By Bob Nightengale |
We don’t want to go there, please not again.
We don’t want to believe it’s more than the balls that are juiced in Major League Baseball.
Come on, the dizzying number of home runs being hit this season isn’t just because of the baseball or launch angles and other analytics, right?
MLB is on pace for 6,657, nearly 1,100 more than a year ago, and 600 more than the record of 6,105 in 2017. Teams are averaging a 2.74 homers a game, with 16 teams on pace to break franchise records. The Minnesota Twins hit more home runs in the first half than any team in history, eclipsing their total from all of last season. They’re on pace to hit 307 homers – 82 more than their franchise record.
Everybody in MLB has accepted that the baseball is juiced, or as Commissioner Rob Manfred has said, there is less drag on the ball causing it to go farther.
This is the narrative everyone wants to believe.
But what if there is more to it? What if it’s as though we’ve gone back to the 1990s, and we’re being naive?
What if doping is back in a big way?
After all, it was only six years ago when MLB and its stringent drug-testing program was rocked with the revelation that Biogenesis, a South Florida laboratory, was distributing performance-enhancing drugs to players. Thirteen of them were suspended, including Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun, but not one failed a drug test.
Given that recent history, and the so-called steroid era that preceded it, which resulted in the game’s hallowed home run records falling, it’s impossible to be certain that players are no longer taking performance-enhancing drugs.
“You can’t help but wonder,” said Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black. “You don’t want to, but I think we all have our suspicion.”
From BALCO to Biogenesis:
Before Biogenesis, there was BALCO, or the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative.
Among the players implicated more than 15 years ago were Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi. Victor Conte was the founder and president and spent four months in federal prison for conspiracy to distribute steroids and money laundering. He is convinced players are beating the system by using testosterone.
“There are guys using these drugs, really as many or more than ever before,’’ Conte told USA TODAY Sports. “The difference is these guys not only understand how and when to take it, but what dosage and delivery level, and not test positive. Hey, good news travels fast, right?
“Guys can’t take the large dosages they used to, but they’ve figured out how to circumvent the system rather easily, and are flying under the radar. That’s why you have so many guys (on pace for) 40 homers, but nobody is hitting 80.’’
MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association point to the league’s drug testing policy, which barely existed 20 years ago and is now among the most comprehensive in sports.
“We have the most stringent, sophisticated program in the world,’’ said MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem, “and more than ever, it’s very hard to beat the system. We’re confident that home-run rate relates to two things: players trying to hit home runs with the launch angle and analytics helping them, and that the ball is carrying better than it has last year, more similar to two years ago.
“We’re pretty confident the increase of home runs does not involve PEDs.”
The players union, which agreed to enhance the testing program after the Biogenesis scandal, also points to juiced baseballs.
“I don’t know any professional sport where guys are tested more than ours,’’ union executive director Tony Clark said. “It puts us in position if there are things going on that light would be shown at some point of time.
“What appears to be common knowledge now – that there have been changes to the baseball – should be the focus more than the other.”
But therein lies the problem for baseball. Since the sport, as well as many in the news media and fans, turned a blind eye to doping in the 1990s, today’s leaders can’t simply shrug off suggestions that players are juicing again.
And there is talk in clubhouses that some of these home-run outbursts are less than genuine. Some players are rocketing past their career high in home runs. Some who struggled to hit the ball to the warning track are now launching balls 450 feet the opposite field.
“You like to think the game is clean,’’ St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler said, “but you really don’t know who’s doing what.’’
Oakland A’s right-hander Frankie Montas tested positive last month for Ostarine, a PED, and was suspended 80 games. While it showed the drug-testing program at work, it also was a reminder that it’s impossible to know what players are doing behind closed doors.
“You saw (with Montas) that it’s not completely out of the game,’’ said Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, “but I think for the most part people believe there’s a level playing field out there. The goal of the testing program is to catch guys if they cheat, obviously, but more than anything, to deter guys so that it doesn’t get to that.
“Everybody wants a clean game and level playing field, and we’re doing everything to make that possible.’’
David Segui played in the majors from 1990 to 2004 and admitted to using steroids during his career and now while in retirement. He has said for many years that he knows of active players who are doping, and says he believes it continues to this day.
“I would say 60% of the guys today, easily, are doing stuff,’’ Segui told USA TODAY Sports. “It reminds me of our era when everybody talked about the balls being juiced. The balls weren’t juiced, the players were juiced. Just like now.
“You’re seeing balls hit now in upper decks where not even the most juiced-up guys were hitting balls back in the day. You’re seeing scrawny little guys hitting balls 460 feet. Guys are hitting balls where Barry (Bonds) and (Mark) McGwire never hit them. You’re seeing these little guys with terrible swings go opposite field.
“The ball is hot, but come on, you think these home runs are just because of the balls?’’
More than 11,000 tests:
Conte, who now works as a trainer and nutritionist for boxers, says players can easily beat drug tests with various substances that leave their system by the time they are tested at the ballpark.
“There are PEDs that are simply undetectable, and there are other ways that you can use PEDs and circumvent the testing,’’ Conte said. “In the old days, before testing, you can load up on testosterone and it will keep your levels high 24 hours a day. Now, they use a fast-acting testosterone. You can take a little (lozenge), take a cream, and after four hours, it peaks, and comes down six or eight hours later. So, by the time you get to the ballpark, it’ll be less than the 4/1 ratio, so you come back clean.
“If baseball really wanted to bust their ass, you’d go to their house in the middle or the night or the first thing in the morning.”
MLB administered more than 11,526 drug tests last year, including 2,244 blood samples for human growth hormone.
MLB instituted a new protocol after the Biogenesis scandal in which every player’s testosterone/epitestosterone (T/E ratio) is tracked so that spikes can be easily caught. If there is an irregularity in a player’s T/E ratio, the player’s urine test can be subjected to a more in-depth analysis that can trigger a positive test.
“The testing for testosterone is much more sophisticated now,’’ Halem said, “and if you’re using a testosterone-based steroid, our labs are going to detect it.
“If you’re doing PEDs, it’s like Russian roulette, your number is going to come eventually.’’
While MLB can test players at anytime during the offseason, it is limited to testing only at the ballpark, before or after games.
“We are tested all of the time when we get to the ballpark,’’ Miami Marlins veteran outfielder Curtis Granderson said. “But we were the ones who asked for it, right? We kept saying, ‘We need more. We need more.’ So now that we got it, we can’t be mad.
“At the same time, with Biogenesis, nobody failed a test. They wouldn’t have got caught except for the paper trail. So just because there’s more tests, it doesn’t mean everything has stopped.”