BALTIMORE -- Rafael Palmeiro's actions are not in doubt. One
way or another, he took steroids, and he admits as much.
But by amending his emphatic statement before Congress that "I never used steroids" with a single word -- that word being "intentionally" -- Palmeiro changed the debate, turning his cut-and-dried test result into a question of plausible deniability that has dogged baseball's new drug policy since it went into effect this year.
Palmeiro's claims of ingesting steroids unintentionally were weakened by newspaper reports that the Orioles slugger tested positive for stanozolol, a powerful anabolic steroid not available
in dietary supplements. The reports, in Wednesday editions of The
New York Times, the New York Daily News and Newsday, cited baseball sources who requested anonymity because the sport prohibits disclosure about test results without authorization.
Stanozolol is known by the brand name Winstrol, most notably
linked to the Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson of Canada, who was
stripped of his 100-meter gold medal in 1988.
To some researchers, the lack of regulation and testing of nutritional supplements lends credence to the claims of any player who says they were caught unaware by a positive steroid test.
For example, steroid building blocks known as prohormones -- which may not be listed on supplement labels -- could cause a positive test, said Anthony C. Tommasello, a professor and director
of the Office of Substance Abuse Studies at the University of
Maryland pharmacy school in Baltimore.
"Some are extracts of natural products that are also
metabolized into anabolic hormones but the substances are not on
the banned list," Tommasello said Tuesday.
One such ingredient is DHEA, Tommasello said. Mostly manufactured in China from the dried roots of a wild yam, it is a popular muscle-building supplement in the United States. While not
on Major League Baseball's list of banned substances, it is
converted in the body into an anabolic steroid, Tommasello said.
But even if Palmeiro was merely taking so-called steroid
precursors and knew about it, it's akin to steroid use, said Adrian
Dobs, an endocrinologist and professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins
University in Baltimore. "These people aren't dumb. They know what
they are doing," she said.
Palmeiro -- who testified before a congressional panel in March
that he "never used steroids" -- became baseball's highest-profile
player to receive a 10-day suspension Monday after testing positive
for a performance-enhancing drug. And while he didn't deny turning
in a positive test, the slugger was adamant that it was an
"When I testified in front of Congress, I know that I was testifying under oath and I told the truth," he said during a
telephone conference call Monday. "Today I am telling the truth
again that I did not do this intentionally or knowingly."
Palmeiro's test was taken some weeks after he testified before Congress in March, meaning he is probably not at risk for perjury, the Times reported, citing a committee staff member who spoke to
the newspaper on condition of anonymity because official statements are supposed to come from members of Congress.
Palmeiro spoke by telephone Tuesday night with Rep. Tom Davis,
the Virginia Republican who is the chairman of the congressional
"The chairman thought it went well," Davis spokesman Rob White
said, declining to provide details of the conversation.
Davis and the Government Reform Committee's ranking Democrat,
Henry Waxman of California, were considering issuing a joint
statement about Palmeiro on Wednesday. The lawmakers would like to
know more details about Palmeiro's failed test, including when it
"There have been conversations with baseball, but I don't think
any information has been provided to us yet," Waxman spokeswoman
Karen Lightfoot said.
Asked whether the congressmen might subpoena documents related
to Palmeiro's drug test, Lightfoot said: "The hope is that
information will be provided without going to that step."
Palmeiro's agent, Arn Tellem, said in a statement that Palmeiro had talked with Davis and "assured him he will cooperate fully and provide his committee with any information it requests."
At least one member of baseball's management-union medical panel initially found there was a "reasonable basis" for Palmeiro's claims, as evidenced by the delay in his penalty.
But the notion that a legal, nonprescription supplement could cause a positive test for steroids doesn't make sense to David R. Seckman, executive director of the National Nutritional Foods Association, which represents the supplement industry.
While looking over baseball's list of banned substances, Seckman was unequivocal in saying that the average nutritional supplement store "isn't selling those type of products."
"Those are steroids. They are controlled substances," Seckman said. "You can only get those with a prescription."
Nor does he believe the problem could lie in mislabeling: Over-the-counter dietary supplements are required by law to list each ingredient on the label, Seckman said, adding that the chances of them being contaminated are "infinitesimal."
However, Tommasello cited a German study that found almost 15 percent of 634 supplements tested from 13 countries (including the
United States) and 215 suppliers contained steroids not listed on
Palmeiro was the seventh player to fall under baseball's new,
tougher steroids policy; Seattle Mariners right-hander Ryan
Franklin became the eighth when he was also suspended 10 days for a
violation Tuesday. Baseball does not release what type of drug a
player has tested positive for, and so far none of the eight have
spoken openly about details of their violations.
Fellow players were mixed on the credibility of Palmeiro's
"It's a shame," said Atlanta Braves outfielder Brian Jordan. "He's been in front of Congress. It's another shock to the game of baseball. ... He's accomplished some great things and now he's going to have to answer some serious questions."
"He could have been taking a supplement over the counter. Sometimes things get mixed up," Pierzynski said. "That's one thing the union has really tried to address with us, is that you
don't know what's in supplements. You have to be real careful."
Manufacturers are responsible for ensuring the safety of dietary supplements, but generally do not need FDA approval to produce or
sell them. Tommasello said that lack of regulation should raise
concerns -- especially considering problems with regulated drugs
such as Vioxx, a painkiller later found to be linked to increased
risk of heart attack.
"We know pretty much what drugs are going to do to people, what the side effects are and the risk and even at that, we have problems," Tommasello said. "I don't think we know clearly what
these chemicals [supplements] are doing to people."
Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick called the issue his
"The combination of this and that, what's actually in it,
you're trying to do the right thing, you're trying to take legal
supplements to take care of your body and it is so unregulated,"
Billick said. "That is a major concern of mine, but that's a
societal concern, not just a football concern."
Because of the confusion, the National Football League and its
players union announced a program two years ago to certify
supplements as free of banned substances and Major League Baseball
is also looking into a similar program.
Tommasello, however, said his experience in drug testing has
shown him that it is not an easy task. "People say they got a
false positive [for opiates] because they ate poppy seeds," he
said, noting such claims were at first dismissed, then found to
sometimes be true after further testing.
"A lot of guys have limited what they're taking," Wilkerson
said Tuesday. "I really don't take anything anymore. I really
don't know what's in what."