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March 1, 2012

On the Beat

Rethinking PED Testing

by John Perrotto

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Back in the days when drug testing had yet to be negotiated into the basic agreement between Major League Baseball’s owners and players, I had a long and interesting discussion with a player vehemently opposed to testing.

I won’t reveal the player’s name because he is out of the game now and the conversation was off the record, but he was an extremely bright guy and I would say with great certainty that he never used performance-enhancing drugs.

I was curious why he was opposed to testing if no one suspected him of being a “steroid guy” and he insisted he had never used PEDs. In an era when it seemed anyone who hit more than 10 home runs in a season fell under suspicion of cheating, it would have seemed a clean player would have wanted to validate his innocence to the media, the fans, and the baseball world in general.

“Why should I have to prove my innocence when I didn’t do anything wrong?” the player said. “Why should I give up one of my basic civil rights as an American if I ‘m not accused of doing anything wrong? Being a professional baseball player should not be the basis for having to prove myself innocent.”

“Too many things can go wrong in the testing. What’s going to happen when someone is accused of using steroids and it turns out he really didn’t?”

Well that time came this past December when ESPN.com reported that Brewers left fielder and reigning National League Most Valuable Player Ryan Braun tested positive for having a freakishly high level of testosterone in his system. Braun appealed his 50-game suspension and had it overturned by an independent arbitrator last week.

Though I am usually fairly liberal in my thinking and politics, I disagreed with the player in the pre-test days about his anti-testing stance. My argument was that there were so many players showing up at spring training camps each year 25 pounds heavier and hitting balls farther than ever that it was time to ferret out the cheaters. If that meant a non-steroid user had to be subjected to a urine or blood test, so be it. The Braun situation, however, has caused me to change my mind on the subject.

Now, I have no idea if the Brewers left fielder did or did not use a banned substance that caused his testosterone levels to reach freakish levels. I do believe, though, that Braun is way off base when he suggests that his sample might have been subjected to tampering. By all accounts, the sample was handled properly, and Braun won his appeal because he had good lawyers who found a technicality.

The whole situation, however, has made me rethink my position on drug testing. What if someone who didn’t use PEDs gets a 50-game suspension, and then it is proven after the fact that the test resulted in a false positive or someone really did tamper with the sample? The Braun case shows that testing is not foolproof and that there are loopholes in the system. Until things get tightened up, that leaves the whole process open to question.

****

Five observations from a tour of spring training camps on Florida’s Gulf Coast:

  • Michael Pineda is huge. And he has a good slider, too. Whoever decided to set up the Yankees’ spring clubhouse so Pineda and CC Sabathia have lockers next to each other must be an NFL fan because they look like a bookend set of defensive ends when they stand next to each other.
  • It was humorous to see the look on Red Sox shortstop Nick Punto’s face when a dozen media members descended on his locker after a workout. Eleven years into his major-league career and Punto isn’t anonymous anymore.
  • It was absolutely mesmerizing to look at Rays manager Joe Maddon’s new hair color, so much so that it was hard to concentrate on what he was saying. Reddish blonde would probably be the best way to describe it, though you’ve got to like Rays Executive Vice President Andrew Friedman calling it “rust.”
  • The Phillies’ Jim Thome can still hit the ball a long, long way despite being 41 years old. One of his batting practice drives traveled at least 500 feet, which is pretty amazing for a man that age.
  • Orioles manager Buck Showalter is remaining patient in what is obviously going to be a long rebuilding process. Granted, the position players had yet to report, but there wasn’t even the faintest bit of buzz in the Orioles’ camp.

****

A few minutes with Red Sox’s manager Bobby Valentine:

On being a major-league manager for the first time since being fired by the Mets following the 2002 season: “It’s nice to have this opportunity. I don’t know if saying I’m enjoying it is the right choice of words because there is a lot of work to do this spring. I’m a new manager and I’m still getting to know everyone. We have this beautiful new spring training facility (in Fort Myers, Florida) with six practice fields and 60-some players in camp. There is going to be a lot of activity going on, a lot of work to be done. There won’t be a lot of time to really sit back and enjoy things.”

On if he thought he would get the chance to manage in the big leagues again: “Sure I did. I’m a manager. This is what I do. I always believed the day would come again, and I couldn’t be more thrilled that it’s happening with the Boston Red Sox. It’s a great organization with great tradition.”

On if he learned anything while spending time as a broadcaster with ESPN that can make him a better manager: “I’m sure if I really thought about it for a long time, I’d think of something, but nothing really stands out. What I probably learned more than anything else is how much I missed managing. I enjoyed broadcasting, but when I went to spring training last year, I was a media member. I was an outsider. Now I’m an insider again, and that’s a good feeling. When you’re used to being on the inside, it’s hard to be on the outside.”

On the Red Sox getting past last season when they went 7-20 in September and blew a 9 1/2-game lead over the Rays in the American League wild card race: “Well, for one thing, I wasn’t here last year, so there really isn’t much I can say about it. I think the best thing the entire organization can do is just look ahead. That’s that we’re doing; we’re moving forward and not looking back.”

On inheriting a team ready to contend:  “A lot of times a team hires a manager because it needs to start over. That’s not the case here. We have a lot of talent. We’re not rebuilding. We have a really good team. We expect to contend. We expect to play in October and make a run at winning the whole thing. That’s all you ever want as a manager.”

****

This week’s Must Read is an interesting piece by Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post on how Nationals manager Davey Johnson crosses generational lines by imparting hitting tips from some of the all-time greats to his young players.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

13 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

saint09

I'm all for due process. But this is a loophole?

Mar 01, 2012 01:15 AM
rating: 0
 
tballgame

To the extent it is a loophole, it is a loophole to the player's benefit. The tester did not mail the sample in a timely enough manner. If you don't believe his sample was tampered with, then you believe that Braun's sample was positive for PED, which is supposed to merit suspension.

Mar 01, 2012 07:04 AM
rating: 0
 
Michael Bodell
(89)

It is worth noting that just because Braun's legal team focused on the procedural issues in the arbitration case doesn't mean he isn't innocent. If you are accused of a crime you didn't commit and your legal team tells you "We can argue that you didn't do it and be 5% likely to get you off, or we can target a procedural problem and be 90% likely to get you off, but the process doesn't give us the time to do both. Which do you want?". Even when innocent I'd want them to argue the procedural problems. That's not to say he's necessarily innocent. But him arguing on process instead of some notion of "intrinsic merit" shouldn't be thought of as him being automatically guilty on the merits.

Mar 02, 2012 14:53 PM
rating: 6
 
FrankL

If it was humorous to see the look "on Red Sox shortstop Nick Punto’s face when a dozen media members descended on his locker after a workout. Eleven years into his major-league career and Punto isn’t anonymous anymore," media members should wait until opening day in Boston when 34,000 Red Sox fans DO recognize Punto. He will not go without recognition by the fans. I'm willing to venture that his introduction and recognition will be honored with a chorus of "boos" and "jeers" unrivaled since the days that another SS/2B arrived in town.

Stan Pepi's arrival in exchange for Spaceman Bill Lee was not warmly greeted, to state matters mildly. Punto's arrival and subsequent replacement of Marco Scutaro in what is perceived as a salary dump may be similarly greeted.

Clay Mortensen will be spared only because he is likely to begin the season in Pawtucket. Mortensen also and plays a different position than does Punto, and Clay is likely to be perceived as an innocent victim of an ugly transaction.

As a Sox fan I hope that Punto's career in Boston is more successful than was Pepi's. Or that Aviles is a more solid replacement for Scutaro than was Punto.

Mar 01, 2012 01:31 AM
rating: -1
 
kasikfool

My real issue with testing isn't even the possibility of tampering, but rather the really unknown sensitivity/specificity of the tests. Nature has a decent editorial on this: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v454/n7205/full/454667a.html

There's a really good article cited therein, but you need to be a subscriber to read it.

Until the folks doing the testing are willing to put forth the effort to show real rigor, I refuse to believe that any individual positive test, without corroborating evidence, is true.

Mar 01, 2012 09:42 AM
rating: 2
 
rso544

You know there is a retinal blind spot in all this commentary, which is the belief that somehow ballplayer or athletes are singled out for drug testing. Drug testing happens to Americans all...the...time. For example, when I was in school parking cars for a summer job. I had to take a drug test before I got hired. Why should I have to prove my innocence? What did I do? Waaa, waaa. I am tired of athletes acting like they are some persecuted class. They get paid millions upon millions of dollars to do what normal people wish they could do with their free time if they had any. Very sorry to get all ranty, but I am just tired of hearing them weep and use the Constitution as a kleenex. It's baseball. If you want to play, pee in the cup and don't take drugs. Otherwise, go get another job.

Mar 01, 2012 10:14 AM
rating: 0
 
rcrary

Precisely the wrong response to have. The reason ballplayers are able to stand up for what ought to be basic rights is because they have a very strong union. Probably strong enough that they could have defeated entirely were it not for the PR problems.

Americans in other occupations have for decades had their right to organize steadily eroded, to the point that now many of us indentify much more strongly with owners than we do with workers.

"It's baseball. If you want to play, pee in the cup and don't take drugs."

If it's only baseball, then why should it matter what's in their pee?

Mar 01, 2012 10:33 AM
rating: 9
 
voxhoo

There are huge problems with drug testing. The way that MLB conducts the tests makes it likely that any PED user taking proper counter measures should test negative with near 100% probability. Tests occur at a known time of day and given that a player should know the half-life of whatever PED they are using it is simply of matter of taking the PED in the proper dosage at the proper time of day to beat testing. That means that any one who tests positive either didn't properly execute counter measures or is a false positive.

For example, if you tested 10,000 clean and 10,000 PED users who didn't take counter measures, say that 1 clean and 4,999 PED users tested positive. The false positive rate is 1 in 5,000. But, if all 10,000 PED users were trying to take counter measures, suppose that only 2 PED users tested positive. Now, the false positive rate is 1 in 3. That would constitute reasonable doubt to challenge any positive test.

I don't know if it's even possible to determine what fraction of positive tests are false positives. I believe that the certification of tests have all been made assuming that athletes aren't taking counter measures, which is potentially a huge mistake.

I don't know if Braun was using or if it was a false positive regardless of the chain of custody issues. I haven't seen any evidence that establishes drug testing to be reliable in real world use.

Mar 01, 2012 10:26 AM
rating: 2
 
juiced

You're entire opening about the evolution of your thoughts re mandatory testint was excellent, except for your repetition of the canard that Braun was freed on a "technicality". No, the rest result was proven unreliable.

Mar 01, 2012 13:14 PM
rating: 0
 
apollo
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

No it was a technicality. The violated rule was in place to prevent tampering/degardation. The lab found no evidence of either, as would be expected given how the collector handled the sample---there is no surprise the sample was good. So the rule to prevent tampering or degradation was followed sufficiently to bring a good sample to the lab; it is an excessively strict or rigorous interpretation to assert that it was not followed because the actual science says otherwise = TECHNICALITY.

I highly doubt that any of us would like such technicalities used against us personally as has been used against MLB. Or maybe people like playing the "get even" game. i don't get it. But i do appreciate BP showing at least a range of opinion on this issue. Some of them can split stats into dust but apparently cant see the forest for the trees.

Mar 01, 2012 16:24 PM
rating: -4
 
cmaczkow

I don't think you understand what "technicality" means.

If the false positive was thrown out because the rules governing the collector's proper attire were not followed, THAT would be a "technicality", because while a rule was technically broken, it is universally agreed that the collector's attire will not affect the test results.

However, there are disagreements on the "actual science" you mention concerning what can happen to an unattended sample that sits for a period of time. When reasonable, educated people do not reach a consensus, the phrase "reasonable doubt" becomes appropriate. In that case, it is most definitely NOT a technicality.


Mar 02, 2012 09:02 AM
rating: 5
 
beerd90210

Perotto, you can't argue for due process and then claim when it's not followed that it's a tecnicality or loophole that got Braun off. The more complex you make the rules, the harder they are to follow for the subject and harder to administer/enforce. If you don't want any so-called loopholes, then the rule just needs to be 'no drugs'

Mar 01, 2012 16:01 PM
rating: 0
 
sportspopery

Loopholes and technicalities have nothing to do with the presence of due process in drug testing. Due process ensures that the standard of strict liability that is on the person who is tested is the same for those doing the testing. One of the more salient criticisms of WADA et al has been that they aren't subject to the same standards i.e. there are no cops to police the cops. It's a substantial flaw, and it's something that Braun's lawyers did well to bring up in their defense.

As for a prescription, I don't think that it necessarily involves making the rules more complex--they are byzantine as is, and I'm not entirely sure that fixing chain of custody rules will necessarily make it easier or harder for players to comply. As you said, all they have to do to comply is not cheat. That's as simple as it gets.

Mar 04, 2012 07:58 AM
rating: 0
 
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