SURPRISE, Ariz. – Matt West said he doesn't know the name of the performance-enhancing drug he used that almost killed his baseball career. He was taking nitric oxide and creatine and all the other standard supplements, and, poof, somehow his urine came back dirty.
"I couldn't tell you," West said. "The name had, like, 50 letters in it, so I don't know what it was. I was surprised. I was surprised because it was something in my system I didn't know I was taking. Just a GNC product."
(Eddy Machette/Special to Yahoo! Sports)
Ah, yes. The GNC excuse. Tried and true it is, the domain of major leaguers who know they can hide behind the cloak of secrecy that forces baseball to withhold any specifics regarding positive drug tests.
The difference is, Matt West is not a major leaguer. He was 18 years old when he tested positive. A kid, the kind those Congressmen always talk about, only real. The Texas Rangers drafted him in the second round last year out of Bellaire High near Houston, gave him a reported $400,000 bonus and sent him to the rookie Arizona League. He hit .301 in 29 games and would've played in a 30th, the Rangers' season finale, had Major League Baseball not slapped a 50-game suspension on him.
For years, teenagers from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela have tested positive in alarming numbers, victims of vicious street agents – also known as buscones – who get a cut of signing bonuses and will inject 16-year-olds to help them look better to major-league teams.
No American player with West's pedigree and youth had been outed for testing positive since the minor-league program began in 2001, and that it happened with the Rangers – a team trying to shake the stigma from its association with performance-enhancing drugs in the go-go late '90s era – was an irksome reminder that no team, no matter its vigilance, is immune.
"It was surprise and disappointment," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "At his lack of judgment and at our process. We take a lot of steps and get as much information on a player as we can when we select him, especially when he's high in the draft. I was disappointed that we had not necessarily seen an accurate portrayal."
The Rangers saw a 6-foot, 200-pound second or third baseman with good plate discipline, a fantastic arm, speed and power potential, his .575 batting average, eight home runs and 31 stolen bases selling them to spend the 80th overall pick.
They couldn't see West's extracurricular assistance.
Daniels would not confirm West's story, that he tested positive because of a tainted supplement. At first, Daniels said, West "didn't actually want to admit to it. Ultimately, he was a little more forthright about what he actually did."
Still, the Rangers contemplated cutting West.
"It was discussed," Daniels said. "If we were convinced the player was being deceitful and not accountable and didn't want to pursue better alternatives, we might have considered it."
Baseball could have saved the Rangers the trouble had it tested high-rated amateur players. Toward the end of former Sen. George Mitchell's report on performance-enhancing-drug use in baseball, he recommended baseball take samples from the top 100 draft prospects as rated by the Major League Scouting Bureau.
Though a majority of Mitchell's proposals have been agreed to, baseball and the players' association continue to haggle over testing of amateur players. A source in the Scouting Bureau confirmed that he has not heard from baseball about implementing Mitchell's plan.
Baseball America ranked West the 104th-best prospect in the draft last year, and with scouting so subjective, he might not have fallen under the proposed rule's auspices. Had he, though, and had he tested positive, he would have slipped significantly. Daniels blanched at the idea of picking a performance-enhancing-drug user at all.
"Probably not," he said. "Certainly not in that range. And I would say, too, that I don't necessarily think the top 100 is enough. You get fifth-, sixth-, seventh-round picks, and they're getting $200,000.
"At some point, you open it up and just say any player who's going to sign an amateur contract is obligated to take a test."
Daniels' hard-line stance is welcome in a Rangers organization that saw its name mentioned again and again in the Mitchell Report, from Jose Canseco to Rafael Palmeiro, Kevin Brown to Juan Gonzalez, Gary Matthews Jr. to Jerry Hairston Jr. Mitchell also quoted a December 2005 email Daniels sent to Rangers owner Tom Hicks when Baltimore first dangled Miguel Tejada in trade discussions. Daniels said he had "some steroids concerns with Tejada."
The Rangers earned plaudits from Mitchell for employing Dr. Jay Hoffman, a former NFL player and steroid dabbler who now is an expert in performance-enhancing drugs. During spring training, Hoffman addresses the entire Rangers organization about the dangers of using. Later in the year, he hits the post-draft minicamp – the one for players such as West – as well as the offseason instructional league and the Rangers' Dominican academy.
Any education was too late for West, as was Texas' high school steroid-testing program, which Bellaire said it planned on implementing within the last month. Whatever West's motivations – he came into his senior season better known for his arm than his bat – he got his big signing bonus knowing that only a handful of players in any given draft class taste the major leagues and the riches that accompany them.
West showed up early for spring training this year, driving a beautiful new Tahoe. He settled in his locker, surrounded by a bunch of other no-names – Solis and Podraza and James and Ortiz and Stoneburner – with the No. 76 awaiting. He will stay in Arizona and serve the remaining 49 games of his suspension. After that, he may go to low-Class A Clinton or Spokane or stay with the rookie-league team.
Or, perhaps, West ends up cut, his scholarship to Arizona State lost, his signing bonus and his great mistake all he has to show for his baseball career.
"You've just got to get through it," West said. "There's no point now to hang my head. I'll get through it.
"Everyone's not going to like you. Simple as that. If you hate me, OK, I don't really care. And if you love me, then I love you."
West, in this instance, is the puppeteer to the Rangers' affections.
"It's up to him," Daniels said. "Does he stay clean and does he perform? That's what it's about. There's no scholarship. He's going to have to perform and earn his spot. As a group, we feel the ability is still there. How much help he got from whatever he was taking, we'll find out."
And they'll know for sure whether Matt West, the kid who justified all of the ugly fears about children using performance-enhancing drugs, can play baseball because of natural talent or some 50-letter word he just can't seem to remember.