January 6, 2009

Free J.C.

"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 one is worse?"
-Phil Sheridan, Philadelphia Inquirer

A fair question and, hopefully, one that people other than sports reporters will ask.

In my opinion, though, an irrelevant one. There is no fine line that baseball is walking, no justification for what they've done. After reading up on the information put out by everyone that matters (Sheridan, who put together a marvelous piece, and Peter Gammons of ESPN.com), I think it is obvious that J.C. Romero is being railroaded by Major League Baseball.

He won Games 3 and 5 of the 2008 World Series only a few days after an arbitration hearing to determine his punishment for testing positive for a banned substance in August. He was offered a 25-game suspension if he would admit his guilt in the situation, a deal he refused. He was then banned for 50 games, at a cost of $1.25 million in withheld salary, for "negligence" in dealing with said supplement.

For baseball, these are curious actions at best, and shortsighted blunders at worst. They reek of an entity that invents rules as it goes along, that flails away without logic or rationality when dealing with a serious issue, that does not understand how to work with people, whether they are the public, the press or its own players.

Note that J.C. Romero was not suspended for taking performance-enhancing drugs. Even baseball was smart enough to make that clear in its press release. In fact, the supplement J.C. Romero took was listed by Major League Baseball as banned in a letter sent out in November -- several months after Romero discovered this product on a GNC shelf in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, with no warning label.

J.C. Romero ran the supplement by the Phillies' strength coach, Dong Lien, and got a second opinion from a nutritionist. They OKed it, although Lien did caution Romero. He also sent the supplement to Major League Baseball for testing; it came up as a risky substance, although Romero was never informed of this test by Lien, the Phillies or Major League Baseball.

Yes, J.C. Romero was negligent, in that taking any unknown substance from a fitness store could have damaging results down the line. If possible, the best thing to do is ignore anything questionable, and unfortunately, this mistake is going to cost Romero a lot of money and the Phillies, a third of a season from a very good reliever.

However, the documentation surrounding this whole situation suggests that this was the only fault J.C. Romero made. He informed the proper channels of his curiosity about the product, and considering that the eventual discovery of the improper ingredient was "the first time a banned substance was found in an FDA-regulated, over-the-counter supplement," according to Sheridan, how can this harsh penalty be justified?

And there's more. Why was Romero offered the lighter suspension, and then slapped with an extremely harsh one when he declined? Why was this information kept quiet until 2009? Why does Major League Baseball continue to handle any and all difficult situations in a bumbling, Three Stooges-esque fashion?

J.C. Romero is speaking his mind because he knows the truth, and he will not allow his name to be sullied by Major League Baseball. He will not allow himself to be another name on a press release flaunting the marvelous steroid-related policing of baseball in the new millennium, and he won't allow his successes or the successes of his team to be invalidated due to a minor mistake that has become a major story.

J.C. Romero, a player who pulled himself off the scrap heap to become one of the best situational left-handed relievers in baseball, deserves better. He deserves fair treatment, and if Major League Baseball denies him that, he deserves to have his story heard. For now, sadly, innocence in the forum of public opinion is probably the most realistic goal to shoot for, but he should know that the people of Philadelphia, and anyone with the ability to read and a brain in their head, know and believe in the honesty and integrity of J.C. Romero.

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