Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Matter of Trust

Never has a moment in baseball made me feel more like Michael Coreleone in Godfather III then the rescission of the 50-game suspension handed down to last year’s National League MVP, Ryan Braun, when he tested positive for extremely high levels of testosterone.

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. I thought I was through with screaming from the rooftops about how poorly baseball is run and how foolish they've been in dealing with the drugs. Weren't they getting better? Hardly.

At this point, major league baseball remians popular by accident. It has a business model that makes no sense. It has too many teams that never have a realistic chance of competing. It operates under separate sets of rules between the leagues, which is idiotic. But perhaps its biggest problem is that it is presided over by Bud Selig, The Worst Commissioner in Baseball History™, a point I’ve made before and now need to make again.

My issues with Selig stem mostly from his fragile spine. He’s never once stood up for the game in a meaningful way by staring down narrow-minded owners who care only about their bottom line and not the health of the entire sport. And even in those rare cases where he could get consensus with the owners, Selig had no ability to take on a players’ union run by short-sighted shallow thinkers over any issues of substance, including substance abuse. By not standing up, Selig has fallen for almost every issue, not the least of which was baseball’s rampant drug problem, one of the worst scandals in American sports.

Selig’s apologists point to his leadership in bettering baseball’s drug policy as proof of his effectiveness while conveniently forgetting that Selig’s conversion on this issue came not of his free will but at the business end of a gun pointed at his head by Congress.

And yet, while baseball’s drug policy is indeed far better these days along comes a case like Braun's to put baseball and its approach nearly back to square one. Losing the Braun arbitration in the way they did makes it look as though baseball is being run by Peter Griffin. Maybe that would actually be better.

The Braun case more than demonstrates that baseball's brain trust can't even handle a urine sample effectively. How can it be trusted on anything reeking of even slightly more complication?

Let’s set the background.

Braun has claimed that his elevated testosterone levels aren’t the result of illegal drug use, which seems dubious if only because I’m still waiting for the first person to test positive to actually admit that they really did ingest illegal drugs.

Braun’s argument raised questions about the integrity of the testing process and was buttressed not by his actual test results but by the inherent distrust most people have toward drug testing in the first place. Anyone who has ever been subjected to a drug test, and by now that’s most of us, always fears the mythical “false positive” test. Despite the sophistication of the testing at this point that makes it nearly impossible to get a “false positive,” the potential for a false result hangs over the program like Billy Crystal hangs over the Oscars.

And so it is, sometimes to extremes, that we let irrational fears like these drive results that don’t seem plausible. Irrational or not, however, the fact remains that whenever there is any sort of hiccup in the protocol related to procuring and then securing the urine sample the results will always be suspicious. But that's not news. Nearly every drug testing case that is lost is because of an issue related to the testing protocol, no matter how small or insignificant of an issue it might be.

Had baseball’s deep thinkers remembered this while taking a more sober view of their case and acknowledged this fact before they ever decided to suspend Braun, this mess could have been avoided and Braun, if he is a drug user, caught under circumstances that could never have been questioned.

Braun based his claim of a false positive on what his lawyers argued was a broken custody chain in the handling of his urine sample. That’s not really true, but it’s true enough, which was also enough for neutral arbitrator Shyman Das.

The reason it’s true enough is simply that the person who took the urine sample for major league baseball never bothered to read Protocol 101. The same holds for MLB’s lawyers. From the time that the sample was collected until it was shipped (not tested, but shipped) was 44 hours or nearly two full days. The protocol in baseball is that once the sample is collected it is to be shipped immediately via FedEx to baseball’s testing lab in Montreal.

When Braun’s sample was collected, it was a Friday evening and supposedly after the local FedEx office had closed. So the collector let the sample sit in a container of Tupperware on his desk for almost two days, which reminds me never to accept an invitation to eat leftovers at that collector’s house.

You don’t need to know any more about the case than that to know that baseball should have just bit its lip and thrown out the sample and either re-tested Braun or lived to fight another day. No arbitrator was ever going to sign off on the results and the punishment that comes from them under that scenario. Again, it’s the fear of a false positive that mandates there be no screw up, no matter how small or insignificant in the testing process.

Anyone who has litigated a drug case, and I’ve done several of them, knows this to be the case. Yet baseball’s lawyers convinced baseball’s management that this fact didn’t matter and now they have a mess on their hands.

How did they get to this point? Because when you look at it holistically and not necessarily legally, you pretty much come to the conclusion that Braun had something illegal in his system. So you try to make it work because suspending the reigning MVP is a pretty big get.

In fairness to the collector, it wasn’t as if Braun peed directly into the Tupperware container. Braun peed into one of those brown bottles and handed it over. The collector immediately placed a seal over it, put that sealed bottle into a packet and sealed that packet as well and then put the packet into a FedEx box that he likewise sealed. To that point the protocol was followed and most of us know the routine. It’s just that with the FedEx office closed, the collector held onto it for 44 hours before sending it along. Once it arrived in Montreal, everything was completely in tact and sealed. There was no evidence that any of the seals had been tampered with or, by extension, that the sample was tainted.

That's pretty powerful stuff. But where major league baseball screwed up was in testing Braun at a time of day when the sample couldn’t be immediately shipped, though as Lester Munson, writing for ESPN, noted, Braun’s attorneys more or less debunked baseball’s claim that the FedEx office wasn’t open by highlighting several other FedEx offices nearby that were.

Because the sample sat in a sealed pouch for two days at the collector's house instead of in a lab, that raised more then enough doubt in the mind of the arbitrator on an issue that is fraught with doubts anyway. With the test discredited Braun’s suspension had to be overturned.

It's understandable how baseball got into this predicament. You combine a seemingly guilty looking player with a baseball hierarchy known more for missteps then efficient execution you end up with a recipe that yields a result pretty much in line with what they got. Yet if they had tested Braun a day earlier or maybe two days later, either of which would have been at a time when they could have found an open FedEx office, they could have nailed Braun and, in turn, looked serious about finally ridding the sport of drugs.

As it is, they look foolish instead. Maybe now Selig will understand that simply saying you have a world class drug testing program doesn’t make it so. As for ridding the sport of drugs, we’ll this is certainly a step backward. Unwittingly, by virtue of their own hubris, major league baseball has created the impression that they can’t be trusted. And that, really, is the sad legacy that Selig has written for the sport he claims to love.


Bric said...

CSI was once a great show, but it created a confidence in labs & testing that was totally unwarranted.
Some labs and tests are not reliable according to first hand reports published.
Braun's (or anyone's) test vial should be immediately shipped, and the results should be rapidly sent to MLB.
Any positive should be followed by a second test immediately, and a third under highly controlled conditions.
Only after 3 positives should any announcement be made by MLB.
Furthermore, hair samples should be taken at the same time as urine to provide a counter-reference.

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