Destroying drug tests was nearly impossible

Jeff Passan

They're the villains again. The leadership from the Major League Baseball Players Association, long a public punching bag, has weathered repeated blows this week after a leak of a supposedly anonymous drug test exposed Alex Rodriguez as a steroid user.

Usually the anger toward the union manifests itself during collective bargaining or regarding the sentiment that it fought the implementation of steroid testing. This time, it's more pointed: that the union, and not any of the 104 players who took steroids, is responsible for the revelation of Rodriguez as a drug cheat because it did not destroy the "survey" tests in 2003.

"All the information was supposed to be anonymous and confidential and the records destroyed," union executive director Donald Fehr said in a phone interview Thursday. "This was going to be done quickly but in the ordinary course."

Although Fehr declined to comment on the specifics of how the process went awry, a source with direct knowledge of the testing process and plan to destroy the samples described in detail what went wrong and where.

Amid public pressure, the union and MLB agreed to hold survey testing in 2003. If more than 5 percent of the tests came back positive, MLB would implement a program the next season to test for performance-enhancing drugs and punish those who then tested positive.

To get the union to agree to the survey testing, MLB promised complete confidentiality. The problem: Never could that happen. The survey testing necessitated every player in the major leagues be tested at least once, and unless a name was attached, the source said, MLB could not have demonstrated in good faith that every player had provided a urine sample.

The results of the tests were handed to the union Nov. 11 and finalized two days later, according to the MLBPA. Players were informed on Nov. 14, a Friday, that more than five percent had tested positive and they would be subject to a full testing program in 2004. The following Monday or Tuesday, the union could have destroyed the tests, though the agreement said it had to do so in a "jointly supervised" exercise with MLB. Neither side acted quickly enough.

On Wednesday, Nov. 19, the San Francisco grand jury investigating the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative issued a subpoena for the results of the survey testing. Destroying the tests was no longer an option, and when the government raided Comprehensive Drug Testing in Long Beach, Calif., in April 2004, it seized the records from the laboratory's computer. The union has fought the government for the records all the way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in California but has yet to win them back.

Even so, it may be too late to matter. Rodriguez's name is public. Others' could follow. The union is investigating the leak, which could constitute criminal behavior, and the scrutiny could increase if any of the remaining 103 names follow.

"I don't know how harmful it would be," Fehr said. "I think it would be a shame and tragic and completely improper.

"We explained the circumstances to players. We never talk about the conversations we have with players. We do our job."

Or try to, at least. The backlash against the union is fierce. And while Fehr can champion the current drug program and small number of positive tests, convincing the public that baseball is clean is impossible, even if Rodriguez's positive test came in 2003.

"The when is important," Fehr said. "Hopefully, the media can make it plain. It's not something I can do. We can talk about the success of the program we've had in recent years. It is what it is.

"We think the program is entirely appropriate. We think it's working very well."

No matter, not when the Sports Illustrated story that outed Rodriguez also accused union chief operating officer Gene Orza of tipping off Rodriguez to a 2004 test. Fehr vehemently denied that part of the report and said his explanation to Rep. Henry Waxman – who called for the hearings last year on Roger Clemens' alleged performance-enhancing-drug use – was accepted.

Whether the general populace does the same is doubtful, although Fehr tries not to let that bother him. He can play the villain in public so long as he doesn't do so to his constituency – and he believes he isn't despite the number of people who know those 104 names.

"When it comes to representing the players, our commitment has always been that we share what's going on and demand their input," Fehr said. "On critical issues, they make the decisions and we do the best to represent them."