Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association have had initial conversations about randomly testing players for opioids following an autopsy report that showed oxycodone and fentanyl in the blood of late Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs.
While the discussions are in preliminary stages, both sides expect them to ramp up in the coming weeks and progress in the offseason, sources told ESPN. Though contention on economic issues has sullied the MLB-MLBPA relationship in recent years, they have found common ground on drug-related issues, particularly with performance enhancers.
The national opioid crisis hit baseball with the July 1 death of Skaggs, a 27-year-old left-hander. The autopsy done by the Tarrant County (Texas) medical examiner's office indicated Skaggs died after choking on his own vomit in his sleep. Skaggs' family has retained lawyer Rusty Hardin and, in a statement, said his death "may involve an employee of the Los Angeles Angels." MLB has launched an investigation into Skaggs' death.
MLB does not currently test major league players for opioids, though they are on the league's banned-substance list.
Minor league players, whose drug program is far more stringent, are tested and subject to suspension for positive results. A league spokesman said in the past half-decade, 12 suspensions for opioids have been levied from more than 78,000 tests. Minor league players are placed into a drug-treatment program after the first positive test and suspended following the second.
The league nevertheless is pushing for testing at the major league level, aware that major league players with more money and trying to survive the difficulty of a 162-game schedule could be more subject to opioid abuse. Officials have discussed a number of options in exchange for adding opioids to random testing, including the possibility of removing all testing for marijuana, sources told ESPN. Currently, only players who are in the joint drug-treatment program from a prior offense are tested for marijuana, and while those who run afoul of the program are subject to discipline, MLB never has suspended a major league player for marijuana use.
In the minor leagues, marijuana is treated as a so-called "drug of abuse" -- on the same level as opioids and cocaine -- and players are subject to three levels of suspension: 50 games for the second offense, 100 games for the third offense and a lifetime ban for the fourth. Officials from several MLB clubs have admitted to adding a player to their team's 40-man roster earlier than planned to ensure he falls under the major league drug plan and is no longer subject to suspension for marijuana use.
The union's openness to testing for opioids reflects the pain that resonated with players following the death of Skaggs, a popular teammate and a well-liked figure around the game.
"For several reasons, including the tragic loss of a member of our fraternity and other developments happening in the country as a whole, it is appropriate and important to reexamine all of our drug protocols relating to education, treatment and prevention," Tony Clark, the MLBPA executive director, said in a statement first given to The Los Angeles Times.
In the league's annual PED-testing report last year, the doctor who runs the league's drug program said 11,526 tests were administered, with 9,282 urine samples that tested for PEDs, amphetamines and masking agents, and 2,244 blood tests used to detect human growth hormone. MLB does not release information on testing for banned drugs of abuse, which also include LSD, MDMA, GHB and PCP.