After taking heat for several years over its drug policy, Major League Baseball imposed wider testing and harsher penalties for steroid use in January.
The new testing regime bagged its first big name yesterday, when it was announced that Orioles slugger Rafael Palmeiro had been suspended 10 days for failing a drug test.
Though Palmeiro denied intentionally using steroids, some observers of the doping saga called his positive test a partial validation of the crackdown.
"I think it lends some credence to the policy that a player of Palmeiro's caliber could be caught," said Will Carroll, who writes regularly about sports medicine and is author of The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball's Drug Problems.
But Carroll said the overall worth of the policy can't be judged by one case. "I think we'll be looking for a reduction in total numbers over a period of years," he said.
The test shows baseball's policy is not working as a deterrent, said Dr. Linn Goldberg, a professor of medicine at the Oregon Health & Science University and a veteran tester of Olympic athletes.
"I mean 10 days, you sit out 10 days for a knee injury," Goldberg said. "It wasn't much of a deterrent, and that's what people said all along."
Survey testing by the league generated 83 positive cases in 2003. That triggered anonymous testing that turned up 11 positive cases last season. Palmeiro was the seventh major leaguer, but the first star, to test positive under the tougher policy adopted before this season.
Under the new rules, players face up to at least one random test a year. Penalties for positive tests are 10 days for a first offense, 30 days for a second, 60 days for a third, one year for a fourth and a lifetime ban for a fifth offense. All positive tests are revealed to the public, though players can request a hearing by an independent arbitrator before penalties are imposed and announced.
Under the previous rules, which had been in place since 2002, first-time offenders were subject only to treatment, and their positive tests were not publicized.
The league also broadened its list of banned substances to include steroid precursors and designer steroids, such as THG. Human growth hormone, ephedra, diuretics and masking agents are also banned, and new substances that are regulated as steroids will automatically be banned.
The league and players union took the rare step of reopening their collective bargaining agreement to change the policy.
Suspicions of steroid use in baseball grew around the offensive boom of the past 10 years, during which bulked-up sluggers Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds obliterated the sport's single-season home run record. Lesser stars such as Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco said they had used performance-enhancers and that the practice was widespread.
Players and owners first took on steroid testing in their 2002 labor agreement.
But negotiations for a tougher policy began in May 2004. President Bush had appealed to athletes and pro sports leagues to wipe out the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in his January State of the Union speech.
Talks heated up in December, after the San Francisco Chronicle published leaked grand jury testimony in which superstars Jason Giambi and Bonds admitted they had used steroids (though Bonds said his use of a cream was unintentional).
The testimony came from an ongoing federal investigation of Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, or BALCO, a California company also linked to doping in track and field and football.
When he announced the new policy in January, commissioner Bud Selig hailed it as a step toward "zero tolerance" of steroid use.
But members of Congress have said the new penalties aren't tough enough and lambasted Selig and other baseball officials at hearings in March.
Since then, several lawmakers have introduced bills that would require professional sports leagues to use the tougher Olympic standards.
The World Anti-Doping Agency's code, which has been adopted by most Olympic sports, says the "norm" is a two-year ban for a first positive test and a lifetime ban for a second, unless there are mitigating circumstances. The world agency is also more aggressive about adding new substances to its banned list.
Agency president Dick Pound has criticized baseball's policy as too lenient on offenders.
Palmeiro was one of six current and former players who testified at the congressional hearings on steroids. He strenuously denied taking performance-enhancers and criticized former teammate Jose Canseco for accusing him of doping.
In a response that has become increasingly common from accused athletes, Palmeiro said yesterday that he never intentionally took performance enhancers.
"I don't believe them," Goldberg said. "I mean, how can you unintentionally take performance-enhancers? I don't even know how to compute that."
Drug experts said "false-positive" tests are rare.
"It's possible, though extremely unlikely," Carroll said, noting that the list of substances banned by baseball is very specific to recreational drugs and steroids.
"He had a hearing, which tells me there might be a special circumstance of some sort," Carroll said.
Palmeiro said he presented evidence at the hearing that he did not take a banned substance on purpose but could not convince the arbitrator.