Baseball’s drug program will never be perfect, but how close can it get?
On April 1, Major League Baseball suspended catcher Taylor Teagarden for 80 games, saying he violated the sport’s Joint Drug Agreement.
Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander tweeted this:
Verlander was correct; Teagarden did not test positive. Instead, in an undercover video made for Al Jazeera, Teagarden had admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs last year and said that he was "scared" about an upcoming test, which he passed.
Baseball’s drug-testing program is widely regarded as the toughest in sports. But some players remain frustrated that users of performance-enhancing drugs occasionally escape detection, and say that they are open to even more stringent penalties.
"Every time a guy gets popped who didn’t test positive, it’s kind of like, ‘Why are we even going through this?’" Verlander said in an interview with FOX Sports.
"If you want to cheat, there is a window to do it. Guys are finding ways around the system. It’s pretty evident, pretty well-known that the people who are making these illegal substances are ahead of the testers."
Not all players are dissatisfied with the sport’s drug-testing program, which was agreed upon collectively by baseball and the players’ union; both Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista and third baseman Josh Donaldson told FOX that they believe the system is working.
"It’s going to be impossible to find a 100 percent level playing field. But it seems like we’re at 98-99 percent," Bautista said. "That seems to be good enough. And the guys who are willing to risk it . . . there are always going to be a few rotten apples, no matter where you are."
Others, however, still want to see improvements in the program, whether through stricter testing, harsher penalties or both.
"Do I think guys are still out there doing this? Yes," Nationals right-hander Max Scherzer said. "I really don’t think the number is that high. But at the end of the day, you never know. This is a dark cloud within the game. It’s something that is never going to be revealed.
"That’s why as players we always have to be open to changes to the Joint Drug Agreement. If anything (more) can be done to detect illegal substances, we have to be open to that."
Added Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw: "If there was a type of testing that guaranteed every person that used PEDs would be caught, I would be all for it. I don’t think the problem is the length of the suspension, but more the improbability of being caught."
The willingness of players to openly discuss their desire for a cleaner sport represents a sea change from 20 years ago, when few in the sport would publicly address PEDs.
The latest challenge is different.
Both the players and owners recognize that the joint drug program will never achieve 100 percent success.
The Biogenesis scandal in 2013 highlighted the problem.
The Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez was suspended for 162 games (reduced from 211 on appeal), the Brewers’ Ryan Braun for 65, a dozen others for 50 each.
Only four — Braun, Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon and Yasmani Grandal — had previously been identified through testing.
Baseball’s department of investigation determined that the players violated the joint drug program and, in Rodriguez’s case, the collective-bargaining agreement.
The scandal triggered a series of changes to the program in ’14, including the current penalties — 80 games for a first positive test, a full 162-game season for a second and a lifetime ban for a third.
The players and owners also increased the number of random, in-season urine tests, offseason urine tests and blood tests for human growth hormone.
People in baseball ask: Outside of further increasing the frequency of tests, what else can the sport do?
"We ban every substance that we know of," said baseball’s chief legal officer, Dan Halem. "We use the best laboratories. We test for every substance for which there is a test. We drug-test players frequently, randomly, mixing the times of the day so there is no discernible pattern.
"There is not much more you can do from a drug-testing perspective, which is why we have a whole department of investigations, a whole program designed to catch players who are violating the program and don’t test positive. Biogenesis obviously was the best example of that. You need both to have an effective drug program."
Baseball, in creating its department of investigation in Jan. 2008, acted upon a recommendation from former Sen. George Mitchell, whom former commissioner Bud Selig had hired to write a report on doping in the sport.
The joint drug program, meanwhile, has evolved considerably since its inception in 2002.
The players and owners, under pressure from Congress, twice stiffened the penalties in 2005. Blood testing for human growth hormone began in ’11, and increased twice in frequency after that.
In addition, the joint drug agreement requires an annual review in which representatives from the players and owners meet with experts to consider potential changes based on developments in the previous year.
FOX Sports gave both Halem and union chief Tony Clark the chance to review some of the player comments in this article before responding.
Clark, like Halem, believes that baseball is taking every possible measure to ensure that the sport is clean.
"Let me start first by saying that I respect the opinions of the players who want to see further changes," Clark said.
"We recognize that the suppliers will always work hard to stay ahead of the testing. That’s why we work hard with scientific experts whose sole function is to help us design — and re-design — a program that is on the cutting edge.
"Are we assured to catch every violation? No, that’s not realistic. Can I look players in the eye and say with confidence that we leave no stone unturned? Without question."
One problem with testing is that many PEDs do not remain detectable in a player’s body for long. A regular user likely will be caught if he is tested, say, five times a year. With a sporadic user, it’s more luck of the draw.
Players recognize that testing can accomplish only so much.
"Are they ever going to be able to stay out in front of science and some of these guys who are making it their life’s journey to stay in front of drug testing? I don’t know if it’s possible," Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday said.
"I’d love to make sure there is nobody doing anything outside the lines whatsoever. I just don’t know how realistic it is outside of doing blood testing on a day-to-day basis, which isn’t realistic . . . I don’t know how much blood testing we are willing to do before it gets absurd."
Scherzer, too, sounded a realistic tone.
"As players, we’re always aware that the science to cheat will always be ahead of the science to detect," Scherzer said. "We understand that there is always going to be an incentive to cheat. We just hope that the deterrent to cheat is greater than the incentive."
"That’s the million-dollar question."
Scherzer runs the equation in his head: How long of a suspension would be necessary to deter all players from using PEDs? How can baseball adjust its penalties to remove the incentive for all 100 percent?
But Scherzer knows — all players know — that some will cheat no matter how substantial the risk to their reputations, to their careers.
"I don’t care if you’re banned for life, people will still do it and try to get away with it," the Blue Jays’ Donaldson said.
Yet, some players still favor harsher penalties — particularly for players who made the deliberate choice to use PEDs.
"How do you clean it up? Maybe more severe punishments," Verlander said.
"If there is proven intent to cheat — i.e. you tested positive or it’s found that you were taking an illegal substance, PEDs, and trying to cheat the system, trying to go around it — I think it should be a ban from baseball.
"It’s too easy for guys to serve a suspension and come back and still get paid."
The revisions to the joint drug program in ’14 included lesser suspensions for players who could prove to an arbitration panel that they used a banned substance inadvertently.
Scherzer said he would flip that concept on players who are proven to have used intentionally, asking, "Why can’t we up the punishment to PED offenders when it’s beyond reasonable doubt that they were taking designer drugs to avoid detection?
"If anybody has an incentive to cheat, they’re going to try and use the most scientifically concocted drug there is. To me, that’s premeditation. And when you’re talking about premeditation to cheat, that’s when we need punishment that mimics that.
"I’m comfortable with suspending guys for as long as possible when you’re under that type of scenario — if you’re really taking designer drugs to cheat, we need a punishment severe enough to act as a deterrent so that a player would not want to make that choice."
Holliday, too, focused on intent.
"If you’re caught taking something where they prove that you’re trying to cheat," he said, "that it’s a legitimate steroid or testosterone, I’m all for a year, two years, to keep guys from trying to cheat . . . for as harsh a penalty as possible.
"I’m all for second chances. But if you make the penalty super, super stiff, guys will think twice. They’ll look at 80 games and think, ‘That’s not that big a deal.’ But if you start taking away two years, that’s a lot of money. That might be different."
If enough players agree with Verlander, Scherzer and Holliday, they can push the union to modify the joint drug agreement during its ongoing CBA negotiations with baseball.
The collective-bargaining agreement expires on Dec. 1. Halem said that management would welcome an exchange with the union about making the penalties for PEDs even tougher.
"We share the view expressed by some players that we need to have a serious discussion with the Players’ Association regarding whether the penalty structure that currently exists is sufficient to deter players," Halem said. "Given that we’re in collective bargaining, we expect to have that discussion."
Clark noted that the players repeatedly have agreed to lengthier suspensions, but also expressed the importance of protecting players’ rights going forward.
"The players have shown an unprecedented willingness to negotiate significant mid-term amendments to the program. As a result, in the decade-plus we have had a testing program, the penalty for a first-time offense has grown by more than 500 percent," Clark said.
"Players want the program to have teeth and to deter cheating, but they also care deeply about due process and fundamental fairness. We think the current program and penalty structure strikes an appropriate balance."
Perhaps, but the conversation is ongoing.
Some players want to keep pushing for a totally clean game, impossible as that goal might be.
Another player was suspended for PED's. Thing is… Wasn't caught through our testing procedures! What's wrong w/ the test??! #notworking
— Justin Verlander (@JustinVerlander) April 2, 2016
If you want to cheat, there is a window to do it. Guys are finding ways around the system.
Do I think guys are still out there doing this? Yes.
It’s going to be impossible to find a 100 percent level playing field. But it seems like we’re at 98-99 percent.
Are they ever going to be able to stay out in front of science and some of these guys who are making it their life’s journey to stay in front of drug testing? I don’t know if it’s possible.
The players have shown an unprecedented willingness to negotiate significant mid-term amendments to the program.