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Steroids & the minor leagues
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Discussing steroids with baseball players can be an excruciating experience. Strolling into a clubhouse, even at Grayson Stadium, with a tape recorder and some questions is about as friendly as a chaperone checking on a high school party.

With good reason, it might be said. In the last year attention has become more focused on the national pastime, and not just because the Red Sox finally won a World Series.

Steroids, for years the lurking secret of sports, have come to the forefront of the national dialogue. This is due in part to the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO) scandal and recent congressional pressure stemming from the Clean Sports Act.

While the federal government threatens legal action against Major League Baseball (MLB) and other sports leagues, fans have begun decrying the obvious jumps in body mass of their favorite players.

This year, the Major League Baseball Players Association and the Office of the Commissioner finally agreed to implement a new, more stringent policy to improve MLB’s stance on steroids in the mind of the public. How much this policy affects change has been a subject of much discussion this season, hence the tentativeness of ballplayers to discuss performance-enhancing drugs openly.

In this sense, it is similar to asking a bunch of high school kids at a party about drugs. Everyone claims they exist, sometimes in abundance, but no one seems to recall ever seeing anything themselves.

The current Major League policy stipulates that “all Players will be randomly selected for testing once at an unannounced time for the presence of Steroids.” The Commissioner’s office also reserves the right to random off season testing, with the specifics of “number, schedule and timing” to be determined by an oversight committee.

The first time a player is caught results in a ten- day suspension or up to a $10,000 fine. The second positive test results in a 30 day suspension or up to a $25,000 fine. The third strike gets the offender a 60 day leave and up to a $50,000 fine, while a four time loser receives a one year suspension or up to a $100,000 fine.

A fifth violation will find the player at the discretion of the commissioner.

If this seems a little lax, or slightly inconsequential, think about the fact that baseball had no steroid policy at all until 2002, and that agreement didn’t require anything more than a secret fine after the first offense.

Patrick Courtney, vice president for public relations at Major League Baseball, clarifies the “or” clause in each of these punishments.

“Washington picked up on that too, during the Congressional hearings, and what it is it’s written in the anomaly, the unknown happens,” he says. “You were in a car accident, you were given something unknowingly, and all of a sudden you’re suspended and fined for ten games. But the thing is, that ‘or’ language was taken out of the contract.”

He stressed that suspensions are without pay as well.

The minor leagues have things a bit tougher, with corresponding suspensions of 15, 30, and 60-games for the first three offenses and banishments for a year and possibly life for the fourth and fifth infractions. Minor Leaguers are also banned from taking any amphetamines, unlike their unionized Major League counterparts.

Randy Koor is the affable manager of the Savannah Sand Gnats and spoke with Connect about the new policies, the reasoning behind player usage and his own brush with the stuff.

Taking a break from changing into his uniform, Koor leaned forward in his office chair.

“I think it’s good,” he says. “It’s an illegal drug, it’s against the law to use steroids, so I don’t think it should be accepted in baseball.”

Koor seems slightly unsure of exactly what substances are banned. When asked, he ventures, “Any form of growth hormone.”

Actually, there is a list of some 45 substances, including the infamous Human Growth Hormone. The names of these substances would confuse the most proficient biology student and include the chemicals “Dehydrochloromethyltestosterone,” “13a-ethyl-17a-hydroxygon-4en-3-one” and “Norandrostenedione.” Steroids are apparently a bit more complicated than counting carbs.

At 36, Koor has spent the better part of two decades around the minor and major leagues, and has a practical reason for the differences between major and minor league policies. First off, he says, is the power of the Players Association.

“Major League Baseball has probably one of the most powerful unions in our country. They’ve got different rules up there,” he says. “I think eventually they’re going to try and crack down on that, but until they get both sides to agree on it, it’s going to be very difficult.”

On MLB Commissioner Bud Selig’s “Three Strikes” proposal, Courtney says, “Selig has said that he is going to be changing the minor league policy to 50, 100 and life, and has called on the union to join him for that in the majors as well.”

The temptation for minor leaguers to juice is much greater, as they have yet to attain the ultimate goal.

Koor explains, “If you think about it, you’ve got one shot at doing something that’s amazing in your lifetime. You get a chance to play in the big leagues, the highest level of anything you can do in your career. You can make a lot of money.”

He plays the scenario out:

“So if someone comes up to you and says, ‘Hey, you take this for six months or a year and get stronger, get faster, and build confidence because of what you’re able to produce at those levels’… Who wouldn’t do it?”

The decision seems an easy one from the moral sidelines, but thrust into the pressures of reality the choices become a bit more difficult. This isn’t the pusher-man of the streets offering a mental escape – this is the guarantee of a better performance.

Koor tells of his own brush with the substances.

“I was going to do it,” he admits. “I was 19 years old. The way it worked out, it worked out perfectly, I was going to do the pill form, me and another ballplayer. And the funny thing is, I was watching TV at the time and I had the bottle and I was talking to him on how to load up and it popped on and it said Lyle Alzado has cancer because of steroids. And I grabbed the bottle and threw it away. That’s what stopped me.”

The truth about steroids is a murky one that few seem willing to probe. When asked if during his career he had ever suspected players around him of doing steroids, Koor is emphatic.

“Hell, yeah. It’s their life, if they want to put all their eggs in one basket to be a ballplayer and have a short life, that’s their choice. I’d rather live long and enjoy my life rather than make a shitload of money, basically.”

Players predictably have similar stances. David Trahan is a 24-year-old pitcher with the Gnats in his first year of the minors.

“I’ve known people in the past that have played minor league baseball and from what they’ve said there’s a lot of people that use it.”

He thinks usage is prevalent but offers this caveat:

“They haven’t tested a whole lot so you don’t know. But you can tell. People hear about people taking ‘roids or people admit it.”

The Gnats were tested the first week of June, when they were on a trip to Asheville, N.C. Everyone walked away clear.

Trahan says that the testers “got up over the stalls and watched us pee. It was kind of weird, but that’s what they got to do.”

Koor confirms, “The guy watches you like a hawk.”

But however uncomfortable it may be, Trahan welcomes the added scrutiny, saying the extra attention will help level the playing field.

According to Courtney, there have been 75 minor league players suspended for steroid use in 2005, and six from the Major League forty-man rosters.

Most of the names are unrecognizable to even astute fans of the game.

For example, when pressed Trahan cannot name a single player suspended for usage.

Colin Balester, a 19-year-old pitcher in his first full season in minors, munched on some Taco Bell in the clubhouse. The hurler said that he doesn’t take any supplements, not even the ubiquitous creatine and protein shakes.

However, he does offer some insight into how a player can size up the permissibility of a supplement – look at the label, where a “little thing on the back says supplement facts or nutrition facts. Take the one that has nutrition facts and nothing will show up.”

The players’ education about which substances are banned appears to be a typically dry presentation put on by the organization, and a Xeroxed sheet listing the previously mentioned multi-syllabic chemicals.

Thomas Wilson, a 26-year-old pitcher with two years in the minors, says the new policy is having the desired effect.

“The people that were taking it, it scared more people away, they backed off,” he says.

Discussing the use of recreational drugs at parties in comparison to steroids in the locker room, Thomas has some valuable insight.

“It’s nowhere close to party use, because people are more open about street drugs,” he says. “It’s a more personal thing that you keep to yourself, not something you brag about.”

On Selig’s proposed strengthening of the steroid policy, Thomas says, “I definitely think there should be a real strict policy. It’s cheating and I think hurting the game of baseball for the long run.”