Baseball sent a warning to its major and minor league players last week that may sound odd, if not comical, but is a sign of these drug-testing times: stop ingesting deer antler spray.
Until the warning went out, baseball players, taking their cues from the body-building and NFL cultures, felt safe using a deer antler spray as an alternative to steroids with almost no risk of flunking a drug test.
Deer antlers? Yes, chemists have figured out that the velvet from immature deer antlers includes insulin-like growth factor, or IGF-1, which mediates the level of human growth hormone in the body, and is also banned by MLB and the World Anti-Doping Agency, among others, for its muscle-building and fat-cutting effects.
The antlers are harvested from young deer, ground up and packaged into spray form. The substance is sprayed under the tongue. One manufacturer touts among its benefits "anabolic or growth stimulation," "athletic performance" and "muscular strength and endurance."
IGF-1, like HGH, cannot be detected in the urine tests used by baseball. Under the right circumstances, it could be detected in a blood test, but the players association has not agreed to blood testing.
Major League Baseball issued its warning about a specific brand of deer antler spray not because it contains IGF-1, but because it added the product to its list of "potentially contaminated nutritional supplements."
MLB, acting on reports from the drug-testing industry, warned the players that the deer spray can produce positive tests for methyltestosterone, a banned steroid under both the major league and minor league drug policies. The deer antler spray does not list methyltestosterone as one of its ingredients. The approved clinical use of methyltestosterone is to treat men with a testosterone deficiency and women with breast cancer or menopause-related symptoms.
You have to really stop and think about this warning to appreciate the layers to this cat-and-mouse game of PEDs. Baseball is warning its players not to spray under their tongues a product made out of the antlers of young deer -- not because it boasts a banned ingredient right there on its label, but because it could be "contaminated" with another banned substance that actually might show up on a drug test.
Alex Rodriguez said he didn't use steroids, until, of course, having been confronted with the truth by SI's Selena Roberts, he said he did. He was warned to keep his cousin, who he said supplied and injected him with PEDs, away from the Yankees, only to have him show up around the team on the road this year. He told MLB he would cut out his affinity for illegal high-stakes poker games, until, of course, Star Magazine said he had not. He said he wasn't at the reported poker game, until of course, Star Magazine came back with another report with details about who (Hollywood celebs) and what (cocaine, threat of violence, huge sums being lost) were there with him. (No denial from Rodriguez immediately came forward, only a statement from a publicist that the story contained "numerous factual inaccuracies.")
What next? That's the worry of Major League Baseball. There is no immediate proof that Rodriguez is in danger of being suspended. This episode may turn out to be yet another trip to the principal's office and nothing more. Rodriguez is baseball's John Bender.
Trouble is, baseball has grown weary of the maintenance of Rodriguez and his seemingly never-ending habit of pulling alarms. "Let me say this," said one baseball official, when asked about the level of concern with Rodriguez, "you can never say his judgment is his strong suit."
The poker itself isn't the issue; it's the potential for trouble, especially for someone already on warning to tread lightly. Back in 1990, playing high-stakes poker earned Lenny Dykstra a one-year probation from MLB. Commissioner Fay Vincent met Dykstra one-on-one in a bathroom during spring training -- yes, a bathroom; it was Dykstra's idea when Vincent asked for a private place to talk -- and told Dykstra he was concerned about all the money Dykstra was losing at poker games in Mississippi. Vincent and Dykstra knew huge gambling losses can create an opportunity for the betting community to influence games. Dykstra agreed to Vincent's idea of probation to make sure it wouldn't happen again. A similar ruling on Rodriguez is possible.
Rodriguez can't just wave away the reports about the high-stakes games because the FBI is involved. The FBI is investigating poker games run out of California homes because of a lawsuit by wronged investors in a Ponzi scheme. Its operator, now jailed, lost millions in poker games, and the investors are trying to recoup that money from those who prospered.
The FBI investigation puts baseball in an awkward position. An MLB source said while baseball has been investigating Rodriguez for two months, the FBI investigation takes precedence.
But that's not the only open thread with Rodriguez. The long-time assistant to Canadian HGH guru Anthony Galea -- the fix-it doctor to elite athletes -- flipped to federal authorities after her arrest when caught transporting the doctor's drugs across the United States border. How much does she know about what drugs Galea gave his athletes and what did she tell them? And will the feds cooperate with sports leagues when it comes to this information? (So far, the cooperation with baseball has been scant.) Rodriguez has admitted Galea treated him, though not with banned PEDs.
MLB isn't happy about the headlines, but so far there is no evidence that Rodriguez is in any real trouble when it comes to his standing in baseball. "The reports about a possible suspension are way, way premature," said another MLB official. "That's making a big leap. We'll talk to him and see where it goes."
Roy Halladay is so good he may be locking up the NL Cy Young Award already. And at age 34, he has put up the best strikeout rate and best strikeout-to-walk rate of his career. How else might you appreciate what Halladay is doing at this age? Try these:
• The Phillies are a .732 team when he starts (41-15 since they acquired him).
• The Phillies are 28-0 the last 28 times they scored three runs when he starts.
One of Halladay's goals is to finish the year with more starts than walks. He had done so once in a full season in Toronto (his Cy Young year of 2003). He did it last year for Philadelphia (33 starts, 30 walks and another Cy) and is doing it again this year (23 starts, 20 walks and possibly another Cy).