This is part two of our sit-down interview with MLBPA Executive Director, Michael Weiner where we discuss PED use, baseball’s testing policy, and what good “Steroids in Baseball talk” would be complete without HGH.
Over the last decade baseball has done a complete “180″ in terms of cleaning up the sport and virtually eradicating performance-enhancing drug use. In that ten-year span we went from seeing Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire test the limits of what we knew to be possible, while eclipsing Roger Maris’ famed single-season home run record to seeing the two of them hauled out in front of congress, where they proceeded to lie in front of a Congressional Sub-Committee and for Sosa the specter of being on CSPAN caused him to completely forget English. Given how bleak and out of control things seemed for the game in terms of, for lack of a better word, “cleanliness” it is truly remarkable that baseball is now viewed as the standard-bearer for for PED testing in professional sports.
Some would contend that the evolution of baseball’s drug program was more reactionary than proactive however, no one can dispute the strides they have made to date, especially this past off-season when baseball became the first major American professional sports league to pass Human Growth Hormone (HGH) testing and with relative ease, I may add. When asked about what changes were implemented that allowed Major League Baseball to emerge from the Steroid Era as the professional sports league with the most stringent testing program, Weiner had this to offer:
“First and foremost, I would like to point out that this union agreed to a joint drug program in 1984 but the drug that everyone concerned about at that time was Cocaine, nevertheless the union agreed to it. However, after the Pittsburgh scandal in 1985, involving players like Tim Raines and Keith Hernandez, management decided to terminate the agreement and go after players. Then in 1986, management attempted to unilaterally insert clauses into everybody’s contract that stipulated they had to submit to drug testing, which they stamped into every contract any player signed. We then filed a grievance, arguing that it was an “end-run” around the union and was improper, we won. After 1986, the next time that drug testing was even brought to the table was in the very contentious 1994 negotiation. In terms of the 1994 negotiations, In December, when management decided to unilaterally implement a salary cap and elimination of salary arbitration (among other things) they chose not to include drug testing. They had the option to but they didn’t.”
Where we decide to pause the story is an extremely pivotal moment in the shaping of the next 10 or so years in the sport, as in 1994 as Weiner mentioned the owners could have put drug testing on the table but opted not to. What ensued from that point forward is what we refer to commonly as the “Steroids Era” in baseball, which continues to loom as a dark cloud over the game even to this date. However, it is something that could have been avoided and prevented altogether had the owners opted to put it on the table back in 1994. Many wonder as to why even in the height of the Steroid Era in the mid-to-late 90′s, Major League Baseball opted not to implement some sort of testing program. One of the major reasons was because of how contentious the 1994 negotiations were as Weiner explains:
“Fast forward from 1994, the next time management had the ability to propose drug testing was in the 2001/2002 negotiations, to which we agreed. During the “Steroid Era” we heard rumblings of unusual things going on such as the case of Brady Anderson and I think Don (Fehr) has acknowledged in retrospect that maybe all of us (management included) could have moved quicker. However, you have to understand where we were in terms of bargaining at that point, we were just coming off of the most contentious labor negotiations in the history of baseball maybe even the history of sports. The 1994 negotiations actually lasted from December 7th, 1992 when management opened up the basic agreement to the early part of 1997 when we finally agreed on the language of the new basic agreement. After 1997 the next round of bargaining starts in 2001 and during that span do we start to hear that there may be steroids in the game? Do we start to hear from players that drug testing may be important to implement? Yes. But should we have said – we should bargain in 1998, 99, or 2000 over this issue when we are not legally required to and had no leverage? Maybe looking back you would said we should. I wouldn’t. That said, I’m looking back at in terms of the history of the bargaining relationship at that point was and we never had a negotiation that did not lead to a work-stoppage. I don’t think it works to transpose we are now to where we were then, I think we negotiated when the world and history allowed us to negotiate which was in 2002.”
“In respect to where the game and the drug program specifically went from 2002 to 2013, that was a lot of hard work from a lot of people both at the union and on the management side to make sure that we had the best program available. We received some push from Congress at the beginning, no question about it and we made some modifications to the program as a result of pressure from Congress in the early years (2005-2006) of our program. However, since then we have made major improvements to our program with HGH being the latest. I would attribute that to: a commitment on the part of the player to having a clean game and on the management side there is a commitment as well to having a tough program.” Said Weiner.
It seems that the topic of HGH is a pretty sensitive subject, some (like myself) and Andy Pettitte would argue that HGH used by itself is in fact not a performance enhancer like Anabolic Steroids but is more along the lines of a performance-enabler ala Cortisone. When it comes to deciding what substances should and shouldn’t be approved for use, it seems like there are a lot of “shades of grey” as to where we draw the distinction between the performance-enabling properties of HGH and that of Cortisone or any other pain-killer/anti-inflammatory. Weiner explains the rationale and protocol as such:
“I’m sure everyone can have their own debates about it but here’s how we draw the line: Anything the government declares cannot be bought without a prescription like Anabolic Steroids is a Performance Enhancing Drug. In regards to Cortico-Steroids, anti-inflammatories, and things of that sort do not build muscle and are not considered Performance Enhancing Drugs, they are still only available to players by prescription but we do not test for them and they are not banned substances. HGH was added to the government’s list that I alluded to and therefore we automatically amended our program to include it as potential muscle-builder and performance-enhancer. I’ve had a number of people come to me and say: I’m going to make the argument that HGH is not a performance enhancing drug – and I said go ahead make the argument, it’s been denominated by the government as this kind of drug available under these circumstances and under the terms of our program, it is banned. Period.”
For all the strides that Major League Baseball’s drug testing program has made, it has not acted as an absolute deterrent for Performance Enhancing Drug use as it seems at least one high-profile player every year tests positives for PED’s. Whether it is a Manny Ramirez, a Melky Cabrera, or even a Ryan Braun, it appears as long as there is a system in place there will always be players who attempt to cheat (successfully or not) to cheat the system. I questioned whether baseball will ever truly be rid of the specter of PED’s to which Weiner responded:
“Probably not. Simply because of the fact that we don’t test every single day and there are some people that are going to try and cheat no matter what. That said, this does not change how we approach it, we want to have the toughest and fairest program in sports and that is what we strive to do. We might not catch everybody but we are going to do our best to be tough and fair. The players want a clean game and we will do our best to have it even though we recognize the ideal may not be 100% but we’ll try and get as close as we can.”
In the wake of the “Steroid Era” one of the hottest debates in baseball sphere is whether or not admitted and purported steroid users such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens should be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Granted this decision (for better or worse) rests solely in the hand of the baseball writers but it is something that will loom over the game for the next few years as more and more steroid users names appear on the ballot and have their eligibility clocks start. One man who has been around the game before and after the Steroid Era had this to say about the likes of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens should be inducted in the Hall:
“Bonds and Clemens should be in the Hall. Period.”
Thus ends Part II of our series, stay tuned for Part III where we talk about what matters most to you guys, the New York Yankees.