Lab is helping baseball to clean up its act

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Staff / July 16, 2006
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LOS ANGELES -- You can't work here if you're an athlete. And forget about getting a lab coat if you are a fan or rotisserie league geek. The man who runs the world's best sports drug-testing laboratory has no interest in hiring chemists who wear Curt Schilling jerseys when they go out to dinner.

``I don't allow anyone to come in and talk about sports," says UCLA professor Dr. Don Catlin, who is due to receive a grant from Major League Baseball for developing a urine test to detect human growth hormone. ``I don't want athletes or people that worked in sports. It's not a good thing. They're human beings and they like sports, and they have kids that exercise, but when we interview people, if you are an athlete, that pretty much kills it."

The lab is across the street from Bed, Bath & Beyond, and is bordered on three sides by the barbed-wire-topped fence of the BMCC Body Shop. Federal Express and DHL trucks arrive regularly, carrying urine samples of Olympic and NCAA athletes, NFL players, and minor league baseball players. The Department of Defense also sends its samples here, but uses only US Mail.

There is no sign revealing that this is the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory. The bland building in West Los Angeles is 1 1/2 miles from the Westwood campus and every effort is made to blend into the bleak neighborhood. The door and windows are mirrored so nobody can see what's going on inside. A sign next to the front door reads, ``Please knock first." If you are not expected, you don't get inside.

``We're trying to have a low profile," says Catlin. ``There are drugs around . . . We've had so many episodes of people trying to break our system."

Catlin and an associate, Dr. Gary Green -- the man Bud Selig calls whenever he has a question about drugs -- are soldiering in the front line of Major League Baseball's war on performance enhancers and agreed to talk about the work they are doing to ensure that baseball gets clean. Catlin even offered a tour of the well-worn, 10,000-square-foot lab that performs 40,000 drug tests a year.

Walking through the lab with Catlin, a visitor feels somewhat like Marty McFly the first time Doc talks to him about the flux capacitor in ``Back to the Future." Laminated newspaper and magazine articles -- all relating to steroids and the work that goes on inside the building -- adorn the rambling corridors of the UCLA workspace. Rooms are cluttered with viles, flasks, coded samples, refrigerators, and Hewlett-Packard-sized drug-testing machines, some of which cost as much as $400,000. There are no posters celebrating high-profile athletes. Some of the rooms are meat-locker frosty. In this office space, 40 scientists and technicians put the samples through a battery of tests in search of performance-enhancing substances. Gas chromatography is a standard procedure and carbon isotope ratios are particularly useful. Erythropoietin, a blood-boosting element better known as EPO, gets its very own room. In one particularly cluttered cubicle, Catlin proudly points to a mass spectrometer that can spit out a chemical fingerprint of a given substance. Positive samples are kept a long time. They are evidence for the court cases that invariably follow.

``People think of this as cops and robbers," says Catlin. ``That's not really it. I look at any positive test as a failure of the system. A failure to explain things. A lot of [those who test positive] are innocent. They get stuff that's contaminated and they get whacked even though they have no intention to cheat. Those guys don't bother me. We want to catch the cheaters. If you believe that sport is good for life and society and is worth preserving, you have to do something about it.

``I think a clever crook can beat us. Once we get [the test for] growth hormone, they'll just shift a few degrees and start doing something else. There is so much money involved, there is so much desire to win, whether it be a pennant, a World Cup, the Tour de France. It doesn't matter. People want to win and they're going to do what they have to do and they might consider cheating. It's part of a way of life for an athlete. And that's tough."

Pioneer in testing
Catlin is in his late 60s and didn't plan to investigate sports doping when he went to UCLA medical school. Early in his career, he worked at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, researching case histories of Vietnam vets who became addicted to heroin and morphine. He eventually returned to California and was in charge of a clinical pharmacology department at UCLA when the Olympics came to Los Angeles in 1984.

At that time, there was no sports drug-testing lab in the United States. As a condition of awarding the Games to Los Angeles, the International Olympic Committee wanted a sports drug lab in California and thus began Dr. Catlin's illustrious career.

``I started the field," he says, quietly.

Green, meanwhile, was hired by Selig three years ago after Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler died during a spring training workout after taking ephedra. Green, 49, is certified in internal medicine and sports medicine. He has been involved with drug testing of athletes for 20 years and chaired the NCAA's drug-testing program for six years. He is currently team physician at Pepperdine, in addition to his work with the UCLA lab. He is Selig's go-to guy.

``We needed somebody to talk to doctors and trainers of ball clubs and Dr. Green came as highly recommended as anyone," says the beleaguered baseball commissioner. ``Whenever I have a question, I call him . . . He and Dr. Catlin have played a critical role. They are leading people through a maze they have never been through before. There's so few people that really knew about steroids."

Catlin's team discovered designer steroid THG (tetrahydrogestrinone), which broke open the infamous BALCO case in Burlingame, Calif. He was the first witness to testify before the BALCO grand jury, a task that validated his life's work. A tall, gentle man who grew up in Connecticut rooting for the Ted Williams Red Sox, Catlin has no interest in today's home run totals.

``I'll be a [fan of home run hitting] when I'm satisfied that things are cleaned up," he says.

Green knows a lot of people have suspicions based solely on appearances and performance spikes. Pre-All-Star Game, major leaguers were hitting 2.23 homers per game, a pace that would make this the fifth-highest homer season in major league history.

Must be the juice, right? Maybe that still-undetectable human growth hormone?

``Unless you're on the inside you don't always get the full story of what's going on," said Green. ``So I really try not to make assumptions. You need a thorough and comprehensive testing program to take away some of those questions. Just because a person looks a certain way, you can't jump to conclusions on that. I've been in locker rooms with major league players and I've had really buff guys come up to me and say, `We want a strong steroid program because I don't like being accused of using all the time.' That's the unfair thing. When you don't have a good program, it really tars everyone.

``I think it's a tribute to baseball that they really wanted to upgrade everything -- the collection of the samples, how the samples are analyzed, and the whole program. Baseball has been very good about any suggestions I've made."

Breaking down process
The World Anti-Doping Agency's accredited lab in Montreal conducts the tests of major league baseball players. The minor league samples come to UCLA. Green insists that chances of a false positive are almost zero.

``This is witnessed testing and when a test is done, it generates a stack of paper," he says. ``From the time you pee until the time it's analyzed, it is watched and accounted for every single step of the way. You get an `A' sample and a `B' sample. The `A' sample is sealed with all sorts of security tape. If there's any break in the seal, the sample is thrown out. The `A' sample is done with a screen and if it's negative, it's done. If it's positive, a different chemist re-does the sample from scratch. If the confirmation doesn't match the screen, it's a negative sample. If it matches the screen, the sports organization is notified.

``At that point, the athlete has the option of having the `B' sample unsealed. They can actually send a witness or come themselves and watch the third chemist start from scratch and do all the work again. It's locked in cabinets when it's not being analyzed. You could know every single step of the way where that sample's been. The whole system is set for the benefit of the athlete because if you're going to put an athlete's career in jeopardy, you've got to be 100 percent sure."

Catlin was in Seoul when Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson failed a drug test after winning the 100 meters at the 1988 Olympics.

``That changed things a lot," he said. ``It woke up a lot of sports people. When I came home from Seoul, my friends said, `We're going to send our kids out for baseball. They don't have drugs in baseball.' That was 1988. People like sports and they don't like to believe how dirty it can be. So they put blinders on. It's hard for me to do that. When you get into my field, everything looks very different."

Selig and the rest of the baseball public put blinders on when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa bashed their way past Babe Ruth and Roger Maris in 1998. Those were days when the game was desperate to recover from the 1994 players' strike that killed the World Series. Everyone wanted to believe. Now no one believes much of anything and Catlin and Green try to stay one step ahead of the cheaters.

``I think there are ways to get it cleaned up, but we're never going to get it all out," says Catlin. ``There are always going to be people out there who are in last place trying to move up to second to last. But we've got to get to the point where the winners are clean. You've got to be able to go to the Olympics and be satisfied that the folks that are winning are clean. Baseball's had a horrible series of events going on but they're coping with it and getting there."

Baseball is forever tainted by the steroid era. Only recently has the intransigent Major League Players Association allowed the game to address its steroid problem. It's not going to be swift or tidy, but Selig, Catlin, and Green are OK with the growing pains.

As long as they are natural growing pains.

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