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Crime and Punishment

by Will Lingo
March 15, 2004

Major League Baseball's drug policy for minor league players features more testing and stronger penalties than those for major league players. Here's a list of the penalties for positive tests for drugs like cocaine and marijuana, and for performance-enhancing substances like steroids:

Drugs

Steroids

First

Evaluation/treatment

15-game suspension

Second

15-game suspension

30-game suspension

Third

30-game suspension

60-game suspension

Fourth

60-game suspension

One-year suspension

Fifth

One-year suspension

Permanent suspension

Sixth

Permanent suspension

N/A

You think baseball doesn't have a tough drug testing policy? Then you clearly don't know what's going on in the minor leagues.

Baseball has caught plenty of flak this spring for its handling of the steroid controversy, and for a testing policy in the major leagues that leans too far toward individual rights, at least in the opinions of many people.

While that's an issue that will be debated throughout the season, few people know about the policies that affect a great many more professional ballplayers. Minor league players--that is, anyone who isn't on a 40-man roster--are subject to what could be the toughest drug testing policy in professional sports.

Players can be tested--at random--up to four times a year, including the offseason. They get 24 hours to submit their sample in the offseason and no notice during the season. An administrator calls a minor league team's trainer the night before, then shows up at the clubhouse the next day. The entire club is then tested.

While the first positive test for a so-called "drug of abuse" draws evaluation and treatment, a positive test for a performance-enhancing substance draws an immediate 15-game suspension. Refusal to take the test is considered a violation under the performance-enhancing standard and also draws a suspension. And if you test positive for any kind of banned substance, you are subject to more testing beyond the original four.

"This policy is reflective of where the commissioner stands as a policy-maker," said Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball's executive vice president for labor relations and human resources. "We believe it stacks up with any drug testing policy in sports.

"It's a very good policy, and it's what we aspire to (in the major leagues)."

One Strike, You're Out

MLB started a formal testing program for minor leaguers with the 2001 season, and it has been tweaked each year since. The main change this year is the tougher penalty for first-time users of performance-enhancing substances.

Of course, the reason the policy can be so tough is that MLB can decide unilaterally what it wants to do. Minor league players have no union, so the issue does not have to be collectively bargained. Again, you can debate whether you think that's a good thing, but if you're in favor of strong drug testing then you can find little to argue with in the minors.

The policy draws a clear distinction between steroids and drugs like cocaine, ecstasy and marijuana. In the case of those potentially addictive drugs, the aim is to try to get the player counseling and to get him to stop using the drugs.

With steroids and similar substances, the assumption is that anyone who uses them is cheating, so the penalties are swift and severe. MLB also had the discretion to fine players in past years, but dropped that provision for 2004 because it found administering and collecting the fines more trouble than it was worth. Now players are simply suspended without pay.

In addition to a strong schedule of penalties, the minor league policy is also comprehensive in the list of substances that can get a player punished: any steroids, many nutritional supplements, ephedrine, human growth hormone, erythropoietin (EPO) and even diuretics and masking agents.

As with a refusal to take a test, a positive test for a masking agent is treated the same as a positive test for steroids, and the player is suspended. The policy is also one of strict liability. In other words, if you take a supplement with a banned substance in it, even if that substance is not listed as an ingredient, you are responsible.

Keeping Clubhouses Clean

When a player is suspended, the general manager and farm director of his major league team are notified. The only public comment they can make is that the player has been suspended under MLB's minor league drug prevention and treatment program.

In past years the first suspension for a player could be anywhere from three to 15 games, so it's possible (even likely) that players who were suspended under the program were overlooked by the media. Now with people much more aware of the problem, and with longer suspensions right off the bat, we can expect to find out about players who get caught.

Minor League Baseball doesn't have anything to do with policing the players, who are controlled solely by their major league organizations, but minor league officials will take steps to help where they can this season. The primary way they'll do that is to keep people such as personal trainers and nutritionists out of clubhouses, a problem that has been noted on both the major and minor league levels.

"We really need to control who goes into our clubhouses," said Pawtucket Red Sox (International) president Mike Tamburro, the chairman of Minor League Baseball's board of trustees. "We want to make sure only team personnel are allowed in. The rules are in place, but they have not been as strongly enforced as they could be.

"The clubhouse is a workplace, and it should be treated as such."

And like employees in workplaces across the nation, minor league players are on notice that they face drug testing with serious consequences.

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