Not long after federal agents knocked on Jason Grimsley's door, I got a call
from a supplement designer who's hawking his product. He claims it will be
bigger than Andro, but they all say that. What got my attention was when he
told me that three MLB strength coaches had called him to ask about his
assertion that it won't trip a drug test. "I'm not advertising that," the
designer, William Llewellyn, says about his X-Factor, which contains a fatty
acid found in red meat. "But it's turned into a big selling point."
I've known Llewellyn since I helped put him on the cover of this magazine
for a 2003 story about chemists who try to stay one step ahead of drug
testers in sports. There has been a lot of water under the Bay Bridge since
then: the cream and the clear, the congressional hearings that forced
tougher penalties for baseball's steroid users, Barry passing The Babe.
But Llewellyn got me wondering about the sport's 33-page Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment policy. Sure, it was partly
created to stop Congress from intervening in baseball's affairs. But this policy, a
compromise between MLB and the players association, was also supposed to
give us fans peace of mind. When a player like Albert Pujols -- who was
flirting with a record home run pace before his oblique injury in early June
-- insists he's clean, we desperately want to believe him.
So I decided to find out exactly what "clean" means. This is what I learned:
Baseball's policy is less a rule book than a road map that shows any player
in search of a chemical edge exactly how far he can go. As of mid-June, a
Mets pitcher named Yusaku Iriki, fresh off the plane from Japan, was the only player on any team's 40-man roster to
test positive this season. If you think that means MLB has corrected its
performance-enhancement problems, think again.
If I were a player and I wanted to beat the system, here are four ways I
could do it.
1. The 5% Solution
Yes, players are tested for steroids in the off-season. But not many. According to the policy, baseball can conduct a maximum of 60 random out-of-competition tests. Considering that the total pool of eligible players is 1,200, that means 5%, at most, will get a knock at the door.
If I were a big leaguer, I'd like those odds enough to start hitting the
juice as soon as I cleaned out my locker in October. I'd put myself on a
muscle builder like testosterone cypionate, which I'd get from a friendly
doctor or personal trainer, then hit the gym hard. I'd cycle on for eight
weeks and then go off the stuff for four. By the time I'm ready to report to
spring training, in mid-February, my urine should be within acceptable
limits. Just to make sure there are no surprises, I'd get tested by a
private lab beforehand.
MLB is very courteous about letting me know what to expect when I arrive at
camp. Thanks to the drug policy, I'm guaranteed that my first test will
occur within five days of reporting. Even better, I've been told that the
test will take place "in conjunction with the clubs' spring training
physicals." All I have to do is look on the bulletin board for the date and
hour. Armed with all this information, I'd have to be an idiot to get nailed at this point.
Even though I'm off the juice, I should be able to maintain my muscular edge
through the All-Star break, if not beyond. Would my coaches or trainers ask
questions? Not likely. In 2006, every team has staffers who've been through
the Steroids Era. They are well aware that Giants trainer Stan Conte was
summoned to testify before the federal grand jury that's considering perjury
charges against Bonds. Support staffers understand the danger of knowing too
"That's huge," says Larry Starr, a former athletic trainer for the Reds and
the Marlins who's spoken with the Mitchell commission, which is
investigating steroids in baseball. "If trainers don't talk to the player,
2. The "E" Fix
The testers aren't searching for just testosterone. They're also looking for
its chemical cousin, epitestosterone. The body makes both in equal amounts,
so a red flag gets raised when the proportion is out of whack.
Figuring out the correct testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio is like
trying to set the speed limit on an interstate. Even though most people have a ratio of 1:1, the World
Anti-Doping Agency originally used a 6:1 limit, reasoning that it had to
allow for the rare athlete whose testosterone level is naturally high. Last
year, WADA cut back to 4:1. Baseball, along with the NFL, followed suit.
If I'm like most people, the new limit still gives me license to more than
triple my testosterone level. "I've seen a study that showed that a 3:1
ratio conveyed a significant performance enhancement," says Penn State
steroids expert Charles Yesalis.
The ratios are easy to manipulate. BALCO founder Victor Conte's infamous
cream was a wicked-strong blend of T and E that was rubbed on the skin. The
two ingredients were mixed in perfect proportion, ensuring that anyone who
used the cream would ace every drug test.
Word has it that some Olympic athletes keep a stash of powdered epitest in
their pockets. Why? If a drug tester surprises them, an athlete can covertly
flick some on his or her tongue and instantly lower the ratio. "It
completely skews the sample," says a source.
Can I prove that this is being done in baseball? No. But if a guy like me
can find out about it, I have to believe there are some personal trainers
connected to future Hall of Famers who know about it, too.
3. The Loopholes
Once I've made it to Opening Day, I can pretty much count on being tested
twice more for steroids and 30 different varieties of stimulants. So how will I stay wired? Where there's a will, there's a way.
The Washington Post recently reported that Patrick Arnold, the Illinois
chemist who pleaded guilty to supplying BALCO with the designer steroid THG,
is marketing a supplement whose active ingredient is an amphetaminelike
substance that was patented in 1944. It's so obscure, current drug tests
don't look for it.
What's strange is that the policy is stricter on some mild stimulants than
on a hard-core endurance booster like EPO, which increases the blood's
capacity to deliver oxygen by as much as 8%. EPO is a favorite in
hypertested sports like cycling because, depending on the dosage, it can
clear the body in 72 hours or less, which means the testers have to be very
lucky to catch you.
Baseball instituted a trial detection program for EPO last year, but the
results haven't been released. In any event, the policy is vague on the subject,
leaving it up to MLB and the union to "determine the appropriate treatment"
"Appropriate treatment?" says Gary Wadler, a medical adviser to the World
Anti-Doping Agency. "This is an incredibly dangerous drug. If it's misused,
it can cause heart attacks. That's why WADA bans it. There's nothing
appropriate about using it for nonmedical reasons. What does baseball have
to think about?"
If I'm a wannabe cheater, I don't care. All I know is that it's good news
4. The Growth Industry
At least there's a urine test to detect EPO. That's not the case for human
growth hormone, which may have replaced the double play as the pitcher's
best friend. The feds tracked a season's supply of it to Grimsley's home in
Baseball bans HGH, for what it's worth, but the scientific community lacks
consensus on a reliable test. The blood test used at the Athens Olympics
failed to turn up a single positive, leading skeptics to question its
effectiveness. (There is no urine test for HGH, and the players
association, like all other major pro sports unions, has refused to permit
blood tests, regardless of their merit.)
But frankly, it's hard to understand why a player wouldn't consider using
HGH. Users say growth hormone can improve vision, energy and reflexes. Think
about that the next time you read a story about your favorite slugger's
uncanny pitch selection.
I used to believe HGH was hard to get, but that was before I started looking
into the burgeoning business of anti-aging clinics. David Segui was way
ahead of me: As Grimsley told the feds (and Segui corroborated in his June
18 interview with ESPN's Outside the Lines), Segui got a prescription for
HGH in 2003 from one such clinic and later advised Grimsley to do the same.
Another anti-aging firm contacted me not long ago, offering to send someone
to my home to take my blood, check my levels and then prescribe a cocktail
that included HGH. What do you think they'd do for a fading star who's
hoping for one more shot at October glory?
None of this is lost on Rob Manfred, MLB's executive VP for labor relations.
"The notion that it is possible to get a prescription for a banned substance
is troubling to us, given the limits of the testing," he says. Manfred points out that baseball is ready to spend $450,000
for medical research on a urine test for HGH. But the research hasn't started, and no one is making
any promises about how fruitful it will be.
Even if a test miraculously becomes available, hard-core juicers could
simply move on to insulin, which acts as an energy and muscle booster when
used in conjunction with steroids or HGH. Though insulin is banned by WADA for nonmedicinal purposes, it's
not on baseball's list of prohibited substances.
What keeps Penn State's Yesalis up at night is the knowledge that too much
insulin can cause a perfectly healthy person to slip into a diabetic coma by
triggering a profound drop in blood sugar. "When HGH first hit the gyms,
bodybuilders were experimenting with it in low doses," Yesalis says. "Now
they're up to 20 to 30 times that. What if the same thing happens with
insulin? This stuff can kill you."
Let's hope my personal trainer, my doctor and my support staff are good
enough to keep me out of trouble.
It seems clear that MLB and the players association have a lot more work to
do. They need to put EPO and insulin on the banned list and beef up an
off-season testing program that ignores 95 percent of the players. They also need to deal with the
perception that they're not doing everything necessary to combat the
But what should we expect from baseball, or any other sport, for that
matter? No policy is perfect, and MLB maintains that its testing is working.
"If you're a professional baseball player, you are going to have to provide
us with a sample of urine even though we have no reason to believe you've
done wrong," Manfred says. "And if you're positive, we'll tell the world and
suspend you from your livelihood. Fifty games [for a first offense] is a
That's true. But if I were a player and I wanted to cheat, it wouldn't stop me. And if I did it right,
I might be able to look you in the eye and tell you I'm clean. Because in sports, clean isn't about who's using and who isn't.
It's about what the policy will allow.
Shaun Assael is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.