administers of this program are at odds over just about every positive test: the owners trying to uphold the system and the union, which caters to agents as well as players, trying to exploit loopholes and create doubt. The result of these adversarial positions, as we've seen in the Braun and Cabrera cases, is to create ill will and distrust between the parties. Let an independent drug testing agency not just run the tests but also administer the program.
"I've been calling for that for years, going to back to when I testified before Congress," said Gary Wadler, associate professor of medicine at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine and past chairman of the prohibited list committee of the World Anti-Doping Agency. "My view is a strong drug program must be independent, transparent and accountable. It's a three-legged stool and you need all three. If you don't have all three you have an unstable situation."
The owners and players have come a long way with drug testing. The players have been particularly cooperative with adding substances to the banned list. But we're 10 years into the Testing Era and still neither side is as serious as they should be about keeping the game clean. They keep moving incrementally while maintaining the theater of vigilance when bold moves are necessary.
What Cabrera did was expose everything that is faulty with the system: The penalties don't serve as enough of a deterrent, the players and owners bring differing agendas to a "joint" program, and the loopholes are big enough to allow fans to question the reputation of ballplayers as whole. (By the way, where is the outrage from the clean players? They're letting the Melky Cabreras define them without a peep or, worse yet, with statements of support.) Here are the changes the Cabrera case should bring:
Hire an independent agency to run the program with full transparency.
Increase the penalty for a first offense to a one-year suspension. Arizona manager Kirk Gibson had this one right. Fifty games is a joke. It's far too light to serve as a deterrent.
Here's what's so interesting about it, though: Even MLB is okay with 50 games. Its unofficial position is that cheaters will cheat no matter the penalty -- witness the two-year penalty imposed by the International Olympic Committee, it says.
So what we get are stories like the one of Edinson Volquez, who, in one calendar year (2010), used PEDs while recovering from Tommy John surgery (he explained the substance was the result of "trying to start a family"), served his 50 games while unable to pitch, returned to the Reds rotation, started Game 1 of the NLDS and, with arbitration leverage, watched his salary rise 365 percent.
Run more Carbon Isotope Ratio (CIR) tests. BALCO mastermind Victor Conte has been vocal about what he sees as major loophole: he claims baseball uses CIR, a more expensive testing method that finds any level of synthetic testosterone, only when an initial test reveals a testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio of greater than the allowable 4:1. (The normal level is about 1:1). Conte contends this loophole allows players to use the fast-acting synthetic testosterone in creams, gels and patches to avoid detection by managing the T/E ratio.
The owners and players contend Conte is wrong -- that the Montreal lab that handles baseball's samples does run CIR tests even on samples with a ratio below 4:1. Conceivably, that could mean a player could get busted for synthetic testosterone even without an elevated T/E ratio.
The problem -- again, without an independent agency running things with transparency -- is that we don't know how many of these CIR tests are used without the trigger of an elevated T/E ratio. Is it one? Is it 1,000? We don't know.
Identify trans-dermal synthetic testosterone as a major problem. Who knows if Conte is close to being accurate at his 50 percent guesstimate of usage? It's a number pulled out of the air. But don't get hung up on percentages. The point is that for all sports these fast-acting creams, gels and patches have become a preferred method of testosterone delivery.
The major benefits to these drugs -- because dosage and duration need to be controlled to avoid detection -- seems to be more in the line of recovery and endurance than anabolic gains. But also know this: Only an idiot would use synthetic testosterone without combining it with HGH.
Why is that? A study done in Australia, according to Wadler, showed that even low doses of testosterone provide greater performance-enhancing benefits when combined with HGH. "More bang for the buck," as Wadler said. Now remember that baseball players get what amounts to one announced HGH test a year (when they show up for spring training). So if you are a player who already has dismissed the moral obstacle and decided to cheat by using synthetic testosterone in low dosages, why would you not use an enhancer, HGH, that comes with a zero percent risk of getting caught?
As for Cabrera, he is most likely done as a Giant. The likelihood is slim that they would add him to an NLCS roster when they are playing well and he is a walking distraction who hasn't played in two months and has disgraced the franchise. Worse for Cabrera, his 50-game penalty by then may have become only phase one of his problems.
It is true that the feds are working with MLB's Department of Investigations in learning more about his phony web site scheme, which was first reported by the New York Daily News. The agency that represents him also faces questions and possible disciplinary action. Finally, commissioner Bud Selig, once the investigation is complete, should add another layer of discipline beyond the joint drug agreement penalty for attempting to defraud the game.
Selig is in the legacy phase of his commissionership, and picking fights with the union does not do him well as a man headed to retirement after the 2014 season. But what Cabrera did goes beyond the JDA and demands his attention, whether by a fine or additional suspension.
Two years ago, Cabrera was a .267 hitter in 2,381 at-bats and still looking to establish a foothold and one big payday in the majors. In 1,117 at-bats since then, Cabrera became one of the best hitters in baseball in line for a multi-year contract worth $10 million or more per year.
Over the past two seasons, these are the best hitters in the majors, as ranked by batting average: 1) Miguel Cabrera (.338). 2) Adrian Gonzalez (.325). 3) Melky Cabrera (.322). 4) Ryan Braun (.320). 5) Joey Votto (.320).
Miguel Cabrera, Gonzalez, Braun and Votto are playing under contracts worth a combined $636.3 million -- each of them worth more than $100 million. Melky Cabrera put himself in their company, if not their bank accounts, with the way he hit the past two years. Now his breakout play must be questioned. His story has harmed all players, and it is not over yet.