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Baseball's New Drug Problem: What to Do After Alex Rodriguez

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Baseball's New Drug Problem: What to Do After Alex Rodriguez
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The 162-game penalty meted out by baseball's arbitrator barely registered, but the 60 Minutes piece with Tony Bosch seems to have shaken baseball fans. Seeing a snake-oil salesman telling his story made many wonder why several of baseball's biggest stars, including Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun, would trust him with their careers.

The better question is, how many Tony Bosches are there out there? With a "Low T" clinic on every corner, there will be more than a few who think they know how to beat the system. There are always salesmen who can persuade someone who's been told their whole life that they need to be just a little bit better, and baseball players are told so often that PEDs are a magic bullet.

They aren't. 

The drugs listed in this article that I did when the Biogenesis story first broke aren't really the issue. While Bosch showed he wasn't even sure what drugs were banned—he also didn't care—all but one of them have a test in place. What Biogenesis proved is that there are challenges for the drug testers, not that "the cheaters are ahead," as many have put it.

There's no magic drug or protocol that Bosch or anyone else has in baseball or any other sport. What cheaters are doing is using a low amount of testosterone that stays below the detectable level. But does a dosage less than what is normally taken have any performance-enhancing effect? The levels that Bosch discussed on 60 Minutes are well below the levels that a person using prescription testosterone such as Androgel would be given. 

The success of Bosch's program is illusory. While the 13 athletes who were caught by non-analytic methods got the notice, few remembered that Braun, Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon and Yasmani Grandal all were caught by the testing program. There are likely a few more in the minor leagues as well, though MLB refused to comment. 

Bosch's clients were playing roulette, hoping their number didn't come up. They didn't "beat" tests, but generally got lucky. Low doses and short detectable periods make it difficult to catch people using, but only in terms of timing, not testing. If the testers happened to come with a cup, the offenders got caught.

This is not a loophole. This is how a random system is supposed to work. The athletes never know when their name will be called, which should be a deterrent to most. With a positive rate below one percent, down from over five percent just a decade ago, the system is working. Increasing the frequency of tests would work, yes, but outside of daily testing, gaps will still exist.

What many think is possible with protocols like what Bosch sold simply isn't. There are undetectable drugs, but the reasons go beyond testing. At this time, there's no new "Clear." BALCO sold a drug it called "The Clear," which is an anabolic steroid known as THG that had an unknown chemical structure and therefore couldn't be tested for. (A test was quickly developed when a BALCO rival turned in a sample.) 

Despite continued demands for increased testing and a more sensitive testosterone screen, the associated costs and ability to conduct that many tests are prohibitive. MLB's drug-testing budget isn't released, but the cost of collection and tests alone puts its expenses near that of the entire budget for the UK's drug-testing program, one that's undergoing cuts over the next few years. While there are certainly small changes needed, MLB's drug testing is singularly effective in sport.

For years, human growth hormone couldn't be detected, but a test was developed and added to baseball's testing program a few years ago. It is a blood test and there are still serious scientific questions about its effectiveness. Bosch said that Rodriguez used IGF-1, which does not currently have a test, though there are also major uncertainties regarding the drug's effectiveness.

There is one other drug that is widely used and undetectable. While I don't want to give details, it's a natural substance that simply cannot be tested for, now or in the foreseeable future. There are major side effects to its use, including death, and it requires considerable knowledge or supervision. All major organizations turn a blind eye to this because there is no answer.

Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

The problem is not with the testing, but with the fact that baseball and sports in general continue to treat Biogenesis like an isolated incident. When the BALCO story broke, it was the same thing. Kirk Radomski? One bad guy. Brian McNamee? Another bad guy. As Yahoo's Jeff Passan wrote, "Bosch isn't special. He isn't different. He's just the latest."

Let's face it, there are a lot of bad guys out there and they're not all stupid. It's the smart ones who should scare us. 

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