- Mark Fainaru-Wada, ESPN Staff Writer
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SAN FRANCISCO -- But for a combination of bad luck, bad timing and aggressive legal tactics by the Major League Baseball Players Association, alleged steroid use by Alex Rodriguez might never have been exposed.
The story that Rodriguez tested positive for steroids in 2003, as reported Saturday by Sports Illustrated, likely wouldn't have come to light had the BALCO scandal not erupted that fall.
The federal probe of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, and the dominos that began to tumble immediately after it became public in September 2003, led to a case that enveloped not just the 10 ballplayers connected to BALCO but a total of 104 players who tested positive for steroids during MLB's first year checking for the substances.
And so, more than five years after Barry Bonds was first implicated as a steroid user in the wide-ranging government probe, the heir apparent to the career home run record has tossed baseball right back into the steroid wash.
The story of how that came to pass is rooted in a series of unfortunate events for the sport.
It begins in August 2002, when the owners and the union agreed to a year of "survey" testing, in which players were checked for steroids but not identified if they showed positive.
That testing was supposed to be anonymous, used solely for the purpose of gauging whether to implement more serious testing in the years ahead. However, to confirm that each player was checked, records were kept with names assigned to a corresponding number. Those records and results were maintained by separate organizations hired by MLB.
In mid-November 2003, two months after federal agents raided BALCO, baseball announced that between 5 and 7 percent of tests were positive. That's despite the fact that players effectively knew exactly when they would be tested. The percentage met a threshold that kicked in punitive testing for the coming years.
As part of baseball's agreement with the two entities that implemented its program -- Comprehensive Drug Testing (CDT) of Long Beach, Calif., and Quest Laboratories of Teterboro, N.J. -- the samples and results from the survey testing were supposed to be destroyed soon after the information was confirmed.
But, for some reason, neither the owners nor the union filed the necessary paperwork ordering CDT and Quest to destroy all the records and samples.
"It indicates how little concern anybody had for the outside investigation initially," said one lawyer who was involved in the case. "If anybody would have had a brain, they would have realized if we don't destroy this info, it's going to get subpoenaed."
About two weeks after baseball announced the percentage of players who tested positive in 2003, the grand jury investigating BALCO subpoenaed information related to all test results and samples from MLB's program.
Negotiations ensued between the government, the players' union, Quest and CDT. In March 2004, the parties appeared to reach an agreement that limited the government to obtaining information related solely to 10 players with connections to BALCO.
However, on April 8, facing a deadline on how to respond to the subpoenas, the MLBPA filed a motion to quash on behalf of the BALCO-connected players. Ultimately, in its effort to protect the 10 players swept up in BALCO, the union exposed all 104 players who had tested positive in 2003.
The next day, federal authorities conducted separate raids on CDT in Long Beach and a Quest lab in Las Vegas that was maintaining MLB's samples and results. Reacting to the union's efforts to quash the subpoenas, the government turned around and obtained search warrants to get information related to all players -- not just the BALCO athletes.
"This has just taken on a life of its own," a lawyer connected to the investigation said at the time.
Using codes assigned to each ballplayer's sample, the government was able to identify the individuals who tested positive.
Among the 104 positives, apparently, was a sample provided by Alex Rodriguez.
Mark Fainaru-Wada is an investigative reporter for ESPN's enterprise unit. He can be reached at email@example.com.
14hMatt Walks, ESPN.com