Vigilence keeping drugs of MiLB Diamonds

By Jason Anderson, Record Staff Writer, June 17, 2012 12:00 AM

STOCKTON – Two posters outlining Major League Baseball’s Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program hang on the wall in a well-traveled hall inside the home clubhouse at Stockton Ballpark, one in English and the other in Spanish.

Players cannot report to the manager’s office, seek treatment in the trainer’s room or pick up pregame meals without walking past a list of banned substances. Copies of these posters are required in clubhouses at every minor league ballpark in North and South America as part of a broader effort to stamp out performance-enhancing drugs and other banned substances.

The rules are clear and the penalties severe.

“We go over it in spring training. They have the posters. They get all the information – things they can do, things they can’t do,” Stockton Ports manager Webster Garrison said. “Guys know they can get caught if they put something in their bodies that’s on that list. You’re putting a lot on the line, a lot of things you’ve been working hard for since you were a kid.”

Minor league players are subject to random drug testing throughout the year, including the offseason. Positive tests for performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids result in 50 game suspensions for first offenses, 100 game suspensions for second offenses and permanent bans for third. First-time offenders for abuse of drugs such as cocaine and marijuana must undergo counseling before receiving the punishments for second, third and fourth offenses.

Ports outfielder Mitch LeVier understands these penalties all too well. He recently completed a 50 game suspension after testing positive for marijuana for the second time last summer.

LeVier, 24, was suspended without pay. He took a job making T-shirts to cover expenses and the cost of his counseling sessions. He said he is grateful to the Oakland Athletics for keeping him in the organization.

“I felt like my career was over,” said LeVier, a ninth-round draft pick in 2008. “I was very lucky I didn’t get released, because who’s going to want to pick me up and let me sit for 50 games, and then let me have an opportunity? As strict as (the drug policy) is nowadays, who wants to deal with that?”

Major League Baseball implemented the minor league drug program in 2001 in response to growing concern over the use of steroids in the big leagues. According to Major League Baseball, the percentage of positive tests in minor league baseball has dropped dramatically, from 9 percent in 2001 to 0.5 percent in 2011.

“We’re very proud of the minor league program,” said Pat Courtney, Major League Baseball’s senior vice president for public relations. “We think it’s the gold standard.”

In his 2005 book “Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits and How Baseball Got Big,” former American League Most Valuable Player Jose Canseco estimated as many as 80 percent of big leaguers were using steroids in the 1990s. Canseco, who missed a scheduled appearance Saturday at Stockton Ballpark, said he began using steroids while playing for the Modesto A’s in 1984. He joined the Oakland Athletics the following season, launching a 17-year big league career in which he hit 462 home runs.

Canseco referred to his steroid use as the “biggest regret of my life.” He said young players today should not use steroids, which were made illegal in the United States in 1990 and added to baseball’s list of banned substances in 1991.

“They are illegal now,” Canseco said. “When I used them, they were perfectly legal and everyone was using them.”

Canseco said he was never tested for drugs as a minor leaguer from 1982-85, but times have changed. According to Jon Coyles, director of baseball’s drug testing program, collection agents show up unannounced at minor league ballparks to administer about 12,000 random urine tests each season. In 2010, they began to collect a smaller number of blood samples, which can be used to detect human growth hormones.

“There really was no drug testing when I played in the minor leagues,” Canseco said. “I guess now they’re putting the proper effort forward to try to keep the game as clean as possible, starting at the minor league level.”

The Ports entered their clubhouse following a game last month to find collection agents waiting inside to take blood and urine samples. Every member of the team was required to present photo identification before providing samples.

“There was a little nervousness because there are people in there watching you and it’s kind of uncomfortable, but I have no problem with it,” Ports third baseman Miles Head said. “We knew before we started playing pro ball that there would be drug testing, so if you avoid (drugs) from the beginning, you’ll never have anything to worry about.”

Ports catcher Max Stassi said he has been tested three times since his career began in 2009, including once during his first offseason.

“It’s an inconvenience, but it’s part of the game now,” Stassi said. “You had guys who juiced up looking for that extra edge. It’s just one of those things in the game that needed to be cleaned up, and it finally has.”

Still, Ports strength and conditioning coach Chris Borgard believes baseball must remain vigilant.

“When you look at all the anti-doping agencies, it’s great that we have them in place and they’re definitely making progress, but at the same time the potential is always going to exist for athletes with a lot of money who are trying to beat the system,” Borgard said. “The anti-doping agencies are always going to have a great challenge to stay one step ahead of players who are trying to cheat.”

Ports head athletic trainer Nate Brooks said educating players and making them aware of changes to the banned substances list are among the biggest keys to prevention.

“They have to understand the drug policy, understand the consequences and understand that they are subject to testing at anytime; and if they do test positive, there are consequences,” Brooks said. “Is it really worth it to jeopardize your entire career? Is it really worth taking something that may be harmful to you? It’s just a no-brainer. It’s definitely not worth it.”

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