August 1, 2005
Major League Baseball announced the suspension of Rafael Palmeiro on Monday. Under the terms of the collectively bargained Joint Testing Program, Palmeiro was suspended for ten days without pay. The likely Hall of Famer is by far the biggest name caught in the steroid dragnet. Palmeiro famously pointed his finger during sworn Congressional testimony, saying "Let me start by telling you this: I have never used steroids. Period. I don't know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never. The reference to me in Mr. Canseco's book is absolutely false."
Rumors began circulating this weekend that something was brewing. I heard from no fewer than three independent sources that a "big story" was breaking. In retrospect, it appears that news of Palmeiro's test and hearing before an arbitrator was leaking. Palmeiro becomes the seventh player that tested positive under the newly negotiated testing policy that took effect before the 2005 season. Palmeiro has issued a statement saying that he "has never intentionally taken steroids." An independent arbiter heard his grievance and upheld the ten day suspension. This suspension brings up many questions, so I will try to answer them as best I can:
What did he test positive for?
This is unknown. Under the terms of the Joint Testing Policy, the substance that caused the positive test is not publicly released. It is also unclear from the policy whether the team is informed of the exact substance. Thus far, no testing results have publicly leaked. Data released from 2003 and 2004 indicates that the most abused substances were deca-durabolin and winstrol. Winstrol does not have a classical half-life, while "deca," the drug that Jason Giambi admitted using, has an active half-life of up to fifteen days. The "detectable period" for Winstrol is about 3 weeks for the oral and two months for the injectable. Deca can be detected in the body as much as twelve to eighteen months after use.
If he didn't take them intentionally, how did they get there?
If we accept Palmeiro's statement that he did not intentionally take steroids, the most likely culprit would be that he took an over-the-counter supplement that contained a substance that metabolized into a substance that created the positive test. This is not unheard of, due to cross-contamination in some factories, lax testing procedures, and/or vague guidelines for what is and is not a banned substance. As a member of the "No Tolerance Committee" formed after the spring Congressional hearings, Palmeiro should have little or no excuse for ingesting any substance that could have held a banned substance. The NFL has created a procedure under which supplements can be "blessed," meaning that they are certified as clear of any banned substance. MLB has no such procedure.
So did Palmeiro test for "capital-S Steroids" or is this a positive test for something he could have bought at the local health food store?
The list of banned substances under the Major League Policy is very narrow. While it is possible that a legal supplement was contaminated, it is unlikely that the test was for anything other than a steroid or steroid metabolite.
Could Palmeiro clear his name by releasing his list of substances and the results of his positive test?
It may be impossible to clear his name, but Palmeiro could certainly make a better public case by allowing the release of the actual substance that caused his positive test. Not only would this help clarify his defense that the substance may have been unknowingly ingested, it would help give some information regarding Palmeiro's possible longer-term use of banned substances.
Is it plausible that Palmeiro did not take steroids?
This is a multi-part question. First, did Palmeiro have a "false positive?" That is a statistical improbability based on information gained during research for "The Juice." The collection and testing procedures are designed specifically to guard against this occurrence. Second, could Palmeiro be suspended for a substance that is not a steroid? Yes. Palmeiro was very precise in his statement, saying that he was being suspended for taking a banned substance, not for a steroid. All banned substances are not steroids, though all steroids are banned substances, even if not known under the "catch-all" provision of the Policy. It is however, extremely unlikely that this is the case. While the Minor League Policy bans a long list of substances, the Major League Policy is much narrower, banning only steroids and "drugs of abuse," such as cocaine and heroin. (See this document, obtained by Congress during the spring hearings. MLB indicated at the time that these were not the final documents.) Finally, could Palmeiro test positive for steroids without having knowingly taking them? Again, it is possible, though not plausible.
Why did Palmeiro get to have a hearing?
This is unclear. No other player was given this privilege, meaning that there was likely some circumstance that led to this. It may have been an unusual circumstance of the testing, his stature in the game, a desire of the Commissioner to avoid the appearance of a 'witch hunt,' or some paranoiac conspiracy theory. We have no answer to this question. It is also very unclear when this hearing took place. Discussions with reporters covering the Orioles did not clear this up. All parties were confused as to whether Palmeiro left the team for the hearing and had no inkling that this situation was ongoing.
Did Palmeiro perjure himself?
This is unclear. It is a difficult offense to prove, requiring that Palmeiro knowingly lied while under oath. If Palmeiro had tested positive for a steroid with a long half-life, such as deca-durabolin, it would still not be provable that Palmeiro had taken steroids at the time of his testimony. Hair testing could provide a window of usage, though this type of testing is not allowable under the current policy. Rep. Tom Davis, the chairman of the committee, was contacted but was out of the country and unavailable for comment. His spokesman told me "If true, this is disheartening news for those of us who believed Mr. Palmeiro was a key ally in our effort to rid sports of performance enhancing drugs." The maximum penalty for perjury to Congress is five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
How does this affect his 3,000th hit?
Beyond the certain taint that the suspension will cause on his career, the proximity to his historic hit will cause an additional concern. Given the known timelines for the other suspensions between collection, testing, and result, it seems possible that Palmeiro's positive sample was collected just before the hit. There are problems pinpointing this both due to the confidentiality of the testing (often hidden from the media when conducted), and due to the unusual nature of the grievance hearing. It is impossible at this time to say with any certainty when Palmeiro would have ingested the banned substance beyond "between spring training and two weeks ago."
What does this do to his Hall of Fame chances?
It gives voters skeptical about his credentials an easy excuse not to vote for him. Palmeiro's already a target for a number of reasons. He's never led the league in any major category nor won an MVP or a championship. He's played his entire career in hitter's parks (Wrigley Field, Arlington Stadium, the Ballpark at Arlington, and Camden Yards) that have certainly inflated his numbers. He's a shining example of a player whose consistency obscures his peak value. And now he's got a steroid rap.
Even with the inflated totals, Palmeiro measures up well against Hall of Famers once his stats are normalized; using the Jaffe WARP Score system (a.k.a. JAWS), he would rank fourth among Hall first basemen, behind only Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Eddie Murray. Among active and recently retired hitters, only Barry Bonds, Cal Ripken, and Rickey Henderson rank ahead of him. Those are rock-solid credentials. The only two players with similar or better JAWS scores who aren't in the Hall are Pete Rose, who's ineligible, and Bert Blyleven, who's been jobbed for having a resume similarly favoring consistency over peak (at least in perception).
Palmeiro has almost certainly put himself in the unenviable position of being the first bona fide Hall candidate with a positive test on his resume. He'll likely be made an example of, at least in the early voting. He might have an easier time once the voters admit players linked to the steroids scandal but without so much (or any) hard evidence in their dossiers, such as Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa. But his wait for Cooperstown just got several years longer.
Is this another BALCO situation?
Palmeiro has no known association with BALCO and was not mentioned in any of the leaked grand jury testimony that has reached the public. However, BALCO is not the only source of steroids in baseball. Research for "The Juice" leads me to believe that there are at least three similar organizations that are distributing steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in sports. The track coach that leaked "the clear" (THG) to the authorities has admitted that he received THG from a source other than BALCO. Palmeiro appears to be arguing that he unknowingly ingested the banned substance, indicating that he is saying that he did not purchase steroids from any source.
What did Palmeiro mean regarding "Commissioner Selig's strong words of encouragement?"
The statement released by Palmeiro specifically mentioned this phrase. MLB has not given any indication or comment regarding this.
Palmeiro's having a good year at an advanced age. Is this proof of steroid use?
It is certainly not proof. A positive test is the only proof. However, Palmeiro's statistics are very good given his age:
Best VORP Player YR TEAM(S) VORP Edgar Martinez 2003 SEA 54.5 Dave Winfield 1992 TOR 54.0 Rickey Henderson 1999 NYN 47.9 Harold Baines 1999 BAL/CLE 42.2 Darrell Evans 1987 DET 41.5 Carlton Fisk 1988 CHA 34.3 Brian Downing 1991 TEX 31.6 Davey Lopes 1985 CHN 31.0 Pete Rose 1981 PHI 29.7 Paul Molitor 1997 MIN 29.5 Graig Nettles 1985 SDN 27.4 Barry Larkin 2004 CIN 26.5 Reggie Jackson 1986 CAL 26.2 Hal McRae 1985 KCA 25.2 Tony Phillips 1999 OAK 23.5 Bob Boone 1988 CAL 22.9 Hank Aaron 1974 ATL 22.6 Rafael Palmeiro 2005 BAL 22.1 Joe Morgan 1984 OAK 21.5 George Brett 1993 KCA 21.3 Carl Yastrzemski 1980 BOS 20.5 Most HRs Player YR TEAM(S) VORP HR Darrell Evans 1987 DET 41.5 34 Dave Winfield 1992 TOR 54.0 26 Harold Baines 1999 BAL/CLE 42.2 25 Edgar Martinez 2003 SEA 54.5 24 Eddie Murray 1996 BAL/CLE 11.0 22 Hank Aaron 1974 ATL 22.6 20 Carlton Fisk 1988 CHA 34.3 19 George Brett 1993 KCA 21.3 19 Reggie Jackson 1986 CAL 26.2 18 Rafael Palmeiro 2005 BAL 22.1 18 Brian Downing 1991 TEX 31.6 17 Andres Galarraga 2001 SFN 15.4 17 Andre Dawson 1994 BOS 0.4 16 Graig Nettles 1985 SDN 27.4 15 Tony Phillips 1999 OAK 23.5 15 Carl Yastrzemski 1980 BOS 20.5 15 Hal McRae 1985 KCA 25.2 14 Rickey Henderson 1999 NYN 47.9 12 Willie McCovey 1978 SFN 8.4 12 Davey Lopes 1985 CHN 31.0 11 Willie Stargell 1980 PIT 13.6 11 Dave Parker 1991 TOR 2.7 11 Paul Molitor 1997 MIN 29.5 10Only elite players last long enough to play at this age, so I'm unsure how much we can learn from this.
Palmeiro doesn't look like a steroid user and hasn't had a power spike. What gives?
There is no evidence that anyone can identify a steroid user by sight. It would certainly save time and money if this were the case. Some pictures of suspected steroid users have been taken at times when the players were said to be out of condition. Again, the only way to prove use of a banned substance is a positive test.