MLB adjusts guidelines on controversial PED: ‘The world of anti-doping scientists really want to determine this out’

The confusion continues.

Since 2015, Major League Baseball has suspended 23 players who tested positive for Dehydrochlormethyltestosterone (DHCMT), better known as the anabolic steroid Oral Turinabol. Virtually all of the players penalized remain adamant they did nothing wrong, and two recently told The Athletic that the sport’s new labor pact includes changes to the Joint Drug Agreement (JDA) that support their case. Only neither of them knows precisely what those changes are. Player agents are also unclear on the modifications, and officials from the league and Players Association will not comment.

The players who received suspensions want exoneration. The league and union might be reluctant to give it to them. Any changes to the JDA would apparently be an acknowledgment by the parties that their testing and/or discipline for DHCMT was somehow lacking. And, according to sources, the league and union fear that publicizing any adjustments might give players a roadmap to avoid detection, and rogue scientists an opening to create new, undetectable substances that would enable players to beat tests.

League officials in the past have cited the players’ positive tests as proof they used a banned substance, and have pointed to a decreased number of suspensions for DHCMT — six from 2019-21, down from 16 from 2016-18 — as evidence the system is working. But the major leaguers suspended for DHCMT, who include Giants right-hander Logan Webb and Pirates infielder/outfielder Michael Chavis, question why anyone thinks a player trying to cheat would resort to an old-school steroid used by East German athletes in the 1970s and ’80s when other, more current substances are more difficult to detect.

Those players repeatedly have said they have no idea how the substance showed up in their urine. And they continue to express frustration at the damage to their reputations — and in some cases, the ruinous effect on their careers.

“Not a day goes by where I’m not reminded about the day that my life was flipped upside down,” said former first baseman/outfielder Chris Colabello, who did not appear in the majors again after his suspension for DHCMT in 2016. “ More than anything else, I feared whether my character would be called into question by anyone and everyone whose respect I had worked so hard to earn.

“That day unfortunately made me have to shift so much of my focus to proving my innocence, and eventually the innocence of many others as well. I could never have imagined my journey in baseball taking me down this road.”

This much is known about the quest of Colabello and others to clear their names: The union in August 2020, well before the start of collective-bargaining negotiations, proposed a minimum threshold for DHCMT’s long-term M3/M4 metabolites, the byproduct of the drug that, after it is broken down by the body, leads to players testing positive. The proposal was believed to be similar to the 100-picogram minimum adopted by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 2019. And the union, in the recent labor negotiations, “fought like hell” for additional adjustments regarding DHCMT, according to a source with knowledge of the talks.

Both the source and Phillies pitcher Kent Emanuel said union officials informed them of alterations in the JDA without specifically detailing what those alterations were. Emanuel and Colabello said the officials told them that, in addition to a threshold, the union requested a restoration of service time for players suspended for DHCMT, those players to be treated as first-time offenders if they tested positive for another banned substance and a statement of apology and/or exoneration from the league.

The players almost certainly did not achieve all of those goals. They might not have achieved any of them. But according to one source, the union — with the league’s assent, and in conjunction with the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) — plans to continue studying the samples of the players who tested positive for DHCMT, seeking a common link.

The issues players raise about their suspensions include the source of the substance, the amount of time it stays in the body and the “pulsing” effect that creates intermittent, seemingly random positive and negative results. A scientific finding that helps explain the positive tests could potentially strengthen the players’ argument, forcing additional changes in the process going forward.

Even then, a statement of apology from MLB — and possible restoration of the players’ salary and service time — would be unlikely. The league and union would have no way of knowing whether some of the suspended players indeed were seeking to gain an unfair advantage, and would not want to admit they had acted unjustly.

The desire of both parties to keep the matter secret, however, raises questions about the transparency of the process, particularly when the players suspended for DHCMT have been so vocal in saying they were wronged. Players, it would seem, you should know if the standard for a banned substance has changed.

If the parties agreed on a minimum threshold for DHCMT, the change would likely be reflected in the JDA, which, like the CBA, according to a source, is probably months away from being completed and published. Thresholds for two of baseball’s banned performance-enhancing substances, Nandrolone and Clenbuterol, are listed in the JDA. Not every adjustment in the agreement, however, is public knowledge. The league and union review the document annually, and occasionally tweak it without fully disclosing the changes, according to a source with knowledge of the process.

“They (union officials) wouldn’t give me exact information in terms of a threshold level. I don’t even know that they used the word threshold with me,” said Emanuel, who will begin the season on the 60-day injured list because of a left elbow impingement. “The only thing they assured me is that there wouldn’t be another case like any of ours where a player got suspended for a couple of picograms of the M3. That’s really all that they would tell me, no matter how much I dug.”

Emanuel said players do not derive a performance benefit from less than 100 picograms of the long-term M3/M4 metabolite, but sources familiar with the discussions between players and owners indicated no threshold was established, and that suspensions for trace amounts remain possible.

Jeff Novitzky, senior vice-president of athlete health and performance for the UFC, questioned the legitimacy of such suspensions. In adopting its 100-picogram standard, the UFC actually followed the lead of MLB, which previously had set the thresholds for Nandrolone and Clenbuterol.

“We continue to see some — not a lot — of our athletes test positive for small amounts of the M3/M4. Sometimes for years and always without the presence of the parent compound or its short or mid term metabolites, indicating only residual presence and not new exposure,” said Novitzky, the former federal agent who headed the 2002 investigation of BALCO, the Bay Area laboratory that allegedly supplied performance-enhancing drugs to athletes, including Barry Bonds and former track star Marion Jones.

“It continues to be really strange. The world of anti-doping scientists really need to figure this out, as it goes to the heart of fairness and due process when things like this don’t add up.”

Nationals catcher Tres Barrera, after getting suspended for DHCMT in Aug. 2020, filed a lawsuit against Major League Baseball, the commissioner’s office, the league’s two drug-testing laboratories and the director of one of those labs. Barrera said he dropped the suit, believing no judge would overrule a decision made by an arbitration panel jointly selected by the league and union. But he learned of the adjustment in the JDA from Emanuel and Colabello, and said he was happy to see “the rule officially changed.”

Which rule?

The question is straightforward. But in baseball, no one in a position of authority is willing to give a direct answer.

(Top image: John Bradford/The Athletic; Photos: Adam Glanzman, Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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