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Five Strikes and You're Out
Tom Verducci
November 24, 2003
...maybe, sort of. Presenting baseball's new drug-testing program—it's easier to beat than the '62 Mets, but not nearly as funny
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November 24, 2003

Five Strikes And You're Out

...maybe, sort of. Presenting baseball's new drug-testing program—it's easier to beat than the '62 Mets, but not nearly as funny

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Players on a National League team were watching an out-of-town game in their clubhouse in September when the camera showed a relief pitcher jogging in from the bullpen. "It's Mr. Anabolic!" cracked one player, and his teammates burst into knowing laughter.

The episode illustrated how deeply performance-enhancing drugs have infiltrated baseball: Steroids—they're not just for power hitters anymore.

Major League Baseball said last week that it was doing something about the hitters and pitchers—yes, pitchers, who gain velocity and hasten muscle recovery—using illegal steroids. Next year, for the first time, all players on 40-man rosters will be tested. That program was triggered when 5% to 7% of 1,438 anonymous survey samples turned up positive for steroids. (There were 1,198 players tested, some twice.) Baseball and union officials had agreed on the survey testing in August 2002, two months after SI revealed prevalent steroid use in the sport. Under the terms of the deal, if survey positives ran 5% or higher, testing would become routine.

Officials on both sides tore rotator cuffs slapping themselves on the back when the survey did not show, in their words, "rampant use," as if it's good that baseball could field two to three teams of steriod users dumb enough to flunk a test they saw coming five months in advance. But what's "rampant" anyway? Baseball's rate of positives was more than 10 times that of Olympic athletes randomly tested by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency; six of 1,208 recent USADA tests showed steroids—one half of 1%.

And that 5% to 7% for ballplayers is misleadingly low. Baseball did not test during the off-season; it did not test for androstenedione (the drug Mark McGwire admitted taking, which acts as a mild steroid); it did not test for human growth hormone; and it did not test for designer steroids such as THG, which four Raiders have reportedly tested positive for (page 26).

Baseball's methodology has been so flawed it's as if the sport isn't trying to police itself. The program it announced last week is no improvement. Dick Pound, chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency, characterized baseball's testing as "an insult" to the antidoping movement. Here's why:

?Players can be tested only from March 2 through the end of the regular season, leaving them at least four months to get the muscle-building benefits of the drugs before getting clean.

?First-time offenders get a free pass. They are referred to medical professionals and a treatment program. There is no fine, suspension or public acknowledgement. By comparison, first-time offenders in track are typically suspended for two years and in the NFL for four games—25% of the season. Baseball players aren't disciplined until a second offense (a 15-day suspension or up to a $10,000 fine) and need to flunk four tests to even risk missing 25% of the season.

?Players are tested only twice each year—an initial, unannounced test and, after being told to stop using any over-the-counter supplements that might influence a reading, a follow-up five to seven days later. If the results are negative, a player can use without worry until the next season, especially good news for those tested during spring training.

In the opinion of Dr. Gary Wadler, a professor at NYU's medical school and an expert on performance-enhancing drugs, baseball's program amounts to a p.r. campaign. "They want people to think they're getting their house in order," he says, "but it's disingenuous because it has so many loopholes. It's unacceptable."

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