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Opponents say baseball's new steroid policy is pretty weak
SAN FRANCISCO -- Baseball's new mandatory steroid testing plan appears to give cheating players every advantage they need to avoid detection while taking illegal performance-enhancing drugs, scientists and doping detectives say.
The plan to test all athletes beginning in March will probably fail, they say, because it ignores the many lessons Olympics officials learned while trying to curb steroid abuse.
"The plan of attack is a very bad plan and it sends a very poor message to fans," said Dick Pound, head of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
The tests won't be conducted during the offseason or postseason. With at least four months free from visits by doping detectives, cheaters have time to illegally bulk up and then rid their bodies of evidence before spring training.
And if all else fails, it takes five positive results before Major League Baseball will banish one of its players for up to a year.
Rob Manfred, baseball's executive vice president for labor relations, didn't return a call seeking comment. During the meeting of baseball team owners last week, commissioner Bud Selig defended the program.
"Remember, before this agreement, we had no program. So we've made progress," Selig said.
The mandatory testing plan is being imposed because between 5 percent and 7 percent of anonymous steroid tests among major leaguers came back positive last season. Those results triggered a provision in the sport's labor contract requiring all players to be tested. The commissioner's office and the union didn't say what steroids were uncovered.
Typically, steroids are taken in combination and used in cycles of six to ten weeks.
Going forward, experts say it appears likely users will time their usage of the drugs around the testing and choose steroids that disappear from the body faster than ones widely used in gyms, such as nandrolone, which can be detected up to a year after use.
Powerful steroids such as methenolone enanthate, oxandrolone, and testosterone undeconoate that clear the body quickly are easily purchased online from Chinese companies or directly from Mexican pharmacies. There's also Winstrol, affectionately called "winny" and made popular by disgraced Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson, which can be injected or ingested in tablet form.
Winny tablets disappear within about three weeks, several weeks longer if injected. One Belize-based company offers to ship 90 tablets for $250, a quick Internet search showed.
Athletes are also turning to less dangerous applications, such as steroid-laced creams and gels that dissolve between the cheek and gum.
The only way to catch cheats who are using quick-to-clear steroids is to randomly test them the entire year, said Dr. Linn Goldberg of the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.
"Unannounced and out-of-competition testing is the only way you can effectively do this," said Goldberg, who is also a doping control officer for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
Recently, Goldberg woke up an Olympic athlete at 7 a.m. for a urine sample. Two nights later, he waited patiently for 45 minutes as another Olympic athlete consumed enough water to provide a sample. Goldberg declined to name the athletes or their sports.
Olympic athletes are tested for as many as 70 substances, including many "masking agents," which may be legal but raise red flags when they appear in an otherwise healthy athlete.
One popular masking agent is the diuretic Probenecid, which is legitimately used to treat gout. But diuretics, which increase urine production, can also help flush steroids from the system.
Baseball will test for a little more than two dozen steroids and related substances. Since they don't have to worry about masking agents showing up in tests, experts say players may exploit a league requirement that any positive test be confirmed by a test on a second urine sample five to seven days later. In that time, a player could ingest a diuretic.
Also, with the average baseball salary surpassing $2 million annually, doping experts said cheaters can easily afford the kind of underground chemistry that is developing new steroids designed to evade detection.
A federal grand jury in San Francisco is investigating a nutritional supplement lab that may be linked to the recently discovered steroid THG. Several baseball players, including Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi, have been subpoenaed to testify.
None of the players have been implicated, but their appearances as witnesses has raised questions of steroid usage by elite athletes. Five track and field athletes have tested positive for THG and face two-year bans. Four Oakland Raiders players also reportedly have tested positive for the drug.
Ultimately, though, the experts said MLB won't seriously crack down on steroid use until fans stop going to the ballparks, buying memorabilia and watching the games.
"The large majority of fans don't care," said Penn State University professor Charles Yesalis, an expert on athletes' steroid use. "They just want to be entertained."