- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Major League Baseball’s drug policy seems simple. If a player tests positive for a performance-enhancing substance, he’s suspended. That’s it.

But the cases of Phillies pitcher J.C. Romero and the Yankees’ Sergio Mitre show things aren’t always so cut and dry.

Romero, who won two games in the 2008 World Series, and Mitre will start next season with 50-game suspensions after testing positive for banned substances.

The Philadelphia Inquirer and ESPN.com spoke to Romero, who said he did nothing wrong when he purchased an over-the-counter supplement from a food nutrition store last year.

Romero wasn’t found guilty of knowingly taking a banned substance, but an arbitrator ruled he was “negligent” in not knowing what was in the supplement, known as 6-OXO Extreme. Mitre has told a similar story of buying a supplement at GNC store in Florida. However, both have accepted their punishments and won’t appeal.

“These players should not be suspended,” said Michael Weiner, the general counsel for the Major League Baseball Players Association. “Their unknowing actions are plainly distinguishable from those of a person who intentionally used a performance-enhancing substance.”

Romero claims to have shown the supplements to the Phillies’ strength coach and his personal nutritionist before taking them and that the union - at that time - approved the use of all over-the-counter supplements. (The union later revealed that three over-the-counter supplements contained a banned substance, but it was too late for Romero and Mitre.)

On the surface, it’s clear Romero’s case is nothing like the stories of personal trainers injecting players with drugs or athletes cycling through steroids while hanging out at shady gyms. Barry Bonds reportedly received supplements from a laboratory the government eventually shut down. Romero got his from the same store where elderly women buy their fish oil pills.

What’s clear here is that while MLB may have a solid handle on the testing side of the drug equation, there’s still a “Wild West” situation when it comes to what players put in their bodies. It seems likely that there will be increased reports of players ingesting supplements without full knowledge of their contents or origins. There are two things, however, that might prevent future cases of players unwittingly cheating.

First, the procedure for determining whether a supplement is allowed must be crystal clear. There should be a single, authoritative source of information available to players, and athletes should be required to consult that source if there are questions about a supplement. A Web site, updated in real time, would do the trick.

Second, baseball could continue to allow players to buy whatever over-the-counter supplements they want from a select group of vendors, as long as all orders are processed through a system monitored by the league. Stores like GNC and Vitamin Shoppe could agree to such a system in exchange for the ability to promote themselves as official partners with the league, and they would therefore be encouraged to sell only products that are compliant with baseball’s drug policy. The league only would allow players to buy products once they have passed a test for banned substances.

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