With the news that Major League Baseball has suspended Orioles first baseman and newly minted 3000-hit club member Rafael Palmeiro for violating the league’s steroids policy, the league’s steroid problem once again reared its ugly head. But instead of adding to the countless articles that will be published about Palmeiro’s chances of being inducted into the Hall of Fame or his indignant Congressional testimony, I figured I’d devote a few words to what baseball could learn from this sorry episode—namely, that it needs to establish an MLB-approved, steroid-free list of supplements that players can use.
Since the story broke, Palmeiro—who appealed the ruling—has repeatedly asserted his innocence, saying that he never intentionally took any banned substances. The implication seems to be that he inadvertently took a banned substance while using a seemingly legal supplement. Whether you believe him or not, the story is certainly plausible. Look no further than the ATP Tour, the men’s professional tennis circuit, which admitted to inadvertently distributing the banned substance nandrolone to its players via a supplement intended to boost players’ electrolyte levels two years ago. If even a major professional sports league—a signatory of the World Anti-Doping Code, no less—doesn’t even know what’s in the supplements it’s handing out, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if players didn’t either. To make things especially hard, supplement manufacturers aren’t even required to include nutritional information on their labels.
That’s why Major League Baseball—in conjunction with the Players Association—needs to follow the National Football League’s lead and establish an approved supplements list. Major League Baseball could have the most commonly used supplements tested for steroids or other banned substances and establish a list of supplements that are officially approved. By keeping samples of all approved supplements, baseball could also subsequently determine if a positive test was really the result of an approved supplement. All they would have to do to sniff out a cheater trying using an approved supplement to cover steroid use would be to compare what was found in the player with the sample on record, a la the ATP.
Additionally, players could submit any supplements they would like to take to MLB for testing and approval. With an MLB-sanctioned list, players wouldn’t have to worry about ingesting potentially hazardous and reputation-killing steroids or steroid precursors with their protein shakes and baseball could avoid the bad publicity that would come if a well-known star like Palmeiro unintentionally ingests a steroid and tests positive.
Such a policy could be especially effective in Major League Baseball given the diverse backgrounds of its players. “I don’t say do a better job [of explaining all the banned substances to Latin players], I say a job,” San Francisco Giants left fielder Moises Alou told MLB.com earlier this season. “I don’t know that a job is being done. I think we missed the boat somewhere.” An approved substance list would make it easier for baseball’s multicultural playing population to know what they should and shouldn’t take.
An approved substance list won’t prevent people who want to break the rules from breaking the rules, but it can help players gain a better understanding of what is and isn’t okay to take. Honest players could take the supplements they need to be elite athletes and owners could potentially avoid another black eye. And maybe—just maybe—the fans can put the Steroids Era behind us and get back to what they do best: watching the games.