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Why Latest Report Won't Lead to Major Changes in MLB's War on PEDs

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Why Latest Report Won't Lead to Major Changes in MLB's War on PEDs

A new scandal involving performance-enhancing drugs has come to light, but don't expect it to rock Major League Baseball down to its very core. As damning as the latest news is, it's unlikely to put MLB's PED protocols on trial.

An ESPN "Outside the Lines" report that came out over the weekend warned that MLB was looking into wellness clinics in South Florida. On Tuesday, a report from Tim Elfrink of the Miami New Times blew the lid off one of them, linking several prominent ballplayers to PEDs in the process.

Elfrink's report concerns a recently closed anti-aging clinic called Biogenesis, run by 49-year-old Anthony Bosch, located not too far from the University of Miami. An "extraordinary batch of records" provided by a former Biogenesis employee features the names of Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon, Nelson Cruz, Gio Gonzalez and Yasmani Grandal.

But the biggest name of the bunch is New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez. He admitted in 2009 to using PEDs in the early 2000s, and now here he is in the middle of yet another PED scandal.

The league just announced a couple weeks ago that it is going to be doing random in-season blood tests for human growth hormone for the first time starting this season, and that new procedures are being put in place so the league can more easily detect the use of synthetic testosterone.

HGH and testosterone are mentioned several times throughout the New Times report, including in conjunction with A-Rod. The records start mentioning him in 2009 and continue through April of 2012.

In a statement, the league said it was "disappointed" to hear of the findings. Beyond that, the league said that it is in the middle of an "active investigation and [is] gathering and reviewing information."

The next step could be punishing A-Rod and the other players named in the report. Getting to that next step, however, will be tricky, and it's possible that the effort will be futile.

As convenient as it would be, the league obviously can't hand out suspensions based solely on the New Times report. The league must adhere to the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program (link via Hardball Talk's Craig Calcaterra), which relies primarily on positive tests to weed out PED users. 

That shouldn't change, and the New Times report doesn't reveal any changes that need to be made for how MLB goes about securing suspensions without positive tests.

For starters, the report doesn't cast all the players mentioned in the same light. The key passage on Gio Gonzalez leaves plenty of room for doubt:

There's also the curious case of Gio Gonzalez, the 27-year-old, Hialeah-native, left-handed hurler who won 21 games last year for the Washington Nationals. Gonzalez's name appears five times in Bosch's notebooks, including a specific note in the 2012 book reading, "Order 1.c.1 with Zinc/MIC/... and Aminorip. For Gio and charge $1,000." (Aminorip is a muscle-building protein.)

Gonzalez's father, Max, also appears on Bosch's client lists and is often listed in conjunction with the pitcher. But reached by phone, the Hialeah resident insists his son has had no contact with Bosch.

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
Nats ace Gio Gonzalez has reasonable doubt working for him in this case.

Gonzalez's connection to Bosch is weak. He may be connected to Bosch in conjunction with his father, but that could just be because Bosch drew that connection based on Gonzalez's fame. That would fit with New Times' profile of Bosch, who took pride in his dealings with star athletes.

MLB has stronger grounds to pursue punishments for Cabrera, Colon, Grandal and Cruz. Cabrera, Colon and Grandal have, of course, already been suspended for PEDs

But A-Rod will be the big fish here, and a source told Bob Nightengale of USA Today that he could be suspended as a result of the New Times report. Here's a key passage on him that could provide the precedent for a suspension that MLB needs:

The mentions of Rodriguez begin in 2009 and continue all the way through last season. Take a page in another notebook, which is labeled "2012" and looks to have been written last spring. Under the heading "A-Rod/Cacique," Bosch writes, "He is paid through April 30th. He will owe May 1 $4,000... I need to see him between April 13-19, deliver troches, pink cream, and... May meds. Has three weeks of Sub-Q (as of April)."

Jay Gibbons and Jose Guillen were suspended in 2007 when they were discovered to have purchased HGH and steroids, even though neither of them had tested positive. If MLB were to pursue such a suspension for A-Rod, it would presumably be through the provision in the drug agreement that allows Commissioner Bud Selig to issue suspensions based on "just cause."

However, the documents acquired by the New Times aren't good enough. They're all handwritten, and the amount of money Bosch received for substances is merely written down. There's no mention of any receipts. MLB may have a hard time proving that A-Rod actually purchased PEDs from Bosch.

The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports
A-Rod isn't guilty yet.

And for what it's worth, A-Rod said in a statement acquired by Nightengale and others that he was never a patient of Bosch's, and that the documents in the New Times story are "not legitimate."

One thing MLB could do is use the New Times report to get the ball rolling on immediate drug tests for the players involved, as the league has the option to pursue "Reasonable Cause Testing." From Page 12 of the agreement:

In the event that either Party has information that gives it reasonable cause to believe that a Player has, in the previous 12-month period, engaged in the use, possession, sale or distribution of a Performance Enhancing Substance (including hGH) or Stimulant, the Party shall provide the other Party, either orally or in writing, with a description of its information (“Reasonable Cause Notification”), and the Player will be subject to an immediate urine and/or blood specimen collection, or a program of testing, as determined by the IPA, to commence no later than 48 hours after the Reasonable Cause Notification was provided.   

However, players who receive a Reasonable Cause Notification have the right to dispute the "reasonable cause" itself. In this case, Hardball Talk's Craig Calcaterra wrote that the players named in the report could easily take issue with the fact that MLB would be going after them following a newspaper report that, once again, references potentially illegitimate documents.

In other words, players have rights too, and now is a perfect time for several players to exercise theirs. They can fight that what's in the New Times report is not gospel, and they can do so fairly easily.

Because the grounds for Selig to take advantage of the "just cause" provision are shaky, and because even the grounds for immediate tests based on "reasonable cause" are shaky, the New Times report could easily result in no suspensions at all. The players mentioned in the report could only walk away with damaged reputations.

That would be a public relations defeat for MLB, but it would not be a cause for panic. The league would not be inspired to make major changes to its PED detection and punishment protocols, which are already the toughest in American sports.

MLB absolutely cannot start suspending people every time a report linking players to PEDs comes out. It doesn't matter how strong or weak the links are. MLB must dig up its own evidence to suspend players, and it must be definitive.

Suspending players based on evidence other than positive tests is always going to be tricky. Simple hearsay doesn't cut it now, and simple hearsay must never cut it. MLB can use it as a guide for who to look closely at, but that's about it.

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
Bud Selig isn't exaggerating when he refers to the toughness of MLB's PED program.

In the case of the New Times report, MLB will have what it needs to pursue suspensions when it has more proof that players dealt with Bosch than just his handwritten documents. A prescription could do the trick, as was the case with Manny Ramirez in 2009, but the league is probably wasting its time searching for prescriptions in this latest case because of how informally Bosch kept track of his dealings with ballplayers.

As such, it could come down to the dollar amounts mentioned in Bosch's books reappearing in credit card or bank statements for MLB to confirm that players were indeed buying drugs from Bosch. The league is only going to be this lucky if the players were stupid enough not to pay cash.

MLB's best hope may be to rely on the DEA to provide the information it needs, which the "Outside the Lines" report claimed the league is already doing. That, obviously, isn't standard procedure, as MLB can't rely on the government to help it weed out every PED user in existence.

The league may not even be able to lean on the government in this case, as the clinic records obtained by the DEA and other law enforcement outfits may not be subpoenaed. 

What the New Times report essentially is for MLB is a tip, and little else. It does not contain damning evidence that reveals how players are taking advantages of loopholes in MLB's drug prevention protocols. Indeed, that three of the players mentioned in the report weren't even able to evade detection reflects well on MLB's PED protocols.

The general message of the report is this: There are places for MLB players to acquire PEDs in South Florida; they're going to take advantages of these places, and not all of them are going to get caught.

In other words, MLB wasn't told anything on Tuesday that it didn't already know. The league will have to use it as an excuse to keep a close eye on South Florida, and to see if anything can be done about A-Rod, Cruz and the others based on the protocols that are already in place.

MLB has some hard work to do, but it's not back to the drawing board.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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