Commentary

Synthetic testosterone a big problem

Is the drug of choice some sort of epidemic that will continue to plague baseball?

Originally Published: August 22, 2012
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

I'm not sure how Wednesday got to be Testosterone Suspension Day in baseball. But it's almost enough to make Bud Selig nostalgic for Disco Demolition Night.

Last Wednesday, it was Melky Cabrera. This Wednesday, it was Bartolo Colon. Beautiful. And to think the commissioner used to look at Wednesdays as his favorite Buy One Bratwurst, Get One Free day.

But I think I'll leave the Bartolo Colon Tests Positive for Testosterone -- and Molten Lava Cake -- jokes to Jay Leno for the moment, because beneath the one-liners and the official statements, there's a big, big story here.

[+] EnlargeBartolo Colon
AP Photo/ Bill NicholsBartolo Colon joins Melky Cabrera as the second player in the past eight days to get suspended for testing positive for testosterone.

And that story could be summed up in two words: synthetic testosterone.

It would not be 100 percent accurate, I've been told, to say that Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon were suspended for "exactly the same thing." But they're still linked.

Linked by abnormally high levels of synthetic testosterone.

So is this the sign of some sort of epidemic -- not just in baseball but across the spectrum of sports? Victor Conte, the one-time BALCO mastermind, has been out there for a week, saying exactly that. And he's not alone.

People within Major League Baseball "think the use of this is really widespread," an official of one club said this week. And you want to know what's scary?

He said that BEFORE Colon's suspension got announced Wednesday afternoon.

Well, the good news is, this makes two players in a week who have been caught in the act by baseball's testing system. And that's a development that ought to make synthetic testosterone fans everywhere think twice.

But the bad news is, the use of synthetic testosterone is still extremely difficult to detect, from all accounts. So here we go again, back to a world where baseball can't outrun the cloud of PED use, no matter how furiously it appears to be sprinting in the right direction.

"It's a never-ending battle," said an executive of one team Wednesday. "A never-ending battle with chemistry."

When any sport announces two suspensions of prominent players within a week, it opens itself up to the usual soundtrack of skepticism and accusations. So get ready. Here they come, the amateur conspiracy theorists who are already lining up to tell you this proves once again that baseball isn't "clean."

And to some extent, they're right, of course. But what they neglect to mention is that NO sport, in this era, is "clean."

Can't be. Won't ever be. Because as long as men and women play sports, they will look for whatever edge is available to them. Some legal. Some not so legal.

So all any sport -- baseball included -- can do is try to keep up with the times as best it can. But in the case of synthetic testosterone, that's an epic challenge. Obviously.

What makes synthetic testosterone so appealing, at least according to Victor Conte, is that it's supposed to vanish from the body's system quickly, within six to eight hours. And if used in sufficiently small doses, it may not elevate testosterone levels enough to trigger further testing.

That makes its use, Conte said last week on "Outside the Lines," "the largest loophole in anti-doping in general, but specifically in Major League Baseball." And if hearing that statement didn't make you bolt to attention, you're spending way too much time sifting through the xFIP leaderboard.

Well, it sure got the attention of the powers that be in baseball. After listening to Conte spout these claims for a few days, MLB and the players' union felt compelled to issue a joint statement Friday, saying that Conte's account of their testing process was "inaccurate."

So is it? At this point, we don't want to enroll you all in amateur chemistry class against your will. So we'll try to keep this as simple as possible.

It's Conte's view, essentially, that the intelligent use of synthetic testosterone doesn't elevate a user's testosterone-to-epitestosterone level to the 4-to-1 ratio that normally triggers further testing.

And it's that "further" testing -- via the use of a process known as carbon isotope ratio testing -- that is necessary to catch the synthetic testosterone crowd.

So club officials say they've been told that baseball's testers are now attempting to combat the use of synthetic testosterone by sounding the alarms on all tests with a suspicious testosterone level -- not just levels that exceed the 4-to-1 ratio Conte keeps talking about.

Conte's response, on "Outside the Lines," was to accuse baseball of "spinning" its testing procedures to make the sport look more diligent than it actually is. And you know what baseball's answer is to him?

Bartolo Colon … and Melky Cabrera … (and even Ryan Braun, if you're a technicality aficionado). That's what.

Good answer. But are the suspensions of Bartolo and Melky, just in the last week, a sign of a greater problem? Or are they a sign that baseball is finding a solution? The answer, unfortunately, is a little of both.

Sadly, in the modern-day world of big-time sports, where it often pays to try to beat the system, you can be as proud of your testing system as you ever dreamed of being -- and you still can't say, with any assurance, that your sport is "clean."

And even more sadly, you never will.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com