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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

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