Wednesday, January 7, 2009

More on Mitre; Dissecting Romero's claims

I managed to get hold of Matt Sosnick from Sosnick-Cobbe Sports, the firm that represents Sergio Mitre. Sosnick is not Mitre’s representative; Paul Cobbe is. Matt was kind enough to take a few moments to help clarify some things about Mitre’s story.

IIAMTS: Why should we believe Mitre’s story?
Sosnick: Paul and Sergio have been dealing with this issue for months, working with the MLBPA. Based on what I know about the situation, I believe there is zero chance that Sergio would be making this up.

IIATMS: It was noted in Peter Gammons’ original article that Romero claims he was offered a more lenient suspension (25 games) if he plead guilty. Was Mitre offered that same deal?
Sosnick
: Mitre was not offered that deal. A lot of scenarios were bantered around as possibilities but Mitre was never offered a choice. My partner Paul Cobbe handled the entire deal with Mitre and the MLBPA hearing/appeals process. He was never offered a choice. We hoped for zero games; it came down as a 50 game [suspension] for both Romero and Mitre. We, along with the MLBPA thought that was unfair. If Romero claims he was offered 25 games to admit guilt, that comes as a surprise to us since Mitre was never made that offer.

IIATMS: Who knew about this and for how long?
Sosnick
: Only myself, Paul and Sergio [and the MLBPA] were aware. We’ve been working on it for months. Paul and Sergio have been to NYC to discuss and meet with MLB officials. Once we knew that the league would release this today, the only person that I called was Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman, out of respect for him and our working relationship. We released Sergio’s statement after the Romero statement was released.
-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

A few things that I’ve been thinking about since the news broke and it’s only now, after I have had a chance to re-read everything and digest it all, that some things are becoming clearer.

First of all, while I am fortunate to have a good relationship with Sosnick, I do not work FOR him. Just because Sosnick told me that he doesn't believe Mitre intentionally did anything wrong doesn't mean you or I have to believe him. I'm presenting his side since I have access; decide for yourself.

That said, I think Paul Cobbe’s statement on behalf of Mitre was spot on. Nothing resonates more than someone taking responsibility for their actions, even if it means certain punishment. Man-up, as they say. Mitre manned-up. Mitre’s entire statement (emphasis mine):
"Although being suspended for 50 games is tough to accept, I think that it is important to understand that I am in full support of drug testing in Baseball. I did take the supplement in question, and accept full responsibility for taking it. What has been difficult for me to understand is that I legally purchased this supplement at GNC, and had no intention nor desire to cheat or to circumvent the system in any way. As confirmed through the drug testing and grievance processes, it contained a "contaminant" amount of an illegal, performance-enhancing drug. This was not listed as an ingredient on the packaging, should not have been in the supplement and certainly should not have been available for legal purchase at a store. Despite this, I do accept my punishment because, as a professional, I have a responsibility for what I put into my body. For this I will suffer a significant financial penalty and, more importantly, it will affect my reputation. I only hope that this will help others avoid being punished for having taken a product bought legally at a retail store."
Whether you or I believe that Mitre was unknowingly taking a substance that was against the rules is almost immaterial here. What is important is that he acknowledged it and takes responsibility for his actions.

What also struck me here is how much his statement felt like the similar tactic that Andy Pettitte took last Spring in speaking out in the face of the Mitchell Report fallout. Different circumstances, to be sure, but I can tell you that more people respected Pettitte for admitting his guilt than the morbid path that Roger Clemens decided to take. Clemens, as you will never forget, blamed everyone else and never took responsibility for his actions.

I went back over some of the other things that I read about the Romero “situation”, since that clearly had greater legs than Mitre’s. Peter Gammons’ timeline shows us that this was ongoing in the Fall, through the playoffs and actually during the World Series! Pretty interesting how long this process takes to germinate.

What really sticks out is Romero’s response, how he blamed everyone he could seemingly think of, from the MLBPA (the very organization who serves as his advocate and also happens to be the most powerful union in perhaps the world), to GNC, to the manufacturer, down to his trainer on the Phillies.

Regarding the 25 game “offer” that Romero suggested that he received from MLB [EDIT: see update at end], Romero’s comments come across as Clemens-esque. The first comment is particularly insulting:
"But they are not going to make an example of me thinking that I’m just a (dumb) Puerto Rican. It’s not going to happen. It’s not the way I’m built.

"For me to keep my mouth shut? That’s not the right thing to do. If they want to bump me out of the game, so be it. What am I going to do, just sit back and take it? When I know in my heart I’m innocent? That doesn’t fly well with me and it doesn’t fly well in my house, either."
Sounds like Clemens’ initial reaction, too, but I’m willing to give Romero a break here since we don’t know all the facts and we don’t have the benefit of the Mitchell Report to rely upon.

So let’s dig deeper since some things begin to look very sketchy when laid out on a kitchen table:

What did the MLBPA know and when did they know it?
According to the Gammons’ article, Romero claims that “he spoke to Michael Weiner at the MLBPA and told him he did not know the cause of the positive test. On Oct. 1, Weiner told Romero that the specific supplement was indeed the cause of the failed test and that because it was purchased over the counter in the U.S., he believed the case would be dropped.”

Why, then, would Michael Weiner, MLBPA’s General Counsel, issue a tersely written “Statement Statement In Response to Media Reports on the Suspension of J.C. Romero” emailed to all MLBPA personnel? “Press stories” here has to only refer to that Gammons’ source article, essentially coming from Romero’s mouth. So what did Weiner have to say about one of his dues-paying Union members’ claims?
Some press stories have stated that the Association advised players that the particular supplement J.C. took was safe. 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 also has been a suggestion in some reports that the MLBPA misled its members about the potential dangers of nutritional supplements. That suggestion, too, is not accurate. We have and will continue to do our utmost to counsel players with regard to compliance with our Program.
Friends, that is the general counsel of the world’s most powerful union effectively calling “bullsh*t” on one of its members. Do not take this lightly. Weiner is essentially calling Romero (and his claims) a liar. I cannot believe, for a second, that the senior attorney for the union would publish a comment like this without it being a bulletproof statement.

It makes me wonder if there really was a firm offer to accept a lesser penalty for pleading guilty. Maybe it was a trial balloon. Who knows? But no matter what, Weiner’s calling him out on it.

Weiner goes on to then say that he thinks the punishment is too harsh and unfair but the statement abruptly ends there. That’s Weiner doing his job after slamming the door. Weiner issued a joint release for Mitre and Romero that also criticized the ruling.
The Union respects the arbitration process and treats the decision as final. In our view, though, the resulting discipline imposed upon Mitre and Romero is unfair. These players should not be suspended. Their unknowing actions plainly are distinguishable from those of a person who intentionally used an illegal performance-enhancing substance.
He's sticking up for his Union members, as you'd expect, but it's the MLBPA email with the time stamp of 01/06/2009 01:05 PM To: All MLBPA Personnel that is particularly scathing.

What’s certainly possible: Romero, like Mitre, unknowingly took something from GNC that contained elements that are against the MLB drug policy. However, attacking the MLBPA is not the way to go about defending yourself.


The GNC Supplement in question:
Will Carroll from Baseball Prospectus had an interesting little piece on what Romero was supposedly taking: Ergopharm 6-OXO Extreme. Notes Carroll:
According to multiple sources (and also reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer), Romero tested positive for 6-OXO Extreme, a product that enhances testosterone production in ways very similar to anabolic steroids. While legal and still available at your local GNC, 6-OXO Extreme has always carried a warning that it could result in positive tests. If you look at the above link, you’ll be able to find the same warning in the online information.

But it gets better, or worse, if you’re Romero. 6-OXO is a product of Ergopharm. Ergopharm is owned and operated by a guy you might remember: Patrick Arnold. Yes, that one. Arnold was the source for the THG used by BALCO. Arnold served several months in jail due to his involvement and is now back in business.

If Romero didn’t know what he was taking, he sure got unlucky in picking the product marked “for hardcore users only” and with a connection that baseball fans would rather forget.
Here's a crazy idea: Read the label, and if the label says the product may be banned by an athletic association and you're a professional athlete subject to drug testing … don't take that drug.

The Inquirer article did secure a comment from Arnold, which puts Romero in a further negative light, if you ask me:

In an e-mail exchange, Arnold said there was nothing in his supplement that should have created a positive drug test.

"We have funded two independent clinical studies (one done at Baylor University) that have been peer reviewed," Arnold wrote. "These studies demonstrated the efficacy and safety of the product. We also have funded studies that have demonstrated the compound’s compliance with FDA regulation. Furthermore, we funded another study at (the University of Illinois) in Chicago using classical protocols that demonstrated that 6-OXO is absolutely not an anabolic steroid."


Why didn’t MLB alert its players about this OTC product?
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer article referenced by Carroll:
In July, Romero showed the new supplement to Phillies strength coach Dong Lien, who recommended that Romero get a second opinion before using it. Romero then showed it to his personal nutritionist, "the guy I’ve been working with since I’ve been in major-league baseball," Romero said.

That nutritionist checked the product’s label and saw nothing on MLB’s banned list. Romero began taking the supplement at that point.

Meanwhile, according to the arbitrator’s report, Lien sent a sample of the supplement to MLB for testing. The tests showed the supplement contained a substance that could result in a positive drug test. A copy of those results was sent to commissioner Bud Selig’s office in July.

Considering it was the first time a banned substance was found in an FDA-regulated, over-the-counter supplement — one available to every major-leaguer and millions of youths — that should have sounded alarms. But no one from MLB, the players’ association or the Phillies told Romero that there was a problem with the supplement.
Note the timing: In July. Unfortunately, the MLBPA memo citing certain OTC supplements may trigger positive tests came in November. Again from the Inquirer:
The Major League Baseball Players’ Association has told players that supplements purchased in U.S. retail stores should be safe and within the guidelines of baseball’s drug-testing program. The union acknowledged giving that advice in a letter it sent out to players and their advisers in November. That letter, which arrived too late to help Romero, informed players that three over-the-counter supplements were found to create positive tests under baseball’s drug program.

The Phillies response:
From GM Ruben Amaro:
"I feel very confident with how our staff handles -- and has handled -- these situations, both [trainer] Scott Sheridan and Dong Lien. I have absolutely no problem with the way they handled their roles," Amaro said. "It's unfortunate that J.C. and the Phillies have to deal with this situation, but that's how it is."
Standing by his staff.


Conclusion:
Right now, regarding Mitre, we have a player who admits to taking something that triggered a positive test. He’s taken responsibility for his actions. He might be lying to us and we will never know, but this is all we have right now. I commend him for his statement.

Honestly, I think that Romero might be as unwittingly guilty as Mitre at the core of it all. But his plan of attack on his Union, his team/trainers, plus the supplement in question and his not taking any responsibility for his actions is disturbing. What I have presented above is purely conjecture based upon various reports issued. I am not claiming that Romero is lying about the circumstances or the MLBPA’s actions. What really is bugging me is Weiner’s statement flatly calling Romero’s claims false. That’s a big red flag to me.

We've seen a lot written how Romero's not getting a fair shake because it seems that everyone is believing Romero's story that the MLBPA was aware of this supplement's potential for causing positive tests yet they did nothing to help him. I'm not sold that's the truth.

I don't know what the truth really is --and doubt I will ever know-- but there are just some very curious things that Romero's comments and their reaction brought to the surface.



UPDATE
(1/7/09, 10:55am): Reader Larry Selzer was good enough to provide this link with Rob Manfred's admission that a 25 game suspension was indeed offered to Romero. Seems that MLB didn't want a player who has tested positive in the World Series. Thanks, Larry!
"We generally do not negotiate discipline in the drug area," MLB's executive vice president for labor and human resources Rob 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."

Again, all this does is tell us there is so much more we don't know. It still does not change the fact that Romero's attack on everyone else rather than taking any responsiblity is a bad PR move. I'm OK with a player protesting the claims and professing his innocence, but I would not have recommended Romero's tactics.


UPDATE
(1/9/09, 11:15am)
: An update from USA Today's Bob Nightengale, with an interesting tidbit on the company certifying supplements:

NSF International, a not-for-profit organization based in Ann Arbor, Mich., certifies supplements for Major League Baseball, the NFL and the PGA Tour. EgroPharm, the manufacturer of 6-OXO Extreme, is not one of NSF's approved companies and any product that purported to be a testosterone booster, like 6-OXO Extreme, should be avoided by professional athletes who are tested, according to Ed Wyszumiala, NSF's general manager of dietary supplement programs.

"
There is a certain segment of the market where we're not convinced isn't adulterating their products," Wyszumiala said. "Maybe this is a case where a company would spike a product in order to gain market share.
[...]
"
Oftentimes, what's on the label is not in the bottle," said Lori Bestervelt, senior vice president and chief technical officer at NSF. "The only way you know is through testing the product and having a certification process."

25 comments:

lseltzer said...

Nothing in your post tells me that Romero was or should have been aware that he was taking a banned substance, and most of his claims that he acted in good faith and followed procedures are undisputed. Why should someone be punished for being "unwittingly guilty" if they followed all the rules? Surely such a punishment is arbitrary and capricious. And and isn't it reasonable to believe that, when union and MLB people don't give ground here, they are preparing for litigation by Romero against them?

Alex K said...

In the comments of Neyer's blog yesterday people were saying there was a report that when Romero bought the supplement it did not have the warning about causing positive test on the bottle. They said he showed the bottle during an arbitration hearing.

I'm not saying that is a fact but that it is out there as well.

Jason @ IIATMS said...

Larry,

There's nothing definitive I can say either for or against either player. What I have are sketchy facts that I have tried to piece together.

Is it fair to punish someone if they unwittingly took something? Maybe. But after the Mitchell Report, the league has tried to close the loopholes.

Heck, didn't Bonds use the "unknowingly" defense, too?

It's a binary thing: guilty, not guilty. There's no "not guilty by reason of ________".

And when I looked at the details surrounding Romero's claims and the stories following, it just looks strange, that's all.

Draw your own conclusions.

Brandon Heikoop said...

I would like to see MLB and the PA get together and say, 'the player tested positive on this date, his previous test was on (blank date) where he tested negative'. It would be interesting what occurred after the clean test, maybe an injury or otherwise.

Either way, excellent write up. Romero did not do himself any favors in the court of public opinion, whereas Mitre was led in the perfect direction.

dinologic (Dean D) said...

Here's the thing the bothers me about how the Romero situation developed - he went to his trainer who said get a second opinion. He then went to his nutritionist who read the label, did some research, and then said sure, go ahead and take it, it should be perfectly legal. Then the trainer sends a sample to a lab to have it tested. And then what...Romero performed a voodoo ceremony around the bottle to get rid of evil spirits? Point is, it sure seems like he went through a good deal of trouble to find out if he could take the supplement. My question is WHY? Why THAT supplement? Why so insistent? Could it be that a buddy of his used it and told him it yielded effects similar to steroids? Or told him "hey, you gotta try this stuff it's awesome, I can bench 600 lbs now." Either way, it seems that Romero was looking for the same thing that Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, etc were looking for in steroids and HGH. He may not have intended to circumvent the rules, but it seems that he intended to circumvent the spirit of the rules. Which may be just as bad...or worse.

Larry Seltzer said...

Todd Zolecki has MLB's executive vice president for labor and human resources Rob Manfred confirming the 25 game offer.

As for the Will Carroll article and the link to the Ergopharm 6-OXO Extreme page, what is on there today is not necessarily what was on there in July. In fact, it's very likely different now since the controversy. That point says nothing about what Romero knew or should have known. In fact, if it's true that both the Phillies trainer and his other nutritionist said the supplement was OK then that's even more indication that the public information wasn't then what it is now.

Finally, I think the notion that it's dishonerable for someone to protest their innocence is pretty condescending.

Jason @ IIATMS said...

Thanks Larry. I don't think that protesting is necessarily a bad idea. It's the foisting of the blame on everyone else that I don't think is a smart tactic.

lseltzer said...

I'll certainly agree with you about the "dumb Puerto Rican" crack. Talk about condescending.

In general though, to protest his innocence Romero really has to show that others made mistakes, since he clearly relied on their advice. For instance, the Phillies defense of their trainer seemed to me a veiled admission of guilt, since it vaguely refers to someone making a mistake. Is Romero supposed to let that be? The Phillies probably can't openly admit they messed up because their lawyers won't let them.

Chris said...

I have a tough time giving MLB credit for anything involving drugs while Selig is at the helm. It's great how they pretend to care so much now that they caught a middle reliever and marginal reliever/starter taking a supplement. I say until they get serious about ALL ped's (how's that HGH test coming along?) how can they single out two guys that, for all we know, took something unknowingly (and I'd like to see them prove otherwise)?

It's also pretty convenient how they dangled that little '25-game' gem out there to be able to pat themselves on the back for getting one of those awful cheaters right before his team was about to play in the world series.

And if you think Sergio Mitre wrote that paragraph, you're kidding yourself. Romero is on a cruise with the phillies and was probably hit with this questioning without the benefit of being able to consult with his agent or whoever else handles him before returning. Just a thought.

Jason @ IIATMS said...

Chris, I know Mitre didn't write that. I believe I noted that it was written by Paul Cobbe ON BEHALF of his client, Mitre. That's the point of having competent representation.

And if Romero decided to "volunteer" that information before consulting his representatives, then he's an even bigger idiot that I think. And if his reps supported his decision to rant and defend himself the way he did, they are knuckleheads too!

Chris said...

I wasn't trying to say you were naive or anything. I just didn't see any reason to praise Mitre when he probably had zero input into the response. Like the site...you picked up a reader.

Jason @ IIATMS said...

Glad to have you, Chris. The more the merrier!

I know you weren't accusing or anything, but I also wanted to point out that I did note that the statement was made by Cobbe "on behalf" of Mitre.

Doug said...

Jason...What am I missing? I didn't see anything in Weiner's statement that definitively targeted Romero as a "liar". It seemed to me, that all of the hazy accusations referred to, by Weiner, were not specifically leveled by Romero, as far as I can tell. I am in complete agreement with Chris's earlier post, that I don't trust a thing MLB does in regard to PES as long as Selig is in charge. I also wanted to tell you how much I enjoy the site.

Jason @ IIATMS said...

Doug: Glad you're here and that you like the site.

As far as Weiner's comments, he's answering Romero's claims as dictated to and reported by Gammons. Those were essentially Romero's words (unlike Mitre's statement, which was clearly penned by his rep's).

When the GC of the MLBPA has to answer those charges and does so with a statement like that, it's pretty evident that he's calling Romero's claims as BS.

BUM said...

Is anyone else bothered by the fact that Patrick Arnold is linked to another PED story. When you think back to all the congressional dog&pony shows and see Arnold's name come up in another PED story (legal or not) it just shows noone is serious about this. They guy is a convicted drug dealer and got three months time.

Jason @ IIATMS said...

BUM: That's precisely why I added that part of the story. It's disturbing.

And with BALCO's founder out of jail, who knows what he's cooking up in some back room lab.

glenn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

For the question of the labelling on the bottle, someone had the "Romero" bottle on Philly's Daily News Live a few days back and three differnt reporters and an attorney looked at it and agreed it had no warning.

I don't go to this site often, so I don't know the writer's credibilty, but since his post, the comments have established: 1- that Mitre didn't write his statement (I recognize that the author probably thought that was evident), 2- Romero's comments came while he was on the phone from vacation without access to his agent, 3- that testing showed Romero was clean during the World Series, 4- that MLB DID in fact offer a 25 game suspension, 5- that the Philles have tacitly admitted some mistakes by thier trainer, and 5-that Romero's bottle did not have any warning. Think it might be time to roll-back your criticism? You may not like his tone or his invoking his nationality, but is he liar? Is he Roger Clemens?

Brian said...

I gotta be honest. I read all this, and it just seems to me that Romero is defending himself. I never came to the conclusion that he was laying blame by merely describing the things he had (allegedly) done prior to taking the supplement. He was merely describing the lengths he went to in his attempts to stay clean. What should be coming out of this story and those of the NFL players is how dirty the supplement industry is. It's terribly regulated. The idea that a product could be out there with unlisted ingredients (illegal ingredients, mind you - not like a frozen entree forgot to list carrots), should be scaring the hell out of people. MLB, NFL, et al. should be on a crusade to capitol hill to force changes in the regulation of this industry for the protection of not only their players, but for the thousands of kids nationwide who are taking this garbage. There's your failure right there.

Jason @ IIATMS said...

Is he Clemens? Only with respect to his tactics of yelling and screaming, blaming everyone.

I have said that I believe that the initial crime was probably an accident, which might be the biggest shame of this whole mess.

Also, when I wrote this (Tuesday night), i was writing with the info I had at hand at the time. Since then, as more info has come out, I have tried to provide updates, but I won't re-write what was already written.

Bottom line, the whole affair is unfortunate but if we, the public, wants to have a clean game and screamed for a Zero Tolerance policy, these are the problems we will face.

Jason @ IIATMS said...

Brian: I completely agree with your final thought. The "supplement" business is sketchy and dirty and not one to be trusted.

I'm not sure what the solution should be since it's clear that the MLB, trainers, doctors, MLBPA, etc. cannot come to an agreement on what things are OK to take and what will result in a positive test.

As I have said, this whole mess is unfortunate for all involved.

Tom said...

I have to agree with others who have said that Weiner's statement is not the condemnation that you make it out to be. I went back and reread it several times. Clearly he is a very clever lawyer and, as most lawyers do, has parsed his words so that everything he says can be "technically" defended. But really, he has NOT flatly refuted the actual claims made in the Gammons article.

Of course he's going to come out and make a statement defending his employer, but there is definitely room to read between the lines and still believe what Romero is saying.

David said...

What may be more important than how each player responded is... do we know how much boost an OTC ingredient can give to a player? I assume it's not the same as an injected steroid (which when used legitimately requries a prescription). I also assume that the amount of this ingredient is much less potent (therefore enabling it to be sold OTC) than the boost from an injected steroid. So even if Romero overused this product intentionally, is that really a perfomance enhancer? My assumptions could be wrong. I don't know.

Without knowing more, it strikes me that Romero is being given the same punishment for testing positive as Clemens would were Clemens caught under the new policy. If the performance-enhancing effect of an OTC with 6-OXO (even if overused) is far less (or even negligible) compared to the butt-shot variety, wouldn't it be reasonable to differentiate the punishments? This also assumes that it can be reasonably believed that Romero didn't inject a steroid and then blame his supplement -- can the test determine this?

Assuming that 6-OXO in an OTC is not a material performance enhancer... assuming the test can confirm that the positive result was likely the supplement... some important assumptions obviously... Romero seems justified to rant, to differentiate himself from those taking strange cocktails or unknown designer creams. But he should also accept the penalty for the positive test, and apparently he's doing that.

Jason @ IIATMS said...

Well said, David. That's what we get for asking for, and getting, a zero tolerance policy.

Anonymous said...

What you failed to state is that Romero is a two time offender. In 2006, he was busted using test base testosterone. He claimed it was for fertility reasons. Who knows how many supplements he used and didn’t get caught for? He tried to beat the system, got caught and that fact makes him as bad as Bonds. If you are murderer and you kill 1 person or 10, are you any less of a murder?