Garciaparra and Arroyo Speak up on Steroids

I mentioned in my recent post that there were a few topics I wanted to address in regard to steroids. Two of them were comments from former teammates of Manny and Ortiz following the leak of their names in connection to the survey tests conducted by MLB in 2003. The first came from Nomar and dealt with one potential problem with listing the names of players who failed an anonymous survey test. The second came from Bronson Arroyo and addressed the possibility of lack of intent involved in testing positive for the survey tests.

Nomar's remarks raised the issue of whether there could be players named on the list who never even legitimately tested positive. For instance, he poses the possibility that, as survey testing, the standards of identifying false positives may not have been as high (since they were not actually trying to identify steroid users). By far the more intriguing possibility he talks about, however, is the possibility someone could be on the list for refusing to participate in the survey test. Typically, a refusal to test implies an act of hiding something, and, as such, is generally treated the same as a positive test. With anonymity guaranteed, there was no reason for a user to refuse testing; however, Nomar claims there were players who wanted to refuse testing in the survey (and thus be counted as a positive) simply to raise the number of positive tests and increase the chances of implementing a testing policy. Could these players be on the list?

If this is the case, and if names keep leaking out, then it is possible that players could end up being vilified specifically because they took a stand against steroid use. If Nomar's assertion that players would actually submit automatic positives to help trigger a testing policy sounds far-fetched, consider that reports of plans to do just that surfaced during Spring Training of 2003. While the organized effort to coordinate refusal of testing throughout an organization was stopped, it is conceivable that some of the individual players involved in the plan, as well as others throughout MLB who felt the same way, may have followed through on refusal to test. Given that the testing was merely for survey purposes, there would have been no deterrent to anyone wishing to do so. Again the question becomes, could these players be on the same list as the players who tested and came up positive?

The tests were purely intended to survey MLB for the prevalence of steroid use; it was never their goal to identify players who tested positive. The only data of note from such a survey was how many positive results were returned. No other details were relevant, including who tested positive or what drugs were discovered in samples. As such, there would be no reason to separate the list of positives into any further classification than "positive" or "not positive". Since refusal to test counted as a positive, it is reasonable to assume that it is at least possible a player who refused to test would be listed with the other positive results on the list.

Presumably, the union has or had more details regarding the tests, including what drugs were detected in the tests, based on reports that players were eventually notified of such information after the results were seized. If this is the case, then we may eventually get confirmation of a players' non-guilt if such a player is named; however, what are currently leaking are simply names with no further details. We are relying on the players themselves to fill us in on the rest of the details.

Given this possibility, what if a name like Frank Thomas is leaked as being on the list? He was an avid opponent to steroids at the time of the survey tests, and while the identities of the veterans who hatched the plan to refuse testing were never revealed, we do know that the most outspoken player on the issue was playing for the White Sox at the time. We have to at least consider the possibility that we may hear a name connected to that list without an actual positive test associated with it, and it would behoove us to be prepared to wait until all the facts come out before passing judgment from now on.

On a different note, Bronson Arroyo's comments related to those who actually did test positive. Quote Arroyo:
Before 2004, none of us paid any attention to anything we took. Now they don't want us to take anything unless it's approved. But back then, who knows what was in stuff? The FDA wasn't regulating stuff, not unless it was killing people or people were dying from it.
-Boston Harold

His claim is that players could have essentially tested positive for steroids without intentionally taking steroids because lax regulation of legal supplements led to tainted products and because the players had little incentive to be as discerning with what they were taking as long as it was legally available over the counter. He adds that he took andro prior to 2004 and believes that he may be one of the players to test positive because of rumours that andro, which was legal at the time and not on baseball's banned supplement list, was potentially tainted with steroids.

If players really did have steroids in their system only because they were unknowingly taking legal supplements that were tainted, I believe that is a significant difference from deliberately juicing. In the anonymous survey testing, there was no deterrent to get players taking legal supplements to find out if they could be tainted and make sure their samples were clean. Someone who tripped a positive test with a legal supplement may have been surprised to learn as much, but the only repercussion would be that they learned that they would have to be careful about even legal supplements in the future. It was never to be an issue as long as they were aware of such dangers going forward. The leaking of names from the list of positive tests in the survey test improperly lumps these players in under the canopy of deliberate cheaters.

How plausible are Arroyo's claims, though? Like with Garciaparra's assertions, contemporary reports back Arroyo. The FDA claimed a year later that andro was a potentially dangerous supplement that could be converted to steroids in the body and stopped distribution of the product. As a dietary supplement, andro required no FDA approval to hit the market, but the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 described in the linked article gave the FDA both responsibility to ensure its safety and avenue to act against it; however, it was only 10 years later, after the period of survey testing in MLB, that the supplement was regulated.

The issue could be further exacerbated for players who live and train in countries with less oversight over supplements than the U.S. The possibility that players could have introduced steroids into their bodies unknowingly certainly seems plausible. With the only regulation in place that players take legal supplements, I can't blame players for going only so far as to determine whether what they are taking is a legally available and legally acquired substance as the rules required. Neither the law nor the league dictated that they were responsible to know whether their legal actions could inadvertantly lead to detection of steroids.

Is it reasonable to believe that not all of the 104 positive tests were the result of deliberate juicing? The number of positive tests in MLB dropped from 104 in 2003 to 12 in 2004. If we are to expect that all of those positives were the result of deliberate juicing, and we believe both that steroids have a significant effect on performance and that the number of positive tests is in any way indicative of the prevalence of deliberate use, then that is a sizeable drop that should lead to detectable changes in league-wide numbers. That's not the case, however, at least not for two of the measures most commonly assumed to be linked to steroids (HR power for hitters and fastball velocity for pitchers). As we saw in the previous steroid article, the rate of home runs per ball in play rose a bit from 2003 to 2004 and has not been down significantly since. Similarly, the average fastball velocity, as estimated by averaging velocities from FanGraphs' team pages, weighted by percentage of fastballs thrown for each team, is virtually unchanged.

This does not, of course, mean that a large chunk of the positives in 2003 did not represent deliberate steroid use. There are a number of possible reasons those stats didn't drop. It could be that our understanding of how steroids affect players is simply wrong or misguided. It's possible that the drop in positive tests represents players getting better at beating the system once the tests are punitive. It's also reasonable, though, that part of the explanation could be that a number of those positive tests were from tainted legal supplements that did not have the same effects as steroids. After all, despite Arroyo's comment that andro made him feel "like [he] could jump and hit [his] head on the basketball rim," his velocity didn't drop at all froms 2002-2003 to the years after. This sample of one does nothing to establish a reliable effect of andro or other potentially tainted then-legal supplements, but it is in line with the idea that just because something could introduce steroids into a player's urine does not mean it is giving him the benefits commonly perceived as resultant of steroid use.

Neither of these players' statements give us anything definitive about the list of 104. Both, however, introduce complexities far beyond the simple binary experiment of on or off being played out in the media. Simply assuming as much as we do based on this list that was never intended to be released, and which is being so now illegally (which is a separate but probably more important issue), is oversimplifying the issue and eschewing an understanding of the era we've bourn witness to. If we really want to understand what was going on all these years and what it meant to the game as Senator Mitchell so wanted when he conducted his report, then we need to be listening to players like Garciaparra and Arroyo when they speak like this, and we need to take what they say seriously. To me, that is much more imporant than having names to vilify.

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