Baseball took its first move toward banning ephedra by prohibiting players with minor-league contracts from taking the substance, which was linked to the death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler.
The commissioner’s office is powerless to extend the ban to major leaguers, who are covered by the collective bargaining agreement with the players’ association.
But commissioner Bud Selig made the decision Monday to ban the use of ephedra in the minors, and notice was transmitted to the teams in a memorandum by Jennifer Gefsky, a lawyer in the labor relations department of the commissioner’s office.
“The minor leagues have always been the testing ground,” said Brian Falkenborg, a pitcher at spring training with the Seattle Mariners on a minor-league contract. “We’ve been drug-tested for a while now, and they’ve always tested for amphetamines. I don’t see how it’s going to be that much different.”
San Francisco Giants trainer Stan Conte addressed the issue of ephedra use with the team the morning after Bechler’s death, and Fresno Grizzlies trainer Mark Gruesbeck said he intends to discuss Conte’s ideas at the Triple-A level as well.
“As a trainer I’m very skeptical [of over-the-counter drugs],” Gruesbeck said. “When there’s no governing agency supervising it, it’s very, very scary. We obviously give these guys physicals, but you never know how someone’s going to react to something.”
News of the ban, which is similar to the minor-league ban on tobacco use, hadn’t reached staff and players at spring training in Scottsdale, Ariz., as of Thursday afternoon, but Grizzlies manager Fred Stanley welcomed the news.
“They’re trying to make sure the younger players develop good habits, so that by the time they get to the big leagues they know they’re not supposed to take [ephedra],” Stanley said. “It is probably a little more dangerous than people think.
“The window of opportunity for some of these players makes it so they will gamble. They think, if you only have 10 years, they can gamble [and take substances such as ephedra], and then get off it and they’ll be fine. So I’m glad they’re putting parameters on it, starting to identify things that should be kept out of athletics.”
Both Stanley and Gruesbeck said having a set policy will make it easier to discuss the issue with players.
“We can have a serious discussion and explain why it is harmful,” Stanley said. “This makes it black and white. What we’re testing and why.”
Players on 40-man major-league rosters, including those on option to minor-league teams, are not covered by the decision because they are members of the Major League Baseball Players Association. The players with major-league contracts are covered by the drug-testing rules of the new collective bargaining agreement, which bans only drugs of abuse and certain illegal steroids.
The decision to ban ephedra among players with minor-league contracts first was reported by The (Baltimore) Sun and confirmed to the Associated Press by a baseball official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Minor-league players, who are not unionized, were tested by baseball and teams on a sporadic basis for several years. Starting in 2002, the commissioner’s office instituted centralized random testing for minor leaguers from spring training through the end of the season. That program covers drugs of abuse, steroids, supplements such as androstenedione, and, now, ephedra.
Ephedra is banned by the NFL, NCAA and the International Olympic Committee. Baseball negotiators intended to propose last summer that it be banned in the major leagues, but after the players’ association voiced opposition, management didn’t include ephedra on its proposed list of banned substances, according to lawyers for both owners and the union.
Bechler, a 23-year-old overweight pitcher, died Feb. 17, a day after collapsing at spring training with heatstroke.
Because Bechler had a major-league contract, he would not have been covered by the ban.
Players’ association head Donald Fehr says the union will wait for toxicology reports before re-examining its stance on ephedra, which is available without a prescription. Players say they should be allowed to take any legal substance.
“Eventually, if it’s going to be done right, the federal government is going to have to step in and consider banning the product altogether,” Falkenborg said.