MLB Drug Testing Doesn't Work Because It Doesn't Restore Fans' Faith

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MLB Drug Testing Doesn't Work Because It Doesn't Restore Fans' Faith
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I've finally come to the conclusion that drug testing doesn't work in baseball. 

Almost 10 years ago, I wrote The Juice, a hard look at why drugs were a problem for the game, why testing was considered so necessary—and remember, this project started even before MLB survey testing—and what the issues facing baseball were.

Those issues have been addressed and more, but baseball still hasn't been able to re-establish the public trust. 

Leading up to the joint drug-testing agreement, a broad coalition of team officials, players, fans and even Congress fought for testing, saying there's no way we can trust the sport without testing.

That idea flat-out failed. Testing never became the true judge of cheating, with far too many people still saying they can just look at a player and know. 

Look at how a player like the Baltimore Orioles' Chris Davis is being treated. With 37 homers, he's being asked whether or not his big season is the result of steroids. The snarks in the group wink and nudge, nodding their heads at Brady Anderson, who's now on staff with the Orioles. You'll remember his big season, they'll say, often with a hand gesture signaling a syringe.

Davis has been in the majors since 2008. His entire career has been played under the current testing agreement. He's played two seasons with blood testing. He's even played parts of five seasons under the more strict minor league drug policy.

If Davis just had an average number of tests over that period, he would have been handed a cup and watched closely as he urinated into it about 24 times. He will have had blood drawn at least twice and likely three times.

Not once has Davis failed. 

Yet he's still asked the question. Even when he answers, calmly and cogently, no one seems to believe him, and he's asked again or the question is raised by a columnist. And again.

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The questions will pile high if his home run barrage continues and he starts approaching sacrosanct names like Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, then higher if he gets into an area where Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds stand in a baseball Hall of Shame.

It isn't just Davis. He's a symbol in the way that Jose Bautista was a couple of years ago and how virtually every player gets questioned any time they start to excel. About the only way to avoid the question is to show up fully formed. Albert Pujols did it a decade ago, and Mike Trout has avoided the questions despite his linebacker size. 

A decade ago, it was argued that testing would not only re-establish the mythical level playing field but that with testing in place, the questions from the public would be ended. A player who was cheating would be caught. A player who was not caught could be safely thought of as "clean." 

That so-called "steroid era" seems so quaint now.

In 2004, McGwire and Sosa were memories, and given the way the public had done a 180 on them, guided by a press that had gone quickly from accessory to accusatory, it seemed we'd never have clean players again.

It was Bonds who was the archetype, a villain assaulting the childhood memories of Rick Reilly and nostalgic Americans everywhere.

Anonymous testing in 2003 showed that around five percent of baseball players tested positive for a short list of banned substances. It didn't include stimulants or many of the substances that have been added to the banned lists over the last decade. Those 104 players on the list in Bud Selig's safe led baseball to the testing era.   

Over the years, 125 players have been caught. The minor league numbers are much higher, largely due to the use in underage Dominican and Venezuelan players who are being injected in hopes they will get signed. 

Suspensions have been handed down for big stars and players you've probably never heard of. Testing has increased and expanded, including blood tests now. The list of illegal substances has quadrupled in size, adding chemical names that look like a spelling-bee nightmare. 

The arguments that testing work are true—players have been caught, and Selig's assertion that the game is cleaner than ever, via Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, is also true. In fact, taking positive tests from 104 to six in the space of a decade is the kind of roaring success that should be celebrated.

Handout/Getty Images
Lance Armstrong and Oprah Winfrey.

Don't get me wrong: The testing itself has never been better.

The idea of "false positives" is false, and the chance of sneaking a new drug past the testers is one that we haven't seen for the better part of a decade, discrediting the myth of the cheaters always being ahead of the testers.

New drugs like CERA and Enobosarm were added to banned lists and testing protocols before they even hit the broad market, largely due to cooperation between pharmaceutical companies and drug-testing organizations like the World Anti-Doping Agency. 

The "hole in the system" is now nothing more than detectable periods. Some PEDs have very small windows in which there is enough in the body to be detected, in blood or urine. Of course, few point out that drugs with small detectable periods also have small periods in which they affect the body, leading to more regular injections.

While it's possible that the use periods don't overlap with one of the several random tests, it's a game of PED roulette that acts as a deterrent.

Instead, with each step forward and each cheater caught, baseball is being hoisted on its own successes. Every time they catch another of the small percentage of players who are undoubtedly always going to be there, they further the cycle.

The Biogenesis scandal has dragged on for months, a bit of slow-motion, new-media sport seppuku.

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Somehow, PEDs never had their "say it ain't so, Joe" moment where we turn the page and accept that testing is now judge, jury and executioner. Instead, an era of doubt has extended on for two decades and continuing on every time a player does something good. Selig missed his chance to turn that page just after the Mitchell Report, ignoring his own report's call for such a move. 

Testing has worked in one sense: It catches players who attempt to cheat. It's utterly failed in the most important sense, which is giving the public back the trust it had in the game. If it's not going to do that, it's time to consider not doing it at all. 

 

Will Carroll wrote The Juice in 2004 and has covered both injuries and the PED saga for over a decade. He is a member of the BBWAA. 

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