January 29, 2013 at 8:36 AM
Get ready for East Coast version of BALCO scandal in baseball
The original BALCO scandal earlier last decade involving the Bay Area laboratory that sold performance enhancing drugs to baseball’s top stars resulted in a new era of steroids testing being ushered in to MLB in 2005. Since then, if we were to believe some baseball officials and players, the use of PEDs in the game had curbed as a result.
But of course, with the suspensions last year of Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon and others for elevated synthetic testosterone levels, new questions surfaced. This year, MLB will begin regularly testing players for both synthetic testosteron and Human Growth Hormone (HGH) use. But those changes may not have come in time to spare baseball — and other sports — from the 2013, East Coast version of the BALCO scandal.
In today’s Miami New Times, reporter Tim Elfrink writes about his three-month investigation into a Miami-based clinic called Biogenesis. The story is based largely on internal clinic documents supplied by a former employee that detail how Cabrera, Colon, Yasmani Grandal and non-suspended players like Alex Rodriguez, Nelson Cruz were supplied banned PEDs, while Gio Gonzalez is also listed as a client but only as a purchaser of a muscle-building protein that is allowed under baseball rules.
Just like in the BALCO case, baseball isn’t the only sport touched by the scandal. Other names on the clinic’s supply list include Cuban boxer Yuriorkis Gamboa and banned South African tennis player Wayne Odesnik. But as with BALCO, it’s again baseball seeing some of its bigger names and top stars heading the list at a time we’re still fresh off the Hall of Fame controversy in which no one was voted in this year, largely due to suspicions about the use of performance enhancing drugs.
It will be interesting to see what steps baseball takes in the wake of today’s bombshell about Biogenesis.
But for now, baseball faces yet another black eye and not only because of the profile of the players being named. A-Rod has been touted as a future Hall of Famer, Cruz has been a mainstay of World Series finalist Rangers squads and Gonzalez was one of the key pitching acquisitions that helped propel the Washington Nationals to the playoffs last season, even though he, unlike the others, has not been said to have taken anything against baseball’s rules.
There is language in baseball’s rules that enables the sport to suspend players if enough evidence surfaces linking them to PEDs — even if they haven’t failed a drug test. Let’s see what happens on that front.
But on the other black eye front, it’s the guesswork about the players who aren’t on the Biogenesis list that could prove as potentially damaging. We’ve already seen the consequences of some guesswork in Hall of Fame balloting — where players who weren’t linked definitively to PEDs are still paying a price in voting with lower totals than expected.
On one front, the A-Rod news will likely be a step back for some candidates, as well as those who argue that a certain candidate only used PEDs for a small period and was otherwise a Hall of Famer in any event.
As we know, A-Rod claimed back in 2009 that he’d used steroids, but only for a small time between 2001 and 2003. Now, we see his name on a Biogenesis list in which he’s said to have been receiving banned PEDs from 2009 through the end of last season. Not only that, but his friend and cousin Yuri Sucart — the guy who supplied him the steroids a decade ago — is also on the clinic’s PED client list.
The good news for MLB is that it is now about to conduct full HGH tests and can claim to be ahead of the curve in combatting the problem, unlike in the Steroids Era when the game continued to look the other way for several more years. The bad news is, we are all now left to wonder how widespread the HGH problem is.
We may start to get an idea in spring training. I can well remember spring training in 2005 in Florida, when we were treated to the sights of previously bulked-up athletes arriving in camp looking like the Ultra Slim Fast versions of their former selves.
On a competitive front, it will be interesting to see whether any expected contenders drop off a cliff offensively. That has been known to happen before. Heck, we saw it right here in Seattle in 2004, when a contending team from 2003 suddenly stopped hitting the following year as MLB began conducting survey tests for steroids — the results of which went unpenalized and were supposed to stay confidential. The official line on the 2004 Mariners was that several players got old at the same time. The unofficial suspicions about that team — fueled by a 2007 revelation from former Mariner Shane Monahan — was that the Mariners had long enjoyed a clubhouse culture of steroids dating to when he played in the late 1990s. Some mainstays from the late 1990s teams were still with the Mariners when they collapsed offensively in 2004. It would also be a bit naive to believe that any culture of steroids that existed on any clubs in the late 1990s would have suddenly stopped in years prior to 2004 — even if the majority of players on those teams had changed. A culture is a culture. There would be no reason for change to happen until the first test screenings were done and there was a risk of being caught.
Anyhow, I’m not here to rehash the 2004 Mariners.
But the effects of a so-called “Steroids Hangover” were believed to be very real by officials from various teams I spoke with back in 2004 and 2005. Back then, the knowledge that the game was infested with steroids and that players were suddenly going to have to stop using them caused some very real concerns about the competitive impact on teams. There was also increased scrutiny placed on some free agents back then, as anyone wondering whether they’d been using PEDs also had to wonder whether the same production as before could be expected from them.
So, we’ll keep an eye on that. Let’s see how many homers Cruz hits for the Rangers this season — if he isn’t suspended as a result of this story.
On a different front, there’s the moral issue to consider. One segment of the public believes that most of the game’s players have been cheating all along and will continue to cheat forever, so we might as well let everyone do it.
I never have subscribed to that and never will. As long as MLB and its pom-pom wavers in the “let ‘em cheat” crowd continue to promote the idea that you need PEDs to make it big, there will be young ballplayers who start cheating at an earlier age in order to attain their goals. And not all of them will do so safely and be spared the consequences of their actions from a health perspective. The FDA still warns of potential cancer risks from long-term use of HGH by those who don’t need extra doses for everyday health reasons.
Back in 2005, when I traveled to the Dominican Republic to do a series of stories on steroids use by young players there, I visited the grave of a teenage Phillies prospect named Lino Ortiz. I was taken there by his brother, who used to lie awake with Lino in their shared bedroom at night, dreaming of a better baseball life in the United States so they could be like A-Rod, David Ortiz and other stars of Dominican heritage.
Lino died after taking Diamino, a poor-man’s steroids substitute in the Dominican which is actually a veterinary product used to treat large farm animals several times bigger than humans. Not everybody has A-Rod’s cousin to “mule” drugs for them.
I opened my series describing Lino’s garbage-strewn grave — which was cleaned up by locals after my stories appeared in the Toronto Star. But I promised myself back then that the lessons learned from his death would not be forgotten. That baseball players are still leading by example at the top levels of the sport and that their actions will be copied and emulated by others attempting to reach the same heights but lacking similar financial resources.
We have our American versions of Lino Ortiz as well, and their plight has been well-documented. Anyway, that’s where I’m coming from on this issue and I don’t have much time for Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds and others who became wealthy and famous, then claim victimhood after being caught cheating the sports that made them who they are today.
If that’s being overly moralistic, then I plead guilty. But it isn’t going to change.
This story that came out today is another important one, right up there with Jose Canseco’s book Juiced and the Game of Shadows authors who first broke the BALCO scandal nearly a decade ago. Read it and become better informed about what’s going on.
This story isn’t going away.