It probably goes without saying, but when a player tests positive for performance-enhancing drugs, it impacts his career. Not only does the player get suspended 50 games without pay for a first-time offense, it ripples forward into how that player’s performance is perceived in the future. If the player is marketable, it can go further by impacting things such as sponsorships. This is, of course, by design. The idea is that if the penalties are high enough, it acts as a deterrent. It's essentially a case of "if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime."
What hasn’t been discussed is the impact on the player representatives and how they fit into the mix. For most fans, the assumption has been that a violation of the league and union’s Joint Drug Agreement (JDA) is predominantly a reflection of the player himself with little thought as to how others come into play.
That public perception changed, however, when the Giants’ Melky Cabrera was suspended 50 games for elevated levels of testosterone on August 15. The fact that Cabrera was leading the league in batting average at the time was one reason for this, but when it was found that a fraudulent website was created by a consultant of his player agency to try and get around being held accountable, the story became much larger.
The matter, now being investigated by MLB and the FDA, brings into question ethics surrounding Sam and Seth Levinson’s ACES Inc., the agency that represents Cabrera. Authorities for the league and FDA, which includes Jeff Novitzky (a key figure in the BALCO investigation), are looking at an ACES consultant, Juan Nunez (an associate of Cabrera). Nunez reportedly took $10,000 and created the false website in which Cabrera would claim he was purchasing supplements that were not banned and, instead, got supplements that were laced with testosterone, unbeknownst to Cabrera. That was the loophole that Cabrera hoped to use on his appeal. Nunez has claimed that ACES was unaware of his actions.
The backstory is how MLB and the MLB Players Association have been looking to clean up the game. In speaking with several player agents, a shift occurred when Michael Weiner took over as Executive Director of the Players Association.
In October of 2010, the MLBPA rolled out a policy by which anyone who worked with a player agency and had contact with a player would only have access to limited MLBPA certification. The MLBPA was noticing problems with “runners,” such as Nunez, who had relationships with players but were not certified as agents. The union felt they had the right to regulate the conduct of those working with players, even if that person was not actually an agent but merely in contact through an agency.
At nearly the same time, the union created an Agent Advisory Committee as a sounding board. The nine-member committee is a cross-section of the agent base. Some of the agents on the board are high-profile, while others are small. No agency is on the board, but rather agents within them. With agents spread all over the country representing small and the large agencies, the committee provides feedback to the union. The term—just now ending for the agents presently on the committee—is two years, but not all the panel will be rotated out to allow continuity. As an interesting sidebar, according to sources, one of the Levinsons is on the advisory panel. There is no word as to which one and whether he will remain when the new term begins.
Nunez has claimed that he engaged in the website scam without knowledge of ACES. The question is, if the policy that the MLBPA created holds firm and agencies are responsible for their associates that are in contact with players, will ACES be held accountable for the scam (whether they knew of the fake website or not)? Until the investigation is complete, it’s unknown whether that will happen.
To add to ACES problems, the league is investigating whether the Levinsons were the intermediary between former All-Star catcher Paul Lo Duca and PED distributor Kirk Radomski, who was referenced repeatedly in the Mitchell Report regarding steroid use in baseball.
Through this all, Seth and Sam Levinson have said they are innocent. The problem is, given the magnitude of the story, the damage may already be done for the agency.
Whether it’s rats fleeing a sinking ship or not, ACES has already seen two players leave as soon as their seasons ended. In early October, Brewers outfielder Nyjer Morgan left the agency and signed with Rex Gary. This past week, Dodgers outfielder Shane Victorino jumped from ACES’ ranks. The question is, are more to come? According to a tweet by ESPNNewYork.com’s Adam Rubin, David Wright is sticking with ACES. That’s significant given that Wright is coming up on free agency and is a notable All-Star. ACES also represents Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon and Josh Reddick.
Back to Cabrera. As mentioned previously, players can feel the effects of a suspension long after they are over. Quietly, his 50-game suspension was completed, thus making him available for the Giants’ 40-man NLCS roster. The Giants, however, decided some time ago that he would not join them for the postseason.
“No, we crossed that bridge a while back,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said before Sunday night’s NLCS Game One loss to St. Louis. “And really haven’t brought it up or thought about it until you just mentioned it. I hadn’t thought about it because we said a while back that we would go ahead and go with guys that helped us get here.”
According to the Giants, Cabrera will not be re-signed by the club in the off-season. Depending on the outcome of the investigation into ACES, players they represent may not be staying with them either. What is certain is that new light has been shined on the conduct of those working for player agents. The difficulty will be in how they try to not only care for the players they represent but monitor those that work for them. Until MLB and the FDA complete their investigation, we have only the word of Nunez, now banned from all MLB clubhouses, as saying the Levinsons were unaware of his actions. That may be true, but any agent worth their salt should be paying closer attention to those that interface with their clients these days. Just as Cabrera will feel the sting of his suspension, so too could the agents that represent them.