It matters not to Major League Baseball whether J.C. Romero was a victim of bad advice.
The league yesterday hit the Phillies pitcher with a 50-game suspension for violating its policy against the use of performance-enhancing substances. Romero, who has already exhausted the appeals process, including an arbitration hearing, won't be eligible to pitch for the Phillies until June 1.
"The guy tested positive for a steroid banned under the program," said Rob Manfred, MLB's executive vice president for labor and human resources. "The player is responsible for what goes in his body. As far as intent - 'I didn't mean it,' is not a defense. If that was the case, every player would be saying, 'I didn't mean it.' "
Romero, who has hired a public-relations specialist to help deal with the matter, vehemently denied wrongdoing in an interview that appeared in yesterday's Inquirer.
"I know in my heart that I am innocent," he said.
Last summer, the 32-year-old pitcher bought 6-OXO Extreme, an over-the counter supplement that claims to boost testosterone, at a store in Cherry Hill. Romero said he did not know the supplement contained a banned substance. On the word of his personal nutritionist, Romero took the supplement, which led to a positive test on Aug. 26.
"I won't tell you what [the banned substance] was," Manfred said. "It is not listed on the bottle. But it was a banned steroid."
The Inquirer purchased a bottle of 6-OXO Extreme. The label on the bottle states, "use of this product may be banned by some athletic or government associations (including military)."
Marketed by ErgoPharm, 6-OXO Extreme was created by Patrick Arnold, vice president of parent company Proviant Technologies Inc. Arnold was the chemist who helped develop THG, the designer steroid distributed by Balco.
Romero told The Inquirer Monday that he bought the supplement at a Vitamin Shoppe in Cherry Hill. Personnel at the store referred a reporter to corporate headquarters. Vitamin Shoppe spokeswoman Susan McLaughlin said none of the products sold by its stores are illegal or harmful.
The players' association said it "strongly disagrees" with the suspension.
"In our view, J.C. is being unfairly punished because a supplement he purchased in a retail store contained a minute trace of a banned substance," said Michael Weiner, the union's general counsel.
The result of Romero's positive test was processed on Sept. 23, just before the Phillies' wrapped up the National League East championship and began an 11-3 run through the postseason that netted them their first World Series title in 28 years.
Romero won two games in relief - including the Game 5 clincher - in the World Series.
But if MLB had its druthers, Romero never would have thrown a pitch in the postseason. A first-time positive test carries a 50-game suspension, which may be appealed. Aware that an appeal process would last well into the postseason and push any suspension back to opening day 2009, baseball took an unusual step and offered to cut Romero's suspension in half to prevent him from playing in the postseason.
"We generally do not negotiate discipline in the drug area," Manfred said. "If he appealed it would go beyond the World Series. We offered to reduce the suspension to avoid him being in the World Series.
"I think a scientist will tell you that the [banned] substance was no longer in [Romero's] system, but the appearance of it - you prefer to avoid. With any drug program, the goal is to remove the athlete as quickly as possible."
Asked if he believed the Phils' World Series title was tainted, Manfred said "No."
Romero lost his appeal, which was heard by independent arbitrator Stephen Goldberg before Games 1 and 2 of the World Series. Only the most high-ranking Phillies officials knew the appeal was going on. Teams are generally not informed of a player's first positive test until discipline is announced, but the appeal caused a special circumstance.
"We support MLB's [substance abuse] policy and handling of this situation," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "We care about J.C., and we'll be supportive of him. It's an unfortunate event where mistakes were made. We'll deal with it and move forward."
Amaro was asked if he believed Romero was innocent, as the pitcher claimed.
"I have no comment on that," he said. "We support the decision MLB has made."
Before using the supplement, Romero said, he asked Dong Lien, the team's strength and conditioning coordinator, if the supplement met baseball standards. According to Romero, Lien initially suggested a second opinion, which Romero got from an unnamed personal nutritionist. Manfred said that Romero testified that a team official [believed to be Lien] eventually told him not to take the supplement.
"Dong comported himself in exactly the manner he should have," Amaro said. "We completely support the way he and all our staff handled this."
Some reports have laid blame on the players' association for allegedly advising players that over-the-counter supplements made in the United States were unlikely to cause a positive test. Weiner had a sharp reaction to that.
"Some press stories have stated that the association advised players that the particular supplement J.C. took was safe," Weiner said. "Others have suggested that the association knew, in advance of the positive tests, that this supplement contained a banned substance. Neither is accurate. The association knew nothing about the particular supplements involved here prior to learning of these positive results.
"There has also been a suggestion that the MLBPA misled its members about the potential dangers of nutritional supplements. That suggestion, too, is inaccurate. We have and will continue to do our utmost to counsel players with regard to compliance with our program."
Manfred said there are safeguards that a player can use when uncertain if a supplement is permissible. He can refer to a list of approved supplements that is available in any clubhouse. The supplement Romero used was not on the list. A player can also call a toll-free hotline with questions.
"If you want to protect yourself, use certified substances," Manfred said. "If you elect to take the risk and use something not on the list, you should consult other resources, like the hotline.
"The player testified that he did not call. If he did, he would have been told not to use this substance.
"The player is responsible for this. He made the decision to buy the supplement. He made the decision not to consult [official] resources and go on the word of a third party."
During his suspension, Romero will be allowed to participate in spring training, including exhibition games. He will remain in extended spring camp when the regular season begins. He is eligible to pitch in the minor leagues for 16 days leading up to the end of his suspension. He will forfeit about $1.25 million in salary. Still to be determined is whether Romero, a native of Puerto Rico, will be allowed to pitch in the World Baseball Classic in March.
Romero has been a workhorse since joining the Phils in June 2007. He appeared in 81 games, fifth most in the National League, in 2008. Not having him for 50 games at the start of the season will be a blow to the bullpen, which was the best in the league last year. With Romero sidelined, the Phils are down to one lefthanded reliever, Scott Eyre.
Amaro said the Phillies would look in and out of the organization to fill Romero's spot, though a high-profile acquisition is unlikely. Lefthander J.A. Happ, who is expected to compete for the fifth starter's job, could get a look in the bullpen. The Phils have signed several veteran relievers, including Mike Koplove, Blaine Neal, Gary Majewski and Dave Borkowski, to minor-league contracts, and one of them could emerge to fill the spot.