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Drug Rules Catch Baseball Star

Times Staff Writer

Rafael Palmeiro, the Baltimore Oriole slugger who denied taking steroids before a congressional committee in March and then took part in a program designed to educate youngsters on the dangers of the drug, on Monday was suspended for 10 days for violating baseball’s steroids policy.

Less than three weeks after becoming only the fourth player in history with at least 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, Palmeiro became the highest-profile player of the seven major leaguers suspended under the joint drug agreement between the players’ union and Major League Baseball.

In a conference call with reporters Monday, Palmeiro denied knowingly taking steroids, implying he had consumed over-the-counter dietary supplements tainted by a banned performance-enhancing drug. He claimed he subsequently became a victim of the grievance and arbitration process written into the agreement, what he called, “the heavy burden imposed on players who test positive under the new drug policy.”

In March, while under oath before the House Government Reform Committee, Palmeiro said he supported the current policy and would even support a program that tracks the much stricter Olympic standards. On that afternoon, he sat before the committee, pointed his finger defiantly, and said, “I have never used steroids. Period. I do not know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never.”

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Just more than five months later, he very nearly echoed those remarks, saying, “I have never intentionally used steroids. Never. Ever. Period.”

Upon his suspension, Palmeiro, who said he was bound by confidentiality rules in the drug agreement, said, “I unfortunately wasn’t careful enough. ... I feel terrible that this has happened.”

Previously suspended players have provided detailed explanations, most citing similar circumstances of contaminated supplements, and were not disciplined further.

When he was notified he had tested positive, on a date not disclosed but possibly as long as two months ago, Palmeiro followed the appeal guidelines established by baseball’s collective bargaining agreement. The Health Policy Advisory Committee, composed of one or two doctors, a union and a baseball official, voted to send Palmeiro’s case to an independent arbitration panel. Only one dissenting opinion is enough to continue the process.

The panel found Monday that Palmeiro must serve the suspension, and the Players’ Assn. subsequently issued a statement that read, in part, “The result reached by the [arbitration] panel is based on the uncontested positive test result and our determination that the evidence in this record is not sufficient for the player to meet his burden of establishing that his positive test result was not due to his fault or negligence. The panel considers it important to point out that our decision does not equate to a finding or belief that Rafael Palmeiro -- whose testimony in many respects was quite compelling -- was untruthful in his testimony before this panel or any other body.”

This is the first known case of the grievance and arbitration process occurring before the suspension, though not all suspended players request a hearing before the HPAC.

Palmeiro’s suspension began with the Orioles’ game against the Chicago White Sox on Monday at Baltimore, which the Orioles lost, 6-3. Palmeiro will be eligible to return Aug. 11. The Orioles open a three-game series against the Angels tonight at Anaheim.

Union chief Don Fehr said the discipline offered further proof that the current program works, given the first six players suspended were of lower prominence.

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“Today’s announcement should serve to dispel doubts about our determination to rid baseball of illegal steroids, or the strength or effectiveness of our testing program,” he said in a statement. “All players are treated equally, even potential members of the Hall of Fame, without respect to their tenure or status in the game. The steroid testing program in baseball is working and will prove to be effective if given the chance.”

Beyond the 10-day suspension and the resulting loss in salary (about $164,000 of his $3 million), Palmeiro has perhaps jeopardized his standing with Hall of Fame voters.

Already he had been held up for suspicion by passages in a book written by confessed steroid user Jose Canseco, who claimed he often personally injected Palmeiro with various steroids, and then was called before the congressional committee investigating steroid use in baseball.

“Why would I do this in a year when I went in front of Congress and I testified and I told the truth?” Palmeiro said Monday. “Why should I do this during a season where I was going to get to 3,000 hits? It just makes no sense. I would not put my career on the line. I would not put my reputation on the line, everything that I’ve accomplished throughout my career. I would not do that. I’m not a crazy person.”

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Asked specifically about the consequences of his suspension and the Hall of Fame, voted on by members of the Baseball Writers Assn. of America, he said, “Really that’s not for me to determine. I hope that people look at my whole career and appreciate that I’ve given everything that I’ve got.... I respect the Hall of Fame, and if they think that I’m worthy enough, I would be very honored. And if they don’t, I gave it all that I had to this game.”

A spokesman for Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who chairs the Government Reform Committee and invited Palmeiro to join Zero Tolerance, the outreach program arranged to keep children off steroids, said, “If true, this is disheartening news for those of us who believed that Mr. Palmeiro was a key ally in our efforts to rid sports of performance-enhancing drugs.”

As for Palmeiro’s place in the Zero Tolerance program, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) said, “Well, it looks like he had a little more tolerance for these drugs than we had in mind.”

Waxman, the Government Reform Committee’s ranking Democrat, said he was “disappointed” by the news of Palmeiro’s suspension.

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“In light of his testimony and the concerns that had been expressed, I find it mystifying he would use something that could be a steroid or anything like a steroid,” Waxman said in a telephone interview. “It’s pretty stunning in light of his strong testimony at the hearing.”

Waxman said he and Palmeiro had exchanged phone messages Monday.

A spokesperson for Waxman’s office said it was too early to consider or pursue perjury charges against Palmeiro.

President Bush, who once felt so strongly about cleaning up the sport he mentioned it in a State of the Union address, was said to support Palmeiro, a Texas Ranger player when Bush owned part of the team. A White House spokesperson said, “Rafael Palmeiro is the president’s friend, and the president believes Mr. Palmeiro.”

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The Orioles apparently were unaware of the positive test or the appeal until recently. Team owner Peter Angelos in a statement called Palmeiro “a fine person, a great player and a true asset to his community.”

“I know from personal experience that his accomplishments are due to hard work and his dedication to the game,” he said.

Gary Wadler, a Long Island physician, professor at New York University Medical School and one of the nation’s leading anti-doping experts, said it appeared likely the matter involves a contaminated legal supplement.

He called it “tragic” but also said, “There’s no question that he has to be sanctioned.”

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The last few years have seen anti-doping authorities warning with increasing frequency that athletes should not take dietary supplements -- anything from a purported muscle builder to a vitamin enhancer -- because of the risk the supplement could be laced with the steroid nandrolone or other banned substances.

In 2003, an International Olympic Committee study -- which tested 634 nutritional supplements bought in 13 countries -- found that 14.8% were contaminated with supplements not included on the product’s label that would have produced a positive doping test.

“I’m out there on the road saying, ‘Don’t take dietary supplements. They don’t do anything for you and the risk-reward ratio is not in your favor,’ ” Wadler said.

If such a contaminated supplement is involved in Palmeiro’s case, Wadler added, he “absolutely” should not have taken it. “He should not have run the risk. He knew there was a risk. All these elite athletes are aware of the contamination issue. These guys all read the sports pages first before they read the news pages. They know about the Olympic cases. They have heard repeatedly about the dangers of contaminated supplements.

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“He should have said, ‘I am so much in the forefront of this issue I should not be taking a supplement.’ That’s what he should have done and how he should have acted. Instead, it appears he did this. And now he’s paying the price.”

Previously, Palmeiro had been linked to performance-enhancing drugs only by Canseco’s book, “Juiced.”

In it, Canseco wrote that not long after he was traded to the Rangers during the 1992 season, he “educated” Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez on steroids.

“Soon I was injecting all three of them,” he wrote, each of them “many times.” Canseco claimed to have provided steroids to Palmeiro through his “contacts,” and that he administered the drugs -- a combination of human growth hormone and steroids -- at the ballpark. Canseco noted that Palmeiro made “reasonable” gains.

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On ESPN radio Monday, Canseco said, “I think the public will start realizing how diabolical and corrupt Major League Baseball is ... manipulating the system and destroying athletes’ lives. They’re just a corrupt institution.”

He added, “Rafael Palmeiro did use steroids in the past. There is a testing policy in place. Knowing there is a testing policy in place, and knowing that Congress was keeping an eye on these players

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Times staff writers Alan Abrahamson and Bill Shaikin contributed to this report.

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