Say the words “performance-enhancing drugs” in a baseball discussion, and if there’s more than two people involved in it, chances are, you’re going to get strong opinions on the topic. For Major League Baseball, the issue is most often centered around its records and awards, most notably the Hall of Fame.
But, if you look at every drug suspension in baseball (see the All-Time Drug Suspension list), players in the majors that have been suspended make up a tiny fraction of the total. Whether it has been players being able to afford substances or trainers to administer them that avoid detection, or the way that the program, called the Joint Drug Agreement (JDA), has been collectively bargained, major league players coming up positive in testing, or being caught through non-testing means termed non-analytics, chances are slim that a player under the major league testing program is announced as being under suspension.
Indeed, this year, there has been exactly one drug suspension under the major league policy (Edinson Volquez of the Reds on April 20), and last season there were just two (Kelvin Pichardo of the Giants, and the most high profile player to be suspended for PEDs since 2004, Manny Ramirez of the Dodgers).
The minor league testing policy, however, is a different animal. The number of players suspended each year is much higher, with the reasons being an incredibly complicated mix. There are young players in the Dominican and Venezuelan Summer Leagues that make up a large percentage of players that test positive each year. That ties into everything from players coming from desperate poverty to the buscóns– unlicensed managers/agents that work with some of the youngest prospects baseball has to offer. These young players, often times desperate, will do whatever a buscón will tell them. “Take this. Drink that,” without knowing whether what they are consuming is a vitamin or a possible banned substance. Throw in players from North America that are looking for any advantage that can get them into the majors, players using nutritional supplements that can be tainted with banned substances, plus drugs of abuse such as marijuana, etc. and, as mentioned, it gets complicated. (For more on the buscón culture, I highly recommend reading Sean Gregory’s Baseball Dreams: Striking Out in the Dominican Republic on TIME.com)
For MLB, the minor league testing program allows them to move unfettered by the MLBPA. Without being challenged by the union for the players, everything from the levels of a substance within the body, the ability to increase testing as the league sees fit, to the recent addition of hGH testing, are green lighted depending on the direction that the league wishes to go.
Breaking down the totals, here’s the number of players that are on minor league rosters outside of the Dominican and Venezuelan Summer Leagues that are on the non-40 man MLB rosters (source Major League Baseball):
- US – 4,315
- Canada – 97
- Mexico – 78
The number of players on the Dominican and Venezuelan Summer League players breaks down as follows (source: Major League Baseball):
- DSL: 1,325
- VSL: 272
Going back to the total minor league drug suspensions to date, there has been a total of 73 players suspended across the minor league systems or 1.2 percent of the total 6,087 players. The total of 73 players is up from last year’s total of 48 at this time last year. In terms of the players in the Dominican Republic, they constitute 30 of those 73, or 41 percent of the total positive tests, or approx. 2 percent of all players on the Dominican Summer League rosters have tested positive within the drug testing program. By comparison, just 2 players (Jose Mendoza of the Mariners system, and Jose Acosta of the Pirates system) have tested positive out of the Venezuelan Summer League, or less than 1 percent of the 272 players on VSL rosters.
While there has been an increase in the number of minor league positives this year, according to Rob Manfred, MLB’s Senior VP of Labor Relations and Human Resources, the reason for the increase to-date has more to do with the number of tests and randomness of testing. Manfred doesn’t see the uptick as being all that dramatic, and cautioned looking at mid-season numbers.
“We not only increased the number of tests conducted this year In the DR, but significantly altered the pattern of testing”, said Manfred. “And, whenever we do that, we get a spike. Major League, Minor League, in the DR, whenever we change the pattern so that it’s not predictable, we get a spike.”
Manfred said that by the end of the season, there would likely be a slight increase in the number of suspensions based on the increased number of tests being conducted in the Dominican Republic.
An added issue is that the drug policy, which using the WADA program as a jumping off point, is that there are cultural and political differences in the DR that can run into issues with a black and white drug policy. There was the aforementioned buscón culture, but also, there are substances that are banned through the system that can be readily obtained over-the-counter in the DR. Manfred said that while the program is the program, educating the players is the focus.
“We recognize that there are differences between Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and our minor league system throughout N. America and that’s why we’ve worked very hard to have educational components to the program (see the list of education items at the end of this article) in the Dominican Republic that are conducted by Dominicans for the Dominican players that understand the legal system there, the cultural differences there, so that while the standard is the same, we try to tailor the program to the culture in which we are applying that program.”
On the Timing of hGH Testing
Another wrinkle in the minor league testing program has been the addition of testing for Human-Growth Hormone (hGH). The testing, done by blood draw, has drawn criticism throughout the media. With the expense of the substance, and its short amount of time that it is detectable in the body, many have said that the testing for hGH is nothing more than a PR move, or as I opined, based upon the timing of moving forward on testing for hGH, a leveraging maneuver for the league to use in collective bargaining with the MLBPA. With the level of positive tests coming out of the minors now for steroids such as Stanozolol and Boldenone, one could ask whether expending money on hGH testing might be better directed at the current system.
Manfred countered these claims saying that it wasn’t an either/or proposition.
“We look at the programs on an on-going basis, and we try to make the very best decisions for the program that we can to address what we see as our problem spots,” Manfred said. “I think the commissioner’s decision to go ahead with the (hGH) testing was premised on his fundamental commitment to use the best available technology to battle the use of performance-enhancing in our programs. The technology may have its limitations in terms of periods of detection, but I think the fundamental policy judgment was that it was the best available technology.”
In citing the non-analytical 50 game suspension of Atlanta Braves prospect Jordan Schafer for hGH when he was with Double-A Mississippi of the Southern League in 2008 Manfred said it was a sign that not only can some players afford hGH, testing for it would add additional deterrents. “We know that people can be caught because they have been caught.”
In terms of when the hGH program was unveiled, the question is, “Why now?” The minor league season is well over halfway done. Is there a political component? Manfred says it’s far more simplistic citing the commissioner’s directive on PEDs, the timing of the logistics, and feedback on the science behind the testing.
“When we got to that point we deployed,” Manfred said. “Why wait? The directive from the commissioner was figure out logistically when we could move forward on the hGH program, and when the science was deemed to be sound based on feedback, and we did. It was just that simple.”
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The league has said repeatedly that it is working hard to educate players throughout the minor league system about the testing program and its implications. Below is a listing of what is involved in that effort:
1. The 2010 Minor League Drug Program (in English and Spanish), that applies to all non 40-man rosters, including those players in the D.R.
2. A memo to Clubs regarding nutritional supplements that describes the protocol for supplement inquiries by players.
3. A memo to players (in English and Spanish) regarding nutritional supplements that Clubs were required to distribute on Club letterhead to all players at spring training and at D.R. academies. The Commissioner’s Office confirmed that all players received a copy of this memorandum.
4. A wallet card (in English and Spanish) that was distributed by Drug Free Sport to every minor league player in spring training and at the D.R academies.
5. The 7th and current edition of the non-exclusive warning list of potentially contaminated nutritional supplements (in English and Spanish) that is “prominently displayed” in every minor league home and visitors Clubhouse, and at every D.R. academy. A copy of this warning list, along with the list of NSF Certified for Sport supplements (see the NSF list and read the 2009 interview with Edward Wyszumiala, General Manager of NSF International), was also distributed to the top 200 prospects who were subject to the Prospect Drug Testing Program.
6. Minor League Drug Program poster (in English and Spanish) are “prominently displayed” in every minor league home and visitors Clubhouse, and at every D.R. academy.
7. Minor League Drug Program supplement posters (in English and Spanish) are “prominently displayed” in every minor league home and visitors Clubhouse, and at every D.R. academy. The supplement poster contains a link to the NSF website, which provides links to the certified supplement list, articles and a number of other educational resources for players.
8. The instructions and 3 screen shots (content, question, and answer) from the online education program that all minor league players were required to complete in spring training. The online education program, which covers 10 drug program-related topics, is available for all players at www.drugfreesport.com/rec. The online education program allows the Commissioner’s Office to track who has completed the tutorial, allows players to go back and review the contents/questions, and provides downloadable versions of the Program, the warning list, and the posters. The Drug Free Sport website (where the online education program is located) also provides links to a number of other educational resources for players regarding drug testing and supplements.
9. The memo to all minor league players (in English and Spanish) regarding amendments to the Minor League Drug Program. The Commissioner’s Office confirmed that all players at all minor league affiliates and D.R. academies received a copy of this memorandum.
In addition, the following educational programs were conducted in 2010:
1. Drug Free Sport conducted live education presentations during spring training at all 30 spring training sites and at all D.R. academies during the DSL season. Posters and wallet cards were distributed at these presentations, and the online education program was explained.
2. The Commissioner’s Office, the Players Association, and Tim Maxey (the Joint Strength and Conditioning Coordinator) presented on the drug program and nutritional supplements at the U.S. Rookie Career Development Program in Landsdowne, VA and at the Latin America Rookie Career Development Program in Boca Chica, D.R. Copies of materials were distributed to attendees at both Programs.
3. Raymond Blais presents on the drug program and supplements twice a year at each D.R. academy, and meets individually with every newly signed player in the D.R.. Raymond provides his contact information to all D.R. players he meets as a resource for questions. Raymond has also presented this year at a number of “independent trainer” academies in the D.R. and has met with a “certified” group of D.R. physicians.
4. Dr. Green, MLB’s medical director, traveled to all spring training locations in Arizona to meet with players, Club physicians, athletic trainers, and strength and conditioning coaches to provide updates and information on the drug programs.
5. Tim Maxey travelled to all 30 spring training sites and a number of Clubs throughout the season to meet with Major and Minor League players, athletic trainers and strength and conditioning coaches to provide information on nutrition and supplements. Tim’s contact information has been provided to all Clubs and players as a resource on these topics.
Source: Major League Baseball
Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey, as well as a contributor to FanGraphs and Forbes SportsMoney. He is available for freelance and looks forward to your comments.