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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Rocket's glare

"I'm not the man they think I am at home"

From "Rocket Man." Lyrics by Bernie Taupin, Music by Elton John
Did Roger Clemens secretly receive a 50 game suspension for violating major league baseball's steroid policy? Various rumors linking Clemens to steroids have been circulating on the internet for at least a month -- though sports writers have talked about the steroids rumors for much longer.

To those who are conspiracy-minded, a 50-game suspension (that's the new penalty for a first offense) would explain why Clemens didn't sign a contract with any team until about one-third of the season had been played. Granted, it's not the only explanation. After all, Clemens first retired from the Yankees several seasons ago and every comeback year is touted as his last.

But Clemens was eligible to sign with 29 major league teams at the beginning of the year and could have played for the Houston Astros beginning May 1 (due to a technical aspect of baseball's labor rules concerning arbitration and free agency). Did he wait until mid-June because baseball insisted?

According to the 2005 policy, which would arguably have been controlling on Clemens had he tested positive near the end of the 2005 season, players who are in the "clinical track" of the abuse policy cannot be identified.
A Club whose Player is on the Clinical Track is prohibited from disclosing any information regarding a Player’s participation in the Program to either the public, the media or other Clubs.
Who is on the "clinical track," as opposed to the "administrative track"?

That was up to the discretion of the Health Policy Advisory Committee. HPAC didn't discipline players, but by moving the player to the administrative task, they could make the player eligible for punishment by the baseball commissioner. The "clinical track" seemed to be reserved for confessed users who sought medical care for their drug use.

That discretion would seem to have given the HPAC some leverage over relations with players. Likewise, a popular but unsigned player like Clemens would have some leverage over baseball. If he decided never to return to the game, everyone presumably loses. He's an inner circle Hall of Fame player who ordinarily attracts fans. When people think steroids, they think Barry Bonds, not Roger Clemens.

The HPAC is now gone, by the way, as the November 2005 revised drug policy created a new Independent Program Administrator who reports positive test results to the various parties. However, so far as I can tell, the new policy doesn't say anything about disclosure of test results or penalties -- though baseball has obviously been announcing some positive tests and suspensions.

The Major League Player's association doesn't seem to have a copy of the revised agreement on their webpage, only the summary I linked above.

I previously blogged about the importance of transparency to the success of the anti-steroid policy. Public disclosure of steroid users (and their penalties) helps deter steroids use. Think about what the test disclosure last summer did to Rafael Palmeiro's career. He was essentially finished after that. Surely other players noticed.

I have no idea whether the rumor is true about Clemens, but if it is...then a star player managed to avoid the limelight and perhaps preserved his HOF sheen. And just maybe he paved a route for stars to avoid negative publicity that taints their legacy -- and the game. That cannot be good news for those wanting to see steroids removed from professional baseball.

If the Clemens rumor is false, well, this post is just wild speculation. But the logic will remain valid. Baseball needs a transparent anti-steroids policy. Cynical fans might make the same sorts of inferences about stars whenever there is a prolonged absence.

Think about other players linked to steroids in the press: In 2005, Barry Bonds somewhat mysteriously missed most of the season due to multiple surgeries. Gary Sheffield reportedly just had surgery and is set to miss the next three months of the season.

I'm not trying to fan wild rumors -- just advocating for more openness in the policy.

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