CLEARWATER, Fla. - This is probably not the best time to suggest this to baseball commissioner Bud Selig. In the wake of Alex Rodriguez's admission that he used steroids, Selig is being criticized for being too soft for too long on the issue of performance-enhancing drugs.
Nevertheless, the commissioner can show a different kind of strength by reducing the 50-game suspension slapped on Phillies lefthanded reliever J.C. Romero. It might not help Selig look tough on steroids. It would just be the right thing to do.
Romero sat on a picnic table outside the Phillies' clubhouse yesterday morning and discussed "the longest and most frustrating off-season that I had in my career." He was told in December that an arbitrator had ruled him "negligent" for taking an over-the-counter supplement that produced a positive test for the banned substance androstenedione - even though andro was not on the list of ingredients.
Romero was formally suspended by Major League Baseball in early January. A week later, the Drug Enforcement Agency raided the laboratory and offices of ErgoPharm, the company that produced the supplement in question. Results of the raid are under seal pending investigation, according to reports.
Clearly, Romero made a mistake by not following the letter of the MLB Players Association procedure for checking out supplements. But it was not a 50-game mistake. That's the penalty a player would receive if he tested positive for the most hard-core injectable steroid on the market.
Oh, and it's 50 games more than Rodriguez, Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens ever served or will serve.
"I didn't cheat the game of baseball," Romero said. "It doesn't make any sense to me. I guess they have some rules they have to follow. It's unfortunate I'm the one paying the price. In my mind, I think it's insane. I think it's unfair. I'm being accused as somebody that took steroids. That doesn't play too well with me."
Romero said he was considering a lawsuit against ErgoPharm.
"It's still in a holding pattern," he said. "We're trying to be smart on the whole situation. I think that's the reason why the feds went after ErgoPharm and closed the company down like a week after my situation. They found out what's going on."
The supplement industry is poorly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. New products are constantly being developed and introduced. They promise results as close to anabolic steroids as possible without crossing the line into illegal or banned substances.
According to ErgoPharm's Patrick Arnold, who developed 6-OXO Extreme, the supplement can produce the same urinary metabolites as andro. And it is the metabolite, not andro itself, that shows up in a urine test.
So there is confusion about whether the supplement was tainted with andro, whether the supplement was chemically very similar to andro and therefore should be treated the same, or whether Romero's test result was a false positive. There is no confusion, however, about the most important part of the story.
MLB acknowledges Romero's positive test came from an over-the-counter product from a retail store. He is not accused of receiving injections from his personal trainer or parcels of steroids or human growth hormone in the mail.
"The rules tell you if you juice - my understanding of juice is you go, let's say, to an alley and you stick a needle in your rear end," Romero said. "That wasn't the case. ... Somebody else was doing something illegal.
"I just hope that if we're doing all this, trying to clean up the game of baseball and keep it pure and for us to be an example to kids, I hope they look outside of the game. If I test positive from something I took at GNC, then anybody could go to GNC and buy the same supplement and test positive. If we really want to focus on the kids ... we have to go outside and clean the whole system up."
Romero meant regulation of the supplement industry, but MLB's own system for catching and punishing cheaters also needs a bit of work. It seems ludicrous that investigatory work by the federal government has identified some of the biggest names in baseball as deliberate users of serious PEDs. And yet the testing system seems to catch only the occasional fringe player or, in Romero's case, someone who made a relatively minor mistake.
It is impossible to escape the conclusion that MLB and its commissioner, under fire for enabling the entire Steroid Era to happen in plain sight, now need examples to prove how tough they are now. Romero is one of those examples.
The timing is bad, with the A-Rod story dominating headlines and bringing fresh heat to Selig and the Players Association. Reducing Romero's suspension to a more reasonable 10 or 20 games wouldn't make Selig look tough.
Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.