In late January, The Miami New Times published an investigative report about a defunct anti-aging clinic named Biogenesis that it said had been used by several major players to illegally obtain banned performance-enhancing drugs. The list of players linked to the clinic includes big names like Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees, Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, Melky Cabrera of the Toronto Blue Jays and Gio Gonzalez of the Washington Nationals.
Since that report, Major League Baseball has aggressively pursued the clinic's operator, Anthony Bosch. It sent investigators and top executives to Florida in an effort to obtain information about the clinic, purchased what it believes to be medical documents from the facility and even paid former clinic employees for their co-operation. It also took the unusual step of filing a lawsuit against Mr. Bosch and five others connected to the clinic, hoping to increase its leverage in the investigation and to put pressure on Mr. Bosch to co-operate.
Those steps have apparently paid off: Mr. Bosch has agreed to tell the commissioner's office what he knows. And that, experts say, could lead to as many as 20 or 30 players being implicated, which would make it one of the biggest doping scandals in professional sports.
The Brewers' Mr. Braun and Francisco Cervelli, a New York Yankees catcher, have admitted dealing with Mr. Bosch, but both players said they used the clinic for legitimate purposes. "Following my foot injury in March, 2011, I consulted with a number of experts, including Biogenesis clinic, for legal ways to aid my rehab and recovery," Mr. Cervelli told Yahoo. "I purchased supplements that I am certain were not prohibited by MLB."
Mr. Braun said he used Mr. Bosch as a consultant in his defence against a suspension imposed, and subsequently overturned, by Major League Baseball when it was found that his blood sample had been compromised. His name appears in the documents obtained by the Miami publication, he said, because of a dispute over compensation for that consultancy.
Mr. Bosch has allegedly represented himself as a doctor though he apparently does not have a licence to practice. In February, ESPN detailed Mr. Bosch's troubles, including disciplinary action by Florida's medical board, financial issues including Internal Revenue Service tax liens and declarations of bankruptcy.
While befriending players and agents in south Florida, Mr. Bosch managed to stay relatively anonymous until he was linked to a banned testosterone used by Manny Ramirez, who was then playing with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Difficulty in making doping charges stick
In each corner outside San Francisco's AT&T Park, there are bronze statues of baseball greats Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey.
There's little such notice given to Barry Bonds, baseball's all-time home run leader and a member of the Giants from 1993 until his retirement in 2007, other than his name being inscribed on a beige stucco stadium wall with other Giants for winning Gold Glove, most valuable player, Cy Young and other awards.
Baseball's all-time home-hitter with 762, the long-time Giant remains a tainted hero due to his ties to the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, which became known as BALCO. In his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame, he was denied entry by baseball writers, after having played primarily during an era free of mandatory drug testing, which was introduced in 2004.
The U.S. government indicted Mr. Bonds for allegedly lying to a grand jury, regarding his ties to the lab. He was convicted of obstructing justice, hardly the result the government had sought. Greg Anderson, Mr. Bonds' trainer, went to jail rather than testify against the player. Leaked grand jury testimony showed Mr. Bonds admitting to unknowingly using a substance known as "the clear." Four defendants in the BALCO case made plea bargains with the government. They were not required to reveal the names of athletes.
The BALCO case demonstrated the difficulty leagues and government have had making doping charges stick.
Under pressure from Congress, baseball stiffened its penalties in 2005 to 50 games for a first offence after being caught using a banned substance, 100 games for a second and a lifetime ban for a third.
In 2009, baseball commissioner Bud Selig set a precedent by using medical files to suspend Manny Ramirez for 50 games, rather than a sample. The files showed Mr. Ramirez had used human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), which is taken to supply testosterone after stopping the use of steroids.
This past March, baseball took its legal strategy a step further by suing Biogenesis and five company employees, including Mr. Bosch, for interfering with player contracts – that is, by enabling players to obtain banned performance-enhancing drugs, they had allegedly induced players to breach their employment contacts. Baseball has reportedly induced Mr. Bosch to testify by dropping him from the lawsuits and to cover costs.
The players respond
In mid-August last season, when Melky Cabrera was leading the San Francisco Giants in batting average, he received a 50-game suspension for using a banned substance, a performance-enhancing testosterone thought to have been obtained from the Biogenesis lab, as his name is included on the documents obtained by The Miami New Times.
Ironically, the latest news related to baseball's investigation of the Biogenesis clinic in Florida broke as Mr. Cabrera returned to AT&T Park, as a member of the Blue Jays, for the first time since being suspended. His value as a free agent devalued severely by the suspension, Mr. Cabrera signed a two-year, $16-million contract with Toronto in the off-season.
After Tuesday's 2-1 loss to the Giants, Mr. Cabrera told reporters that he had served his mandated time, and pointed out that it was especially hurtful for the Giants to compound the punishment by leaving him off the 2012 postseason roster after he'd become eligible to return to play. The Giants would win the World Series.
On Wednesday, the crowd at AT&T booed Mr. Cabrera each time he came to the plate.
"They should," said former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, in San Francisco as part of a prostate-cancer awareness campaign. "What he did to the team, what he did to baseball. It's just not right to get involved in something like that. It's just hurting baseball. It is the greatest sport in this country and we've got to keep it clean and decent forever."
Michael Weiner, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, said in a statement Wednesday that the union is in touch with the commissioner's office, and that no discipline will be extended without further discussion, The union, he said, "has every interest in both defending the rights of players and in defending the integrity" of the joint drug program.
Mark DeRosa, 38, a Blue Jays infielder, said players want the drug-testing program to have complete integrity, down to due process.
"Guys are still trying to undermine the system, and I'm sure that happens in all walks of life," Mr. DeRosa said. "I think not only are you cheating the game, but if you are going about it in such a shady way, and if that comes to light as 100 per cent factual, then suspensions are warranted."
With a report from The New York Times