By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Major League Baseball has a problem.
Check that, Major League Baseball still has a problem.
And Bud Selig & Co. needs to do all they can to actually nip it in the… well, in the bud before the problem’s latest incarnation can sprout into a weed that infests the sport and strangles its reputation.
In just the past week, we’ve seen San Francisco’s Melky Cabrera and Oakland’s Bartolo Colon both receive 50-game suspensions after tests revealed elevated testosterone levels, making the Bay area again the epicenter of PED use, same as it ever was.
On Wednesday, after Colon’s positive test came to light on, the New York Times commented that it was “a clear indication that illegal performance enhancers continue to exist as a stubborn element of the sport despite intensified efforts to eliminate their use.”
But my concern is that MLB’s “intensified efforts” may not be as intense as they could be. I worry that the sport’s wonks again want to hide the public from just how prevalent PED use may still be in baseball in the hopes of protecting its image. But if that is indeed is the case, it needs to stop – sooner rather than later.
After all, this isn’t 1998 any longer. Fans aren’t as naïve as they once were. We now raise a skeptical eyebrow when old players rapidly rebound or middling players suddenly have career years. But what was reported in the San Francisco Chronicle last week made me furrow my brow.
Victor Conte of BALCO infamy, who has now recast himself as an antidoping crusader, was interviewed in the Chornicle about what he considers to be an enormous loophole in MLB’s drug testing.
The Chronicle described this loophole as follows: MLB subjects players to a test called the T/E Ratio Test that costs about $150 and measures the ratio of an athlete’s testosterone to epitestosterone. The normal ratio is 1 to 1, but MLB rules allow the player to go as high as 4 to 1. This test cannot differentiate the body’s natural testosterone from the synthetic testosterone that Conte says is the current performance-enhancing drug of choice in sports.
Conte explained: “You finish a game, your ratio is 1 to 1, you rub the (synthetic testosterone) cream on your arm and your ratio can go up to 10 to 1, or 15 to 1. Six hours later, your T/E ratio is below 4 to 1. You’ve had the benefit of tissue repair, healing and recovery, and it promotes muscle growth. It makes muscles bigger, fresher, faster.”
For a sport that claims it wants to be clean, that’s a problem, but according to Conte, it’s one that also has a fairly simple fix. It’s called the Carbon Isotope Ratio (CIR) test, a urine-based test that can identify synthetic testosterone, even in small amounts and as long as two weeks after last usage.
According to Chronicle, the CIR test costs about $400. And here’s the silly – and disconcerting – thing about CIR: MLB does use the test, but only as a secondary confirming test if the T/E Ratio Test shows a ratio above 4-to-1.
“They refer to the CIR test as the ‘nail in the coffin test,’” Conte told the Chronicle. “Why not use the nail first?”
I don’t think I often agree with Victor Conte, but when it comes to this instance, I wholeheartedly do. And like Mr. BALCO, I suspect that MLB may still be trying to hide fans from the reality of the sport in this supposed “Post-PED” era, which is getting cloudier by the day.
If MLB busts too many players, it would be bad for business. But if it catches a few here and there, it looks like the testing program is doing its job and all is well with the sport. But I fear it’s not.
Baseball’s players, most of whom are no dummies when it comes to gaming the game whether it be with spitballs or steroids, surely know how this process works. And who knows how many are actually still using PEDs without getting caught. We do know of the ones who appear to have made mistakes.
At least that’s what I suspect happened in the cases of Colon, Cabrera and, yes, Ryan Braun, who wiggled out of a suspension on a technicality, not because his testosterone was normal. I think that trio likely screwed up the process while boosting their testosterone, either by using too much or by doping at the wrong time.
Now, however, is the right time for MLB to begin using the CIR test as a pre-emptive hammer to better fix the sport rather than use it as a nail in the coffin, which could again bury baseball’s reputation.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.