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Morse’s muddled case draws few conclusions

Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – On Aug. 10, major league and union officials felt compelled to issue a joint statement denying rampant rumors that numerous players, including superstars, had positive steroids tests that were being covered up by Major League Baseball.

The truth was, Commissioner Bud Selig said back then, just one player was currently in the steroids system, in the midst of the grievance process. That player, he hinted, was hardly a superstar such as Rafael Palmeiro, who had been busted the previous week.

“There’s one young player they’re still talking about,” Selig said that day.

The player, we know now, was the Seattle Mariners’ Mike Morse, and what a complicated, sordid tale his 10-game suspension, announced Wednesday, has wrought.

For starters, it has shined more unsavory light on the Mariners organization, which now claims three of the nine players – Jamal Strong, Ryan Franklin and Morse – who have been suspended this year under the new major league drug policy. That’s on top of Seattle’s eight minor leaguers who were suspended in April, another dubious industry lead.

Suddenly, the Mariners are being portrayed either as the punch line to bad jokes about what’s in the coffee up here, or as some sort of den of steroids iniquity. For now, at least, they have to sit back and take it.

In April, when the minor league suspensions were announced, Mariners president Chuck Armstrong reacted strongly.

“It’s just stupid and unacceptable to the Mariners,” Armstrong told the Seattle Times. “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.”

Three reputation-sullies later, however, Armstrong didn’t – or couldn’t – match his earlier venom. As he has after each major league suspension, he declined to comment, as did chairman Howard Lincoln.

“I would love to say something,” Armstrong said, “because it’s a subject I feel strongly about. But I’m precluded by the protocol agreement and the direction of the commissioner’s office.”

I tend to agree with Rob Manfred, MLB’s executive vice president of labor relations and human resources – and its point man on drug testing – who dismissed the organization’s lead in failed tests as a statistical fluke.

That’s especially true considering that Morse’s admitted steroids transgressions occurred while he was a member of the Chicago White Sox organization.

“Given the number of people involved in the organization, from the minor league system through the major leagues, we don’t feel their numbers are suggestive of anything,” Manfred said by telephone from New York. “The sample is too small. Any real conclusion is unfair.”

The Morse case shows just what a murky process the whole drug-testing process can be, never the black-or-white conclusions that some would like to put forth.

On the one hand, Morse indeed seems to have been the victim of triple-jeopardy. He was suspended a third time for what he claims was the same cycle of steroids used in November and December 2003. The arbitration panel that heard (and denied, by a 2-1 vote) Morse’s grievance even admitted that his use “likely ended before the 2004 season began,” based on the levels of the drug that were found.

Morse’s agent, Seth Levinson, on Friday called the Morse punishment “hugely unfair.”

But while many steroids experts back Morse’s explanation that the drug – believed to be nandrolone – in his system remains from 2003, Dr. Linn Goldberg, a physician at Oregon Health Sciences University and a steroids expert who testified before Congress last spring, told the Oregonian in Portland:

“It doesn’t stay in your system that long. I believe if he tested positive again, it’s because of re-use.”

“The problem is, he may have been getting some therapeutic benefit, but clearly, you’re getting enhanced,” said Dr. Gary Wadler, a steroids expert and Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine at New York University School of Medicine.

It’s easy to say that Morse’s case might serve to deter a minor leaguer who can see what a tangled web his steroids use has woven.

But, then again, he might also see a player who, once his suspension ends next week, will return to a major league roster.

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