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March 16, 2005

Under The Knife

Steroids by the Numbers

by Will Carroll

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Eighty-three.

That's the number of players who tested positive for steroids in 2003, a number I've reported for better than a year. Confirmation of the number finally came when baseball handed over a series of documents to the Congressional committee by Major League Baseball and their attorneys. Baseball Prospectus, along with several other newsgathering organizations, obtained a copy of this letter.

Actually, there were 96 players who tested positive, but 13 appealed the findings. Those appeals were never heard since there were no penalties; even if all had been overturned, there were still enough positive tests to cross the 5% threshold that triggered penalty-phase testing. The most positive result, in the good sense, is that 2004 saw a massive decrease in positive results, down to just 12. All 12 were first-time offenders and were placed on the so-called administrative track. It remains unclear if a second positive test for any of these 12 this year would result in the new "second strike" penalty of thirty days' suspension.

In 2003, the greatest number of positive tests were for nandrolone, a popular steroid that is chemically very similar to testosterone. Unfortunately, nandrolone is the easiest steroid to generate a so-called "false positive" result for, due to the extensive use of nandrolone in cattle farming and the widespread use of a nandrolone metabolite, 19-nandrostenedione. 19-nandrostendione is the substance that Terrmel Sledge and Derrick Turnbow, among others, tested positive for at the 2003 Olympic qualifying tournament.

Nandrolone is known commercially as Deca-Durabolin. This drug, popularly called "Deca," was one that Jason Giambi admitted using. It has been implicated in several high-level athletic steroids scandals, including Linford Christie (track), Greg Rusedski (tennis) and Fernando Vargas (boxing). Deca has a long half-life and is very easily detected at low levels in urine.

However, nandrolone does have the false-positive stigma. Both Christie and Rusedski were able to make convincing arguments that resulted in their suspensions being overturned. In baseball, 73 of the 96 positive tests in 2003 were for nandrolone. Only one positive test in 2004 involved nandrolone. (Note--some players tested positive for more than one substance. This is common due to the practice of "stacking," the use of one or more steroids at a time to enhance their efficacy.)

The other substances seen in testing in 2003 included Equipoise, Dianabol, clenbuterol and elevated testosterone. The tests in 2004 saw only two substances, the one nandrolone test and eleven positives for Winstrol. Winstrol comes in several forms, with the most popular being oral Winstrol solutions, taken by mouth rather than by injection. Winstrol is easily accessed in the United States due to its use in veterinary practice.

Of course, it must be noted that there were no positive tests in 2003 for THG, the steroid most associated with the BALCO case. It is slightly more surprising that there were no positive tests for the drug in 2004. It would appear that baseball was much quicker in stopping use of the drug than many other sports, such as track, football and soccer, have been. While it is possible that later, as-yet-unknown substances are yielding negative results for players who are actually using steroids, the lack of finding of THG and DMT (another designer steroid that was withheld from public knowledge), gives a solid indication that their use is limited.

The lack of elevated testosterone findings is more curious. Sunday's New York Daily News report of Mark McGwire's alleged stack of testosterone and other injectible steroids meshed well with what experts had expected baseball players to use in a non-testing environment. If so, it appears that the mere threat of testing was enough to discontinue the use. Remember that "The Cream", another BALCO product, was in fact a testosterone designed to be absorbed through the skin. Testosterone can also be easily masked using techniques developed in the 1950s. More than anything else, MLB can hang its hat on this result.

There is some question about the comparability of the results. Baseball used different testing providers in 2003 and 2004. According to several people that I spoke to with knowledge of drug testing protocols and the specific labs used by MLB, this is not a significant concern. Both are certified, run by professionals and use similar protocols for things such as equipment, collection and chain of custody.

A final concern was the "backloading" of tests towards the end of the 2004 season. Given that nandrolone (Deca) can have a detectable half-life of up to 18 months, it would be possible that a player that tested positive in 2003 would come up positive again in 2004 even if he never used steroids again. The backloading, some allege, was done to allow some of the more well-known names to "clear their system" before taking another test. There is no evidence to show that this was the case.

The Congressional committee, it must be noted, was not given identifiable information on the positive results. The committee specifically noted that any identifiable information should be redacted, relieving one of the major concerns baseball had in advance of the hearings. Given that the new drug policy specifically removes any expectation of privacy for a positive result, many players were concerned that the results were going to be broadcast. It should be noted that MLB had negotiated to not have an identifiable testing program. After the federal government seized samples from a Las Vegas lab, it was discovered that the samples could be matched up to a numbered list held in a different location. These samples are now part of the BALCO prosecution, but according to sources, none of the samples seized tested positive.

The reduction of positive steroid results is impressive. Given these figures, it appears that baseball's testing program, even before its restructuring, was having its intended effect. Baseball players were not using detectable performance enhancing drugs and did not show any evidence that they were using non-detectable drugs. The question now is, will that be enough to let us get back to playing the game?

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