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Steroid expert says policy has no muscle

While both Major League Baseball and the players' union contend that the results of this past season's steroid testing (between 5 and 7 percent came back positive) prove that the problem is far less widespread than finger-pointers such as Ken Caminiti, Jose Canseco, and David Wells have asserted, a far different conclusion is drawn by Dr. Charles Yesalis, a Penn State professor and expert in the field of steroid abuse for 25 years. "I'm not trying to be a wise guy," Yesalis said by phone Friday, "but I didn't think there were that many dumb ballplayers who could flunk that many drug tests. I think what it shows is that baseball is lagging way behind in the level of sophistication in circumventing drug tests. I think the results give credence to the high estimate of users that began in the mid '90s and culminated in the last year and a half with the remarks by Caminiti and Canseco that this is an epidemic in Major League Baseball.

"The results shouldn't have been that high, when you consider how easy it is to circumvent the tests and knew that they were coming."

Baseball officials who assert otherwise, Yesalis said, "are spin doctors. I'll stick with my interpretation. Clearly, when you look at the results of investigative journalism, the testimony of players, and you look at a home run record that stood for 37 years and has been broken -- what? six times since 1998? -- [baseball officials] are little boys whistling through the graveyard."

Yesalis's credentials are unquestioned in the field. He has been called upon to testify at Congressional hearings on three occasions, and has authored numerous books and articles on the subject. Baseball has a major problem on its hands, he has asserted all along, and only now is the public spotlight beginning to force the industry to confront it.

"Equally depressing," he said, "is the fact that the system that will go into effect, you have to strike out five times before you face a serious suspension. More importantly, because they're testing only part of the year, all players have to do is go to their scientific advisers -- and they're paid enough to have one -- or go to night school to learn how to [beat] these tests.

"They can take all the drugs they want from November to February, and for most players, the season ends at the end of September, giving them even more time. Four months is more than enough time to do a cycle, then let the drugs clear from the body. And just because they're not on steroids during the season, the effect of taking steroids is that it allows you to keep training hard in weights and maintain 80 percent of the gains from the drugs. That's a big loophole in the system."

Yesalis said he doesn't believe the number of baseball players using drugs is any different than the number of NFL players or Olympians, who are subject to year-round random testing. "When you look at all the stories that have been done -- and it hasn't just been Canseco and Caminiti, but general managers, managers, and players giving estimates, and talking about the problems, both anonymously and with attribution -- it's a widespread problem," he said.

"Is it 30 percent, 50 percent, 80 percent? Clearly, it is a very substantial problem that blows way, way past 7 percent, given how easy it is to circumvent tests. I'd only be guessing. I defer to the players who make the estimates. They're the best informants you could have. They're the ones in the clubhouse, they're the ones who observe their teammates and know far more what goes on behind closed doors than I."

Baseball is also hurt, he said, by the fact that the drug program is not administered by an independent agency such as the US Anti-Doping Agency, which tests US Olympians.

"When you do all the testing behind closed doors, and no organization is an arm's length away from the organization you're testing, you run into the old `fox guarding the henhouse' thing. I think there is legitimate speculation whether they would call out as guilty one of their superstars. I wouldn't bet my house they would."

Doing their share

The most valuable player on the Red Sox? That would be Manny Ramirez, if you go by "win shares," the statistic invented by Bill James, stat analyst and Sox consultant, to measure a player's contribution to his team's success. James factors in all aspects of the game -- hitting, fielding, pitching, and base-running -- in determining the impact a player has on his team's won-lost record. A win share is one-third of a team's win, credited to an individual player. Shares credited to the players on a team always total exactly three times the team's win total. For the Sox, who won 95 games last season, there would be 285 win shares.

By James's measure, 40 win shares is a historic season. Only one player cracked the 40 threshold this past season, Albert Pujols of the Cardinals with 41.

Thirty win shares is an MVP-type season, James writes in his new book, "The Bill James Handbook," which has complete stats on every player in the big leagues. Twenty win shares can be loosely described as an All-Star season, 15 is run of the mill for a regular player, and 10 is a low total for an everyday player.

Ramirez led all Sox players with 28 win shares, tying him with three other players in the American League: Royals center fielder Carlos Beltran, Yankees first baseman/DH Jason Giambi, and Yankees catcher Jorge Posada. Blue Jays first baseman Carlos Delgado and Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez shared the league lead with 32 win shares, followed by Mariners second baseman Bret Boone with 30.

Nomar Garciaparra was second to Ramirez on the Sox with 25, while AL batting champion Bill Mueller was third with 23. They were the only Sox players who were above 20, the All-Star threshold. Other Sox regulars: Trot Nixon 19, Johnny Damon 18, Jason Varitek 17, Kevin Millar 16, and David Ortiz and Todd Walker 15 apiece, run-of-the-mill performances in James's eyes, though Ortiz probably was hurt by how little he was used early in the season.

Among pitchers, Pedro Martinez registered 20 win shares, a total eclipsed by just four pitchers in the AL: Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, A's righthander Tim Hudson, and Cy Young runner-up Esteban Loaiza, all with 23, and A's closer Keith Foulke, with 21.

Garciaparra's total, incidentally, was his lowest since he broke into the big leagues in 1997, except for the 2001 season, when he was hurt.

Economics lesson

Ask Sox owner John W. Henry for his thoughts on the economic landscape in baseball, and you will not get a sound bite in return. This was Henry's response:

"It looks as if it was hard to make deals with everyone trying to unload contracts on one another. `Here, if you take this one we'll also give you . . .'

"The current economic landscape you reference seems to be a desert. Will that continue? There are certain to be a few oases. If everyone is seeking flexibility -- and maybe not everyone is right now -- it's exactly what you would expect after the salary-inflation bubble burst. People want to unload the contracts that were signed when GMs and team owners labored under the belief that player salaries and franchise values could never go down. That's what happens at the end of every bubble. `This particular market cannot go down. We have to pay more now because it will only get more expensive.'

"This offseason, in the aftermath of the bubble, you have most people saying `Whoops.' Nothing in what is happening is strange if you have even the slightest understanding of how markets work. There has never been a bull market in history in any sector, in any country that was not followed by a bear market with repercussions.

"Diamonds went up every year for decades (1980: `The DeBeers Cartel is so strong diamonds cannot go down'). Farmland, Toyko real estate increased steadily for decades (1975: `They're not making any more land'). Bonds declined for 40 years (1982: `Who in their right mind would buy bonds?'). Stocks in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars fell for decades. And they all reversed mightily. Stocks finally went straight up, for what, 17 years? Diamonds went down. Land that soared into bubbles fell. Bonds rallied beyond anything seen in history.

"So player salary inflation went through the roof (very analogous to the way Tokyo real estate soared before it crashed). Now it is coming back to earth. There is nothing strange, nothing unnatural about that, but whenever a peak is reached in any market no one believes it for quite a while. Most people continue to think for some time it will make new highs in short order. Markets don't work that way, however. Trees don't grow to sky and keep growing. Revenues only support a certain payroll. Deficit spending for individual businesses in general stops when debt levels reach a certain proportion of equity.

"And what if owners, like players, began to demand a return from baseball as opposed to losses? That probably doesn't matter though, because at some level of debt their bankers are going to demand enough return to service the debt and pay-down principal. How many team owners have received World Series rings in return for their mountains of debt? I may be overstating the case presently, but not by much. It's still early in process of returning sanity to the economics of the game. People won't forever hang on to the bubble myths of 1999-2000 such as `The economics of baseball will never make sense.' "

Always be closing

While the Red Sox are in the market for a closer, and are looking at some of the big names out there, including free agents Foulke and Eddie Guardado, general manager Theo Epstein insists that the team's approach last season, employing a "closer by committee," was not entirely mistaken. "Yes and no," Epstein said in his conference call with reporters Friday. "I'll certainly admit that I was wrong in some respects. But I believe in two things: I believe in our approach last offseason because there wasn't a dominating closer available, and I also believe the most dominating relievers should not be saved only for the ninth inning with a one-, two-, or three-run lead." Epstein is correct in stating that outside of keeping Ugie Urbina, there were slim pickings for a closer, especially compared with this season, when Foulke, Guardado, Urbina, Tim Worrell, Armando Benitez, Tom Gordon, and Antonio Alfonseca are all on the market. And he contends that a team should not be afraid to use its closer in the eighth inning, or in tie games . . . Congrats to Dave Flemming, the 27-year-old Pawtucket broadcaster who parlayed a part-time gig with the San Francisco Giants (seven games this summer filling in for Jon Miller) into a full-time job as Miller's broadcast partner with the Giants. Flemming, who had been partners the last three seasons with Andy Freed in Pawtucket, is returning to familiar turf: The Stanford grad broadcast Cardinal sports events and began his pro baseball career with Single A Visalia in the California League in 2000. Few have made it so far so fast . . . Scuttle from Phoenix and beyond: Yankees owner George Steinbrenner reportedly met last week with free agent Gary Sheffield, a Tampa native and nephew of former Yankee pitcher Doc Gooden, who has been recruiting Sheffield to sign with the Yankees. Sheffield, who is acting as his own agent, has said he'd love to come to New York, but the Braves haven't abandoned hopes of bringing him back. Meanwhile, the Mets and new GM Jim Duquette were confronted with fresh reports that Mike Piazza, unhappy at a possible position switch from catcher to first base, wants out and would prefer to go to the American League. The Mets profess no knowledge of Piazza seeking a trade, and the player hasn't been heard from yet, but it would hardly be a surprise that the 35-year-old All-Star wants out of Flushing if the Mets enter a rebuilding phase. Piazza is owed $15 million over the next two seasons and has a no-trade clause, so it won't be easy moving him. Baltimore is mentioned as a possible destination. The Orioles, who have money to spend, are also mentioned as leading contenders for Vladimir Guerrero (co-GM Jim Beattie used to work in Montreal) and have expressed interest in Marlins first baseman Derrek Lee . . . Duquette also was forced to deal with the aftermath of an ugly late-night confrontation at the GM meetings, in which newly hired special assistant Bill Singer disparaged the ethnic background of Kim Ng, the Dodgers' assistant GM whose family origin is Chinese. Singer apologized to Ng in a statement issued by the Mets, but Duquette said the situation remains under review. What is puzzling about the incident is that Singer, a former big-league pitcher for the Dodgers and Angels who is highly regarded as a scout for his work with the Marlins and Pirates, has spent years scouting in Asia . . . The Marlins, with a budget set at around $60 million, will attempt to re-sign arbitration-eligible third baseman Mike Lowell to a long-term deal, but if they are forced to move him, look for the Red Sox to be in the bidding . . . The Diamondbacks, who have targeted Richie Sexson of the Brewers, also have talked to the Marlins about Lee. There's a major fan revolt brewing in Milwaukee, where folks are up in arms about the Brewers' reported plans to cut back their payroll to a barebones $30 million, and team president Ulice Payne is about to be let go. Tony Tavares, who has done a terrific job keeping the Expos competitive, is being mentioned as a possible successor to Payne.

Executive thinking

No argument here that Brian Sabean of the Giants was a deserving selection as Major League Executive of the Year, as chosen in a vote of his peers. But how did Larry Beinfest of the World Series-winning Marlins do no better than fifth, and was Epstein's also-ran status a sign of the jealousy that exists for the 29-year-old? . . . Epstein insists the Sox will not interview minority candidates for manager solely because they are required to do so by MLB rules. He said the club has several minority candidates on its working list that would have been there anyway. Tony Pena, newly elected Manager of the Year in the AL, recently mentioned some Latin candidates deserving of a look: Alfredo Griffin, the Angels' first base coach who has managed in winter ball; Felix Fermin, the former infielder who was the Dominican League Manager of the Year; and Manny Acta, the Expos' third base coach. The White Sox just hired Venezuelan Ozzie Guillen to be their manager . . . Give Dave Wallace credit for the Dodgers' decision to make Eric Gagne a closer. Gagne, who converted all 55 of his save opportunities in winning the NL's Cy Young Award, is looking at a spectacular payday after making $550,000 last season. Gagne, who is represented by powerful agent Scott Boras, is arbitration-eligible . . . Give Sabean credit for swiftly addressing his team's need for a catcher with Friday's deal for A.J. Pierzynski, who has hit better than .300 in each of the last two seasons for Minnesota. He will succeed Benito Santiago, whose Giants career ended on a sour note when he was benched for the last game of the team's Division Series loss to the Marlins. The Twins save money in moving Pierzynski, whose salary figures to jump to the $3 million level, money they can use to try to re-sign free agents Guardado, LaTroy Hawkins, and Shannon Stewart. And in obtaining righthanded reliever Joe Nathan, GM Terry Ryan got some bullpen insurance.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

Try me again

Bryce Florie, the former Red Sox pitcher who nearly lost the sight in his right eye after being struck in the face by a line drive in 2000, has signed a minor league deal with the Marlins.

The name game

Faced with overwhelming public rejection of the proposed name for their new minor league franchise, the New Hampshire "Primaries," the Manchester-based Double A affiliate of the Blue Jays is conducting a "Name the Team" contest on its website (www.newhampshirebaseball.com). The name of the team will be announced Dec. 1, with the winner receiving a trip for two to the Blue Jays' spring training camp in Dunedin, Fla., in March.

1-800-GOODBYE

According to the newly published Bill James Handbook, Alex Rodriguez of the Rangers has a 34 percent chance of finishing his career with at least 800 home runs. A-Rod, 27, currently has 345.

Life in the fast lane

More James: Billy Wagner of the Astros threw 159 pitches in 2003 that were clocked at 100 miles an hour or better. The runner-up in that category, Bartolo Colon of the White Sox, threw 12. The pitcher who threw the most pitches under 80 miles an hour? Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield of the Red Sox (2,307).

Compiled by Gordon Edes

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