They were there in the hallway of the home clubhouse before batting practice Wednesday, three men in short-sleeve, collared black shirts and khakis. Noah Syndergaard said a friendly hello on his way to the field. They are the drug testers, part of the landscape of the majors for well more than a decade.
“For a three-game series, typically two of the three days guys are in here getting drug-tested,” said Neil Walker, the New York Mets’ second baseman. “We get tested a lot — anywhere between three and seven times a season. You always kind of feel like there’s going to be people trying to beat the system, and that’s unfortunate, but the system seems to be working to this point. Guys aren’t really getting away with it, to our knowledge.”
Pittsburgh outfielder Starling Marte, a former teammate of Walker’s, became the latest All-Star caught in the steroids web on Tuesday when Major League Baseball announced he had been handed an 80-game suspension. Not many prominent players get caught these days — Miami second baseman Dee Gordon was the most well-known player busted last season — but there are just enough to make law and order a persistent theme in the background.
Should the penalties be stronger for first-time offenders? Eighty games without pay, plus a postseason ban, is significant. Ideally, perhaps, a positive test would allow a team to escape a guaranteed contract.
Jake Diekman, a Texas Rangers reliever, went further, tweeting that suspended players should make the minimum salary the rest of their careers.
Walker has served on the advisory board of the Taylor Hooton Foundation, an organization dedicated to educating athletes and others on the dangers of performance-enhancing drugs. Walker said that although players have no tolerance for colleagues who willfully cheat, they also do not want to be overly harsh for transgressions of negligence, not malevolence. Mistakes can happen.
Walker said he had never suspected Marte, who signed a long-term contract in 2014 and has always been healthy. But Walker did not sound convinced by Marte’s statement that he did not knowingly use the banned drug nandrolone, which, Walker noted, is usually taken through an injection.
“It’s not like taking a cough medicine that may have something in it,” he said. “You’re taking the time to have somebody either do it for you or you do it yourself, inject something, whether it’s a B-12 shot or a cortisone shot or whatever you think it may be.”
Walker continued: “I don’t know. You try to treat every situation with some empathy, but at the same time, us as players, especially in today’s day and age, you know exactly what’s going into your body at all times, whether it’s from GNC or from the team, whatever.”
Domestic violence is the other major area of off-field discipline, an obviously more serious crime than steroid use, but also very different. There are no testers in the clubhouse; investigations can be lengthy, circumstances murky, conclusions confusing. Mets closer Jeurys Familia was to return on Thursday after serving a 15-game suspension, the lightest baseball has issued under its new domestic-violence policy. Others have been for 82 games (Hector Olivera), 52 (Jose Reyes) and 30 (Aroldis Chapman).
Familia accepted a suspension even though Commissioner Rob Manfred concluded that Familia did not assault his wife or threaten anyone with physical harm during an incident on Oct. 31. Even so, Manfred called Familia’s conduct “inappropriate” that night, in violation of the policy and warranting discipline.
Familia, in turn, acknowledged acting in “an unacceptable manner” but said it was “important that it be known that I never physically touched, harmed or threatened my wife that evening.”
The suspension will always be a stain on Familia’s record, of course, but history shows that the attention around it will fade. Chapman still energizes crowds in the ninth inning, and Reyes — his hapless April aside — has found a safe harbor in Flushing, where fans remember his past success. And the Mets badly need Familia back on the mound.
Their rotation has actually been working more innings than it seems, relative to the rest of the league. Through Tuesday, Mets starters were averaging 5.8 innings per start, tied for sixth in the majors. But manager Terry Collins has been cautious; only once so far has a starter reached 100 pitches in a game.
Even without its anchor, the bullpen has been busy.
“We’ve played a lot of long games,” Collins said. “With all these young starters, especially in this cold weather — three of them coming off surgeries — we’re trying to protect them a little bit early. So therefore we’ve had to ask our bullpen to step up a little bit more than we maybe normally would this time of year, but we knew that going in. That was explained in spring training to everybody: ‘Hey, this is what you’re going to face.’ I think for the most part they’ve done a good job.
“But we’re gonna add a nice piece tomorrow,” Collins added. “Pretty nice piece.”
Collins would like to get Familia back to action immediately; maybe, he said, in a nonsave situation on Thursday. After that, though, Familia is expected to resume the closer’s role.
Addison Reed has pitched well as a replacement, but not enough to take the job, the way Familia did two years ago from Jenrry Mejia. Familia got his opportunity after Mejia failed a drug test. Mejia has since failed twice more and is now banned from baseball for life.