MLB aggressively taking on drug offenders

FILE - in this April 1, 2013, file photo, New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, who is on the disabled list after hip surgery, talks to reporters outside the Yankees' clubhouse in New York. A person familiar with the case tells The Associated Press Tuesday June 4, 2013 that the founder of a Miami anti-aging clinic has agreed to talk to Major League Baseball about players linked to performance-enhancing drugs. Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Nelson Cruz and Melky Cabrera are among the players whose names have been tied to the clinic. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)
FILE - in this April 1, 2013, file photo, New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, who is on the disabled list after hip surgery, talks to reporters outside the Yankees' clubhouse in New York. A person familiar with the case tells The Associated Press Tuesday June 4, 2013 that the founder of a Miami anti-aging clinic has agreed to talk to Major League Baseball about players linked to performance-enhancing drugs. Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Nelson Cruz and Melky Cabrera are among the players whose names have been tied to the clinic. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)

Nine homers, 17 RBIs and a .447 batting average.

Over a 10-game stretch ending Monday, those were Phillies outfielder Domonic Brown's numbers. Ten years ago, that would have been enough to implicate the 6-foot-5, 205-pounder for steroid use.

Today, there's not a peep. Mostly, because we know.

Major League Baseball players are getting caught cheating – using banned drugs – at an unprecedented rate, with 113 players suspended at all levels and eight from the majors in 2012. That's more than 40 higher than in 2011.

The league's largest group drug suspension is reportedly upon us, if ESPN's report on Tuesday of 20 potential suspension linked to Miami's Biogenesis clinic is true. CBS reported Wednesday that as many as 25 players were part of the investigation.

Yet baseball, for the most part, has calmed the steroid storm by aggressively going after those players accused.

Outside the Lines reported Tuesday that Biogenesis founder Tony Bosch, who ran the now-defunct clinic in South Florida, will cooperate with MLB, which has been investigating the organization for months. Bosch’s testimony is providing MLB the evidence it needs to suspend approximately 20 players, most notably Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun and former White Sox pitcher Bartolo Colon for reportedly 100 games – the punishment for a second failed drug test.

The league is still in the process of interviewing players, all of whom have been or will be represented by an attorney from the MLBPA, and until those interviews are completed, no discipline will be handed out. MLB’s alliance with Bosch, who was facing a lawsuit from the league, puts their credibility on the line too. Bosch's willingness to give names of players he supplied PEDs comes at the price of saving himself from punishment.

For years, MLB has been determined to eradicate cheaters from the sport. Now, they feel like they have a system in place to do it.

"I firmly believe, based on what the experts are telling me, that the uptick (in positive tests) was due to the fact that we made our program more effective,” MLB executive vice president of economics and league affairs Rob Manfred told the Northwest Herald last month.

How effective their lawyers can be is on the table too as they try to get accusations from Bosch, a man with much to lose, to stick.

Inflating numbers

Drug testing was necessary after what the game lost in the Steroid Era, a period spanned by White Sox manager Robin Ventura’s playing career (1989 to 2004).

Although he expected a drug testing system would be created at some point, Venutra understood many players were willing to cheat. And for the most part, hitters were the beneficiary.

Three of the top five highest earned run averages in baseball history were recorded during those years. Teams averaged a 4.72 ERA in 2000, third highest in history, after posting a 4.66 ERA in 1999.

“You saw it, but there was nothing you can do about it,” Ventura said. “You have to get a system that’s good enough, advanced enough to catch what’s coming in front of you instead of what’s already happened.”

In 2005, the first year drug program violators received suspensions, 118 players (12 major leaguers) were caught, although the number of offenders dramatically dropped to 42 the following year. From 2008 to 2011, on average, 80 players have been suspended each season, with four MLB players or fewer caught each year.

Even though Ventura said he saw pitchers who threw 89 mph one year suddenly pitch 98 mph the next, he disputes any player’s claim that steroid or performance-enhancing-drug use was talked about in the clubhouse.

“No, nobody talked about it,” Ventura said. “People act like now, ‘Oh yeah, I knew. This guy knew.’ You didn’t know that stuff. Nobody talked about it.”

Since MLB began handing out suspensions to any major league or minor league player who violated the drug program, 654 players have tested positive. The Cubs lead all organizations with with 35, 10 of which have come from players in the Dominican Summer League.

“If people are still getting caught, it’s a major issue,” Sox second baseman Gordon Beckham said. “... If people are still trying to cheat and think they can get away with it – because that’s the reason people cheat, they think they can get away with it – then it hasn’t been completely figured out.”

Two factors contributed to the jump in positive tests last season: an increase in the number of tests administered and the expansion of the banned substance list. Forty-five substances have been added to the list since May 2008.

“Particularly at the big league level, last year we caught a lot of testosterone positives that other sports and other testing programs would not have caught and that we might have missed in the past as a result of the fact that we made significant improvements to the program,” Manfred said.

MLB has administered nearly 6,000 tests during the past three seasons. It has led to more players getting caught, although the percentage of positive tests has steadily decreased. In 2012, 0.3 percent of tests resulted in a positive test – dropping from 0.82 percent of positive test results in 2010.

MLB’s past still impacting present

White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers, as a 20-year-old, was one of the many minor leagues who have been suspended.

“It’s tough when you’re young and not smart and you’re trying to do everything possible,” Flowers said. “You see everybody else doing it in college and you make a bad decision and it ends up haunting you for the rest of your life, really."

Christopher Schmidt, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, attributes MLB’s embrace of a strict drug-testing system largely to a players union that was finally willing to work with the owners. But that solidarity between a league eager to punish any suspected PED users and a players association determined to protect its ballplayers is about to be seriously tested. 

MLB will be challenged to prove they legally can suspend players such as Rodriguez and Braun for 100 games despite the lack of a positive test. The damage to players’ careers, should the suspensions be upheld following likely appeals, would send the strongest message yet that MLB will not stand idly as players attempt to cheat the system.

“The players association has every interest in both defending the rights of players and in defending the integrity of our joint program,” MLBPA executive director Michael Weiner said in a statement Wednesday. “We trust that the commissioner’s office shares these interests.”

There is a precedent for suspending a player without a positive test. In 2008, MLB suspended Braves outfielder Jordan Schafer, then a prospect in Atlanta’s organization, 50 games for use of human growth hormone (HGH). Schafer did not test positive for HGH, but MLB's current senior director of public relations Mike Teevan said at the time, “We have non-analytic means of identifying players. He falls under that category."

A substance is added to MLB’s banned list in two ways: when one is added to the list of controlled substances under federal law or by drugs being added to World Anti-Doping Agency and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s ban lists.

Flowers, during his first professional season with the Atlanta Braves organization in 2006, earned a 50-game suspension for PEDs. MLB did not begin specifying the type of drug a player tested positive for until 2008.

Flowers is not alone. The tougher penalties, starting with a 50-game suspension for a first offense, were implemented in 2006.

But given the home run outburst in the majors – teams averaged 1.11 home runs per game in 2006, fifth most in baseball history – it's not surprising Flowers and players like him were looking to compete. The 1999 and 2000 seasons sit atop the all-time rankings with an average of 1.14 and 1.17 home runs per game, respectively.

“I don’t take anything now," Flowers said. "The only thing I take is straight from White Sox personnel … it was a wake-up experience, educational experience and something I’ve grown from.”

White Sox pitching prospect Andre Rienzo can only hope his career pans out as well as Flowers’ has. The Brazilian was suspended 50 games last year after testing positive for stanozolol. The scrutiny that comes from a positive test didn’t hold back Rienzo, who went from Single-A to Triple-A last season. Of the positive tests since penalties were implemented in 2005, 59 percent of suspended players have been pitchers.

“I haven’t had contact with other guys that have been suspended, but you have your teammates and friends,” Rienzo said. “I can’t answer [the critics] right now because I was wrong. I think now, I want to say, ‘When you see me back, you guys will see what I’m made of.’ I’m excited to show that.”

Moving forward

A year after Rienzo was one of the 113 players who tested positive, MLB introduced blood testing for human growth hormone, which cannot be detected through urine tests.

MLB will administer “well over a thousand” HGH tests this year, according to Manfred. The random HGH tests are conducted year round.

“We believe the science behind the HGH tests we are using is fundamentally sound and defensible,” Manfred said.

Schmidt believes it’s “only a matter of time” before the other leagues follow baseball’s lead with blood testing and trying to eliminate HGH. The NFL reportedly recently asked its players union to immediately adopt the testing as well.

“The problem seems worse in baseball because you have these sacrosanct records that are now being besmirched by people who are using performance enhancing drugs,” Schmidt said.

The physical transformation of McGwire, Bonds and their fellow steroid users is comical in hindsight. McGwire’s upper body morphed into a build more suited for a weightlifter while Bonds, a player who hit at least 30 home runs and stole 30 bases in the prime of his career, never stole more than 15 bases in his last nine seasons after he ballooned in size, not only in his body but also his head, and was limited by bulky muscles.  

Now, players leading the league in power numbers look more like the Pirates version of Bonds.

“It was more long lasting and going to the very core of what the game’s all about, so I think that’s why you have a problem that became so big and that’s why the response has been so abruptly aggressive,” Schmidt said.

Players are still trying to find a way to get an edge, even if it's unconventional. After his May 1 start against the Blue Jays, Red Sox starting pitcher Clay Buchholz was accused of using what Yahoo! reported to be BullFrog spray-on sunscreen combined with powdered rosin to create a tacky substance that results in a better grip on the baseball.

The tactic is reportedly used by pitchers throughout the league, however MLB would have a hard time banning sunscreen to prevent pitchers using it to create an advantage.

"There is no endgame," Manfred said. "This is one of those issues that every single year you have to take a look at your program and educate yourself as best you can."

MLB has quickly evolved into a pitcher's league. The 15.29 strikeouts per game in April marked the highest average in a single month in history, according to Elias Sports Bureau. This, according to Elias, comes on the heels of a major league record 36,426 strikeouts last season.

Even the drug numbers have skewed in that direction. Of the 113 suspended players last season, 74 were pitchers.

As the advantage shifts from drug-aided hitters to a playing field that currently benefits pitchers, the onus still falls on the players to change the culture. For some, it extends beyond that obligation. White Sox pitcher Chris Sale wants to set a good example for his 3-year-old son, Rylan, who is finally beginning to understand his dad's job description.

Someday, he hopes Rylan can learn to love baseball as he did. And maybe there will be a moment when Rylan asks Sale to stay up just a few more minutes to watch something meaningful.

“It’s kind of unfortunate that we’re in the cycle or generation that is tarnishing the name,” Sale said. “But you just try to do what you can to be an ambassador of the game.”

In the upcoming month, the Biogenesis accusations and punishments will likely dominate the sports news cycle.

But for some, the Steroid Era and cheating is now a thing of the distant past.

Cleveland Indians designated hitter Jason Giambi, 42, is one of the only admitted cheaters still in the game. He came clean about his steroid usage in 2007, but these days he's a bit slimmer.

While in the visiting clubhouse during Cleveland's April visit to U.S. Cellular Field, Giambi never hid or tried to avoid pregame interviews. When approached at his locker, Giambi was welcoming with a smile on his face. But when the conversation shifted to MLB's drug testing policy, Giambi simply declined to comment and with a pat on the shoulder walked away.

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