Morse's bad 3-for-1 deal
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
The first time Mike Morse tested positive, he was in the White Sox' farm system, in May 2004.
"I told them the truth," Morse said Wednesday afternoon. "I didn't tell them that it was a mistake or it was a supplement or that I didn't know how it got in my body. I told them I took steroids. I told them I made a mistake, that the test was correct. And I was violated."
The Mariners rookie was suspended Wednesday -- for that same mistake -- for the third time.
"This is really an incredible thing, and I was embarrassed and ashamed," Morse said. "But how many times do I have to pay for this? But at least this is over. I've been living with this nightmare since my hearing [July 19 in Toronto], waiting for a decision."
Arbitrator Sam Das backed every aspect of Morse's story. In his decision, he said there were no performance-enhancing effects gained from the low level of steroids found in his blood in early May. Das acknowledged that Morse was being punished for the same offense three times, but noted that, because there is no correlation between the minor- and major-league tests, the Players Association considers the player to have a blank slate when he is put on a major-league roster.
"People are forever going to think that the only reason I got to the big leagues was because I took steroids," said the 23-year-old Morse, who is hitting .287 and had a huge hit in the Mariners' 3-2 win Tuesday night -- just hours after breaking down in tears in the clubhouse when informed of MLB's impending announcement. "I'm in the majors despite the steroids, but who believes it?"
The arbitrator believed him, but would not overturn MLB's decision, which offers up a positive test to Congress.
Morse was 21 years old and had a severely torn thigh muscle at the end of the 2003 season.
"I really thought my career could be over," he said. "I was trying to rehab, but it wasn't going well [in fact, it still isn't completely healed]. So I tried to speed it up."
In November and December of 2003, Morse took Deca. Then he found he was getting too big, and tried Winstrol.
"I quickly found that I made a serious mistake," Morse said. "But I paid the price."
He tested positive in May 2004. A month later, he was traded to Seattle in the Freddy Garcia deal. He told the Mariners that he had tested positive, that he'd taken nothing since January, but he was tested again in July -- and tested positive again. The test showed a noticeable decline in the steroids, confirming his assertion. But the Players Association cannot deal with minor-league cases, and Morse -- then playing for Double-A San Antonio -- was suspended again.
"This winter, I hired a nutritionist because I wanted to make sure that I didn't put anything in my body that could test positive," Morse said.
However, when he was tested this May, there was a minor residue from the steroids he said he last took 14 months earlier, a claim that doctors in the arbitration hearing said could be true.
"The arbitrator even said that there is little doubt that because there was so little left -- .2 above the level -- that he accepted my story as the truth," Morse said. "But they didn't care that I'd been punished twice before. Right now, everything is completely out of my body."
But Mike Morse is out for 10 days.
Because of the unusual nature of the case, Morse's positive test went to the arbitrator. It was heard in Toronto after the All-Star break.
"That was the worst series of my career," Morse said. "I think I made five errors. But I've been living with this ever since, not sleeping, worried about the result. Now this."
Morse said manager Mike Hargrove has known about his dilemma, and according to Morse, he's "been really supportive. I didn't think I'd be in the lineup [Tuesday] night, but he put me in there. Maybe that was the best thing."
He played left field, and almost caught on fire when he slid into a heater in the Oakland bullpen trying to make a catch. He had two hits, including a double, scored a run and had an RBI.
"Playing," he said, "took my mind off this nightmare."
There is no question that baseball needs a stronger steroids testing system. But that doesn't mean that it should have a system that suspends human rights and fairness. That Morse could be suspended three times for the same mistake is unfair. Because minor-league players have no union protection, the lack of coordination between the minor and major leagues raises the specter of potential abuse by the commissioner's office. Also, the notion that everyone who enters the Players Association has a clean slate means that a player could test positive five times in the NFL, switch sports and have no record.
The Morse case is a reminder that steroids can be a complex area, and that while multimillion-dollar players can afford masking agents to escape tests not capable of detecting designer drugs, a minor leaguer -- scared that his career could be over -- can be in violation three times for the same mistake.
Major League Baseball knew all this. But because offenders are run up the flagpole and held out in the square of public opinion as an offering to Congress, a Mike Morse can be a three-time loser for a one-time offense.
"I never tried to claim that there was a mistake [in the testing]; I tried to be honest," he said.
The mistakes are in the system.