Phils' Romero denies wrongdoing on eve of suspension

"Having people who don't know me criticize me, it's kind of sad," said J.C. Romero.
"Having people who don't know me criticize me, it's kind of sad," said J.C. Romero.
Posted: January 06, 2009

An anguished J.C. Romero wanted to tell his side of the story before Major League Baseball announces his 50-game suspension today. Once that happens, he knows, people will assume he's just another big-leaguer who had to cheat to compete.

"One thing I'm going to say, I'm a man and I'm accountable for my actions," the Phillies reliever said in a telephone interview. "If I'm guilty of something, you know what? I will face it. But I'm not guilty, and I'm not letting people that don't really know me judge me over something and accuse me of something that I didn't do."

Romero's situation is much more complicated than MLB's curt boilerplate announcement will acknowledge. He was not accused or found guilty of knowingly using a banned, performance-enhancing substance. Baseball and Romero agree that he used only an over-the-counter supplement he bought in a retail store in Cherry Hill. Romero is being suspended for 50 games and losing about $1.25 million in salary because, an arbitrator ruled, he was "negligent" in not knowing what was in the supplement.

Most players, when suspended, release a statement acknowledging their mistake and apologizing to their teammates, their organization, baseball and the fans. In the current highly charged environment, where MLB has been embarrassed by Congress for its years-long failure to police itself, many players fear repercussions if they speak out.

Not Romero, the 33-year-old lefthanded reliever who won two World Series games for the Phillies - including the title-clinching Game 5. He feels he owes it to himself, his family and his teammates to explain how this suspension came about.

"If people are intimidated because Major League [Baseball] is a big organization, so be it," Romero said. "But they are not going to make an example of me thinking that I'm just a [dumb] Puerto Rican. It's not going to happen. It's not the way I'm built.

"For me to keep my mouth shut? That's not the right thing to do. If they want to bump me out of the game, so be it. What am I going to do, just sit back and take it? When I know in my heart I'm innocent? That doesn't fly well with me and it doesn't fly well in my house, either."

Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. declined to comment on Romero last night. A spokesman for Major League Baseball also would not comment.

A new supplement

Romero said he went to the store to look for a supplement in July, the time of year he typically starts weight training again. He went to the shelf where his usual supplement was stocked and noticed a new product, 6-OXO Extreme, next to it. Because the familiar supplement required him to take eight large pills a day, he was intrigued by the other product.

The Major League Baseball Players' Association has told players that supplements purchased in U.S. retail stores should be safe and within the guidelines of baseball's drug-testing program. The union acknowledged giving that advice in a letter it sent out to players and their advisers in November. That letter, which arrived too late to help Romero, informed players that three over-the-counter supplements were found to create positive tests under baseball's drug program.

In July, Romero showed the new supplement to Phillies strength coach Dong Lien, who recommended that Romero get a second opinion before using it. Romero then showed it to his personal nutritionist, "the guy I've been working with since I've been in major-league baseball," Romero said.

That nutritionist checked the product's label and saw nothing on MLB's banned list. Romero began taking the supplement at that point.

Meanwhile, according to the arbitrator's report, Lien sent a sample of the supplement to MLB for testing. The tests showed the supplement contained a substance that could result in a positive drug test. A copy of those results was sent to commissioner Bud Selig's office in July.

Considering it was the first time a banned substance was found in an FDA-regulated, over-the-counter supplement - one available to every major-leaguer and millions of youths - that should have sounded alarms. But no one from MLB, the players' association or the Phillies told Romero that there was a problem with the supplement.

So where was the negligence? With Romero? With Lien? With MLB? With a union that told Romero and other Latin players they could trust products in U.S. stores such as Vitamin Shoppe (where Romero purchased the supplement) or GNC?

On Aug. 26, Romero gave a urine sample for a routine random drug test. On Sept. 19, during a road trip to Miami, he submitted another sample for a random test. It was not until four days later - after being tested randomly a second time - that Romero was told the Aug. 26 sample tested positive for a banned substance. He said he immediately stopped using the supplement.

According to sources close to Romero, baseball then offered the pitcher a deal. He could accept a 25-game suspension, beginning immediately, or face a longer suspension in 2009 after going through an arbitration process. Romero declined the deal for three reasons.

First, he believed accepting the suspension meant acknowledging wrongdoing. Second, he was hearing from union attorneys that the circumstances made it seem likely that he would win at arbitration. Third, the suspension would have prevented Romero from playing in the postseason.

"It wasn't a tough decision to make at all," Romero said. "I knew I wasn't going to accept that. Me accepting a 25-game suspension meant I was guilty of something. I knew in my heart I wasn't guilty."

Arbitration during Series

MLB scheduled his two-day arbitration hearing in Tampa, Fla., before the first two games of the World Series. So Romero had to go to the hearing in the morning and then report to Tropicana Field to prepare for the biggest games of his life. Somehow, he managed to pitch very well in four World Series appearances, earning the wins in Games 3 and 5.

"Only God can do something like that," Romero said. "My faith. I knew in my heart I was innocent. It was my dream to be in the World Series. So I kind of separated the two of them. Early in the morning before I got to the field was a nightmare, but once I got to the field I was all about baseball."

Romero got the impression from players' association lawyers that the hearings went very well for him and that he would likely get off with a warning. Clearly, he had taken a supplement he believed was OK and MLB seemed to grasp that.

"They knew the intention wasn't there, " Romero said. "They knew I wasn't taking steroids. They continued to pursue the fact that they thought it was negligence to not send my supplements in and going with my nutritionist, the guy I've been working with since I've been in major-league baseball. They made a big issue of that."

Romero became caught up in two separate subplots beyond his control or understanding. Baseball, because of its embarrassing mishandling of the steroid issue in the 1990s, is under pressure to catch cheaters and create the impression it has improved its policing techniques. At the same time, the FDA has had enormous enforcement issues with federal laws regarding the ingredients in over-the-counter supplements.

The supplement's creator

Here is where Patrick Arnold comes in. The man who first brought androstenedione to the U.S. marketplace and was the chemist behind the development of THG - the designer steroid distributed by Balco - also runs a major supplement business called ErgoPharm. Arnold created and marketed the supplement Romero was using.

In an e-mail exchange, Arnold said there was nothing in his supplement that should have created a positive drug test.

"We have funded two independent clinical studies (one done at Baylor University) that have been peer reviewed," Arnold wrote. "These studies demonstrated the efficacy and safety of the product. We also have funded studies that have demonstrated the compound's compliance with FDA regulation. Furthermore, we funded another study at [the University of Illinois] in Chicago using classical protocols that demonstrated that 6-OXO is absolutely not an anabolic steroid."

Andro, which first drew notice when it was spotted in Mark McGwire's locker, can generate positive test results because of metabolites similar to those created by use of the steroid Nandralone. Arnold said that should not happen with his supplement. It is not clear what baseball or the players' union found in their testing of the supplement.

What is clear is that Romero is being suspended, not for shooting steroids into his backside like the players whom baseball chose to ignore for a generation. He is being suspended for not knowing the chemical composition of a very sophisticated over-the-counter supplement he bought in a mall in Cherry Hill.

It looks as if MLB, the players' union and the Phillies' staff were at least as negligent as Romero, but none of them are being punished.

"Having people who don't know me criticize me, it's kind of sad," Romero said. "I've been exhausted for the last 21/2 months. I'm drained right now."

Either baseball believes Romero cheated and allowed him to compete in the World Series, or it believes he made an innocent mistake and is suspending him 50 games anyway.

Which would be worse?


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

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