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Baseball’s Drug Testing Lacks Element of Surprise
October 31, 2007
Baseball’s Drug Testing Lacks Element of Surprise
By MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT
Major League Baseball, bracing for the results of an internal investigation into steroid use, has continued to employ a drug-testing procedure that may allow players time to mask their use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Drug testers contracted by the league routinely alert team officials a day or more before their arrival at ballparks for what is supposed to be random, unannounced testing of players. By eliminating the surprise factor, the practice undermines the integrity of the testing program, antidoping experts said.
The night before testers arrive at major league stadiums to take urine samples from players, officials for the home team receive a call from the testing company requesting stadium and parking passes for the drug testers. This procedure is not outlined in the league’s 48-page testing policy, which baseball promotes as one of the toughest in sports. Teams are not told which players will be tested — or how many — but the number is said to be roughly five per visit.
According to Rob Manfred, baseball’s executive vice president for labor relations and human resources and the official who oversees the sport’s drug-testing programs, team officials are not supposed to tell players that tests will be conducted. He said a person with each club — often the general manager or the assistant general manager — is responsible for arranging for tester access and for space to be set aside in the locker rooms for tests.
“Under the program, our players do not get advance notice about tests,” said Michael Weiner, general counsel for Major League Baseball’s Players Association.
But officials from three teams confirmed that their clubs receive advance notice of testing, but spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss testing publicly. One official said his team finds out about testing nearly two days ahead of a visit. Another said trainers are routinely informed the morning of testing and begin setting up for the testers in the clubhouse.
Officials from Major League Baseball and the players union defended the testing program, but antidoping experts said giving notice of tests increased the likelihood that players would know about the tests and try to subvert them. They say the most important part of unannounced testing — which the league’s testing policy calls for — is the surprise factor.
“This is scandalous that anyone would insert this kind of loophole in a system and not include it in the written regulations,” said John Hoberman, a doping expert. “They are opening the door to serious doubts about the integrity of the program.”
Manfred said: “We are very confident that no player has ever received advanced notice of a test. Even if a player knew a few hours before, there is precious little that can be done to subvert a test.”
Testing experts said players using a cream-based steroid or a patch could benefit from advance knowledge of testing because those substances can be cleared more readily from the body.
Don Catlin, who founded the Olympic Analytical Laboratory at U.C.L.A. 25 years ago, said athletes taking performance-enhancing drugs who know they are going to be tested often take lower doses of several steroids that will quickly pass through their system. He said that short-acting testosterone, which is absorbed by wearing a patch, could be cleared in a matter of hours.
“As soon as you know you are going to be tested, you rip off the patch and take a shower and urinate, and in an hour or two you will get numbers down real fast,” said Catlin, who two years ago founded the Anti-Doping Research Institute, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles.
Advance notice of only a few hours could provide the opportunity for players to dilute their urine, use a masking agent or use a device that allows them to fill their bladders with drug-free urine.
A spokesman for Comprehensive Drug Testing of Long Beach, Calif., the company that conducts the testing, referred all questions to Major League Baseball.
Under baseball’s testing program, which began in 2003, all 1,200 players on the 30 major league rosters are tested for steroids and amphetamines within five days of arriving at spring training and are subject to at least one more test during the season, including the playoffs. Another 600 random tests are conducted, as many as 60 of them during the off-season.
Baseball has increasingly toughened the penalties for violators. This year, baseball’s drug-testing program has caught two major league players using steroids — Tampa Bay Devil Rays pitcher Juan Salas and Cincinnati Reds catcher Ryan Jorgenson — down from three last year and 12 in 2005.
The league heralds the program, which tests each player at least twice a year, as the toughest in sports and points to the decrease in the numbers of players who tested positive as a sign that the program is working.
But this is not the first time the program’s procedures have been called into question. In May, two months after a New York Times article described how baseball’s drug testers relied on team employees to chaperone players who could not immediately provide a urine sample, Major League Baseball quietly adjusted its testing procedure.
“We have changed the program to add chaperones that are not related to the club who accompany the collector,” Manfred said. “We try to make constant improvements in the program and we felt this was an improvement.”
Many antidoping experts remain dissatisfied with the league’s program. They say that there is not enough random testing, that the tests are easily beaten and that there is not enough independent oversight.
Drug testers for the National Football League, which started its program in 1987, are given yearlong access to practice facilities and separate rooms for testing, and thus do not have to alert teams in advance of their arrival, said Dennis Curran, the N.F.L.’s senior vice president for labor relations.
Reporters who regularly cover baseball have season-long parking passes and credentials to access stadiums that do not require advance notice for entry. When baseball officials were asked why testers are not provided with similar credentials, they said they would look into the matter.
“The process continues to evolve, we have an open mind, and if there is a way to make it better we will do it,” said Rich Levin, the league’s senior vice president for public relations.
Baseball’s testing program was not the source for the most recent disclosures of players linked to banned substances. Since February, the identities of several players — including Angels outfielder Gary Matthews Jr., Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons and Blue Jays third baseman Troy Glaus — have surfaced in connection with a drug investigation being led by the Albany County district attorney’s office. None of the players linked in published reports were ever publicly identified as testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
Many of those purchases involved human growth hormone. Baseball banned H.G.H. before the 2005 season, but like the N.F.L., it does not test for the drug. Major League Baseball and the N.F.L. are helping to finance an attempt by Catlin to develop a urine test for H.G.H.
It is not clear whether baseball’s internal investigation, headed by George J. Mitchell, will name names, but team officials were recently advised that it could. Mitchell’s report is due before the end of the year.
Mitchell has had the cooperation of Kirk Radomski, a former Mets bat boy who said in court papers that he provided dozens of major leaguers with performance-enhancing drugs from 1995 to 2005.
The N.F.L. began testing for steroids in 1987 and started suspending violators in 1989 upon their first positive steroid test. A year-round random testing program was put in in 1990.
N.F.L. teams are not informed in advance when tests are going to be conducted, according to Curran, and players are allowed to roam throughout practice without chaperones. But if a player leaves the practice facility without producing a sample, the league charges him with a missed test.
N.F.L. players are tested for performance-enhancing drugs once during training camp. Each week during the preseason, regular season and postseason, 10 players on each team are randomly tested.
So far this year, the N.F.L. has suspended seven players, four for positive tests and three for their connections to shipments of performance-enhancing drugs. In 2006, seven players were suspended; three were suspended in 2005.
The World Anti-Doping Agency, which tests Olympic athletes, has a policy that states all athletes must be chaperoned from the time they are told they will be tested until they produce a urine sample. The sample must be produced in a controlled facility and be done within 90 minutes after the athlete has been told about the test.
Michael S. Bahrke, a steroids researcher and co-editor of “Performance-Enhancing Substances in Sport and Exercise,” said testing without any tipoffs was difficult to achieve but was important to strive for.
“That ideal is probably not followed here, and it is probably not a perfect situation,” Bahrke said. “Maybe it is reflective of baseball’s drug policy; as much as they beat their chest, this sounds like a weak part.”