The recent suspension of San Francisco Giants left fielder Melky Cabrera brings the issue of steroid use in Major League Baseball, once again, to the forefront of our national discourse.
Cabrera is the first high-profile player to be suspended for steroid use since Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun was suspended last season, before having that suspension overturned by an arbitrator. Unlike Braun, Cabrera fessed up to using synthetic testosterone after failing two tests. Despite Cabrera’s admission, questions remain. How long was he using before he was caught? How reliable then are the tests for MLB players? And how many other athletes in the league are juicing?
Only Cabrera knows how long he’s been using PEDs and so far hasn’t offered up that information. The MLB commission in charge of testing players has assured the press, the teams and the fans that the random testing is more than reliable. And as for just how many players are using PEDs in baseball, there are conflicting opinions.
In an interview with USA Today following the Cabrera scandal, BALCO founder and admitted steroid distributor Victor Conte said there is “rampant use of synthetic testosterone in Major League Baseball.”
“I would say maybe as much as half of baseball,” Conte said, citing that he has talked with many of the sport’s top players.
Despite Conte’s apparent inside information, MLB isn’t quite sure about Conte’s estimate of steroid use in baseball.
“He is just making that up,” said MLB vice president Rob Manfred. “It’s a guess.”
But Conte disagrees citing his extensive knowledge of how steroids work. (In case you are unfamiliar, Conte was the man behind some of the biggest sports steroid scandals including Barry Bonds and Marion Jones.)
“To circumvent the system is like taking candy from a baby,” Conte said. “The only people that get caught are the dumb and the dumber.”
Testing for steroids is quite simple. Urine is tested for the body’s natural ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone, which is 1 to 1 in adult men. When an abnormality occurs, the sample is then subjected to an isotope ration mass spectrometry test to determine whether the excess testosterone is natural or synthetic.
This seems like a fairly easy system to “duck and dodge,” as Conte put it in his USA Today interview, however there are plenty of reasons to not take his “half of baseball” claim to seriously.
Testing for steroids in MLB started after the league and the players union finally agreed to a test run for random testing of sorts back in 2003. If fiver percent or less of players tested positive, the league wouldn’t make testing part of the contract agreement between the players and MLB. If there were more than five percent, the players would have to agree to random testing the following season. After 1200 players were tested, 104 came up positive, or almost eight percent, so MLB has been randomly testing players since 2004.
Supporters of Major League Baseball’s testing program point out that if only eight percent of players were using steroids before random testing took place, then that number should be less now that the tests are in place and therefore Conte’s assumption that “half of baseball” is juicing is just outrageous.
Conte, of course, would argue that testing has been flawed from the start and that the initial percent of players using steroids in 2003 was much higher, they just didn’t get caught.
Who is right? We may never know, unless MLB and other sports organization can develop a full-proof testing procedure (some argue that baseball doesn’t even want that because homeruns equal ticket sales). What we do know is that players like Cabrera continue to risk expensive suspensions, shame in the media and the ire of fans and still use steroids. They must think they can get away with it for some reason.