In the wake of Dee Gordon's 80-game suspension for failing a test for performance-enhancing drugs, the time has come for MLB to stiffen its punishments in such cases.
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Fourteen years into PED testing in baseball, the story of Dee Gordon is not all that surprising. It is but another reminder that even as the science of testing advances and the penalties increase, players will cheat because they believe they can get away with it—and finding your next risk taker has nothing to do with the size of his musculature.
Pumping Iron, a documentary featuring a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, was filmed 39 years ago, so why do people still take such a simplistic position of equating steroids with sheer size? Steroids aren’t aspirin. They are hundreds of different kinds of high-tech drugs used in sophisticated regimens through different delivery systems to produce targeted results. Strength, speed, recovery, lean muscle, bat speed, confidence, explosiveness, sustained energy … the reasons are many. These are performance-enhancers, not biceps-enhancers.
The first player ever busted in baseball, Alex Sanchez, was a 5'10", 180-pound speedster with four career home runs when he flunked his test in 2005. Gordon is a 5'11" reed of a second baseman. The Dodgers traded him to the Marlins after the 2014 season in part because, after making the All-Star team in the first half, he wore down in the second half of that season, with only four walks, 13 extra-base hits and a .300 on-base percentage.
Gordon posted a breakout season in 2015 for Miami, leading the league in hits, stolen bases and batting average. On Jan. 13, 2016, convinced of his staying power, the Marlins signed him to a five-year, $50 million contract extension. Two months later, in mid-March, as part of MLB’s random testing of all 40-man roster players in spring training, Gordon provided urine samples.
The A sample came back positive for exogenous testosterone and clostebol, both banned substances. Exogenous testosterone is synthetically produced testosterone; it is the key building block of doping. There is virtually no way exogenous testosterone can “accidentally” enter one’s body. Clostebol is a synthetic anabolic androgenic steroid that has been around for years. It ranks rather low on the “bang for your buck” drugs, but laboratories have reported an upswing in its usage in sports over the past few years.
Phillies infielder Freddy Galvis—another player whose game is dependent on speed more than power—failed a test for clostebol in 2012. Galvis defended himself by saying only “a trace amount of a banned substance … was detected” (Hello? By definition and design, drugs leave only trace amounts) and that “I cannot understand how even this tiny particle of a banned substance got in my body.”
Italian cyclist Stefano Agostini was busted in 2013 for clostebol. His explanation? He woke up at 3 a.m. with a rash on his buttocks and asked his mom for help. She gave him an over-the-counter cream that she had used when she had a similar issue. The International Cycling Union banned him for 15 months; seven months into the ban, a disgraced Agostini retired.
Baseball’s Joint Drug Agreement requires that if an A sample comes back positive, a B sample is tested, usually three or four days later, with a union representative on hand to monitor. Once the B sample comes back positive, the player has the option of challenging the result in front of a three-person arbitration panel. The player has three days to make that decision and the appeal hearing is scheduled within a 10-day window once he gives notification of his appeal.
Gordon filed an appeal. A hearing was scheduled. This timeline—the lab being backed up with the hundreds of spring training tests, the separate testing of A and B samples, the consideration of an appeal, the window of scheduling a hearing—is why Gordon’s mid-March test resulted in discipline six weeks later. A player is eligible to play during his appeal. His club is not notified until the player either accepts the penalty or loses the appeal.
On Thursday, just days before his appeal was scheduled to be heard and before Miami was to play the Dodgers in Los Angeles, Gordon suddenly had a change of heart and told manager Don Mattingly and general manager Mike Hill that he was suspended for a positive test. The news stunned Marlins ownership, not to mention MLB officials, and created the awkwardness of Gordon helping to beat the Dodgers, 5–3, in the game that night after deciding to drop his appeal. MLB scrambled to make the highly unusual move of announcing the suspension at 1:17 a.m. Eastern.
Gordon released the typical cliché of a passive statement upon getting busted: He had no idea how these substances entered his body (“I did not do so knowingly”) and the fact that he passed so many previous tests is proof of his drug-free diligence (Lance Armstrong, Alex Rodriguez, et al say hello).
Sanchez was suspended for 10 games in 2005. Galvis was suspended for 50 games in '12. Gordon is suspended for 80 games in '16. If baseball and the union were truly serious about a clean game, they would stop this nonsense about moving incrementally and actually put a hammer into the JDA. The International Olympic Committee throws out cheaters for two years (though some scientists have argued that’s not long enough, because a steroid user can accrue the benefits of the drug longer than the ban). The cycling union threw out Agostini for 15 months. Major League Baseball will let Gordon play again in August.
The fact is, the athlete who wants to cheat often doesn’t do the calculus about the risk-reward ratio. To the athlete, there is only reward. The risk is mitigated by some friend or drug “guru” who convinces them that this latest drug or protocol is better than the state-of-the-art testing now in place—testing now that is so good almost nobody bothers to challenge the actual science any more. Athletes are naïve that way. They believe trainers or garage chemists who tell them that they won’t get caught.
There’s an old saying in sports that a drug test is actually an I.Q. test. Baseball should move to throw out steroid users for at least a year—not so much for establishing a deterrent as for penalizing stupidity.