M's are left feeling sullied after steroid suspensions

Distressed over his organization's steroid suspensions, Mariners president Chuck Armstrong said yesterday the eight Seattle minor-leaguers who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs have no excuse.

"It's just stupid and unacceptable to the Mariners," Armstrong said. "This has sullied the reputation of the Seattle Mariners, and for that it's terribly disappointing. We'll try to eradicate this, and we'll take strong internal action against the transgressors."

Citing privacy issues, Armstrong wouldn't say what action would be taken against the players, all of whom were suspended for 15 games by the commissioner's office for violating the minor-league drug policy.

The eight players are catchers Ryan Christianson and Omar Falcon, pitchers Troy Cate, Renee Cortez, Damian Moss and Darwin Soto, infielder Jesus Guzman and outfielder Billy Hogan.

Soto has been released from the organization, but Armstrong said the move was performance-related and occurred before the drug tests were announced.

Christianson and Moss both told The Seattle Times on Monday they did not use steroids, blaming their positive tests on the use of nutritional supplements they didn't know were banned.

That explanation didn't sit well with Armstrong.

"Anyone who says they didn't know — in my view, it's a cop out," he said. "I really can't think what excuse would work."

Unlike major-league players, those in the minor leagues are tested for amphetamines and drugs of abuse such as cocaine, in addition to steroids and steroids precursors. However, a major-league source said yesterday that all 38 suspended players announced Monday violated the steroids portion of the testing program. Officials would not reveal what specific substance for which they tested positive.

The minor-league testing plan was imposed by commissioner Bud Selig in 2001. Its text states that many over-the-counter nutritional supplements may contain metabolic precursors of testosterone or anabolic androgenic steroids, or be contaminated with an anabolic steroid that is not listed as an ingredient.

"As a result, a player may test positive for a Schedule III steroid from taking an over-the-counter supplement," the policy continues. "Such positive test results will be deemed a 'positive' ... even in the event the player claims he was not aware that the nutritional supplement contained such metabolic precursors or was contaminated."

This spring, the Mariners' organization has mandated that all nutritional supplements be banned from minor-league clubhouses, said Benny Looper, the team's vice president of player development and scouting.

"We tell them there's nothing they can be sure of," said James Clifford, Mariners minor-league strength-and-conditioning coordinator.

"We recommend multivitamins, that's about it," added Bruce Kipper, Mariners employee-assistance director. "The club's stance is not to use any supplements. We've talked to players on numerous occasions and had (team physician Mitchel Storey) come in and talk about creatine and over-the-counter supplements.

"Our stance is: Don't even use them."

Creatine, a popular supplement, is not banned, but Kipper said some companies taint their product with traces of a steroid called nandrolone, which can lead to a positive test.

"In the past, we've had a few guys test positive, and typically that's what they tested positive for," Kipper said of nandrolone, which has entered the news in recent years in bans for prominent track athletes.

"Sometimes they show us what they're taking, and usually it's something over the counter for strength gain," Kipper said. "We've been talking to them for four years now. I think until they get caught, it doesn't sink in, to be honest."

One major-league medical source said of the steroids tests: "All they need is a nanogram of contaminant to produce a positive result."

However, another baseball official said blaming supplements is a way for steroids violators to "deflect criticism. No one wants to admit they use andro, or one step further, steroids."

This is the first year minor-leaguers who tested positive have been named, a policy change that coincides with the public unveiling of major-leaguers who failed drug tests. So far, Tampa Bay's Alex Sanchez is the only major-leaguer to be announced as a steroids violator.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, reached by phone yesterday in New York, said he made the decision to reveal minor-league violators for consistency with the major-league policy.

"The minor-league program is five years old, and we're very serious about it," Selig said. "Now you see how serious. That's the only definitive conclusion anyone should draw: They have a program, and though you can debate the parts, they're serious, and it's working."

The test results announced Monday included teams that train in Arizona. It is expected that the spring-training testing from Florida will be announced next week. According to Selig, positive tests in the minor leagues have dropped from 11 percent in 2001 to 4.8 percent in 2002 to 4 percent in 2003 and 1.7 percent in 2004.

Though the 38 positive tests out of 925 tests administered in Arizona factors out to 4.1 percent, Selig said it is too early to conclude that positive tests will increase this year because three-quarters of the testing for 2005 remains to be conducted.

One baseball source said most of the positive tests tend to come early in the season, the result of winter strength programs. Players may have been surprised this year by testing in March, early in spring training. In past years, minor-leaguers were tested twice during the season, in April and July or August.

Though no figures were available for past test results by the Mariners, Armstrong said they were higher this year. Kipper said the Mariners have consistently had among the fewest positive tests for major-league organizations.

"The numbers are not in line, and the explanation I got was that they had never tested in spring training before," Armstrong said. "The hypothesis is — and I don't know if it's valid — a player may have thought he could get an edge in spring training and perform at a higher level early. It takes about a week to flush out."

Looper said the Mariners use Clifford and Kipper to engage their minor-league players in year-round education on baseball's drug policy and how to train cleanly. In spring training, players are shown an MLB-produced video (available in Spanish), guided to an informational Web site and given an 800 number to call for questions.

"We preached this from the opening day of spring training," Armstrong said. "We tell them if they want to take vitamin supplements, consult with our trainers and strength-and-conditioning people. This is not something we gloss over lightly. In fact, some say, 'Gosh, we cover this too much.' After this result, clearly we don't."

Education can only go so far, Kipper said.

"Basically it comes to the player, how much of a risk he's willing to take," Kipper said. "All the guys who tested positive are fringe guys who may think they have to take more of a risk. We try to discourage that and give all the information, but in the long run, they're adults."

Clifford believes some good may come of the testing.

"The things that happened in the last few days, I think it's going to help rid the game of baseball of steroids," he said. "I think that's a great thing. We're going to continue to educate players on sound nutritional principles."

Speaking yesterday at Safeco Field, Mariners manager Mike Hargrove spoke strongly about the suspensions.

"I'm surprised at some of the names," he said. "I'm disappointed. I think (general manager Bill Bavasi) said it best: There's no place in our game, or life, for this junk. It's something that needs to be cleaned up and eradicated."

Seattle Times staff reporter Bob Finnigan contributed to this report.