Days of turning a blind eye to drugs at an end

PAUL FRIESEN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:30 AM ET

WINNIPEG -- The Winnipeg Goldeyes got off a little easy this time around. But the days of the Northern League turning a blind eye to drug use may be coming to an end. At least if tough-talking commissioner Mike Stone gets his way. Stone handed newly signed Goldeyes relief pitcher Darwin Soto a seven-game suspension Monday.

Soto failed a drug test during spring training with the Seattle Mariners organization, a result that automatically draws a 15-game suspension in the minors. But the news didn't come out until he'd been released and signed by the Goldeyes earlier this month.

That left the team and the Northern League scrambling the last week, trying to decide what to do in the absence of any real drug policy of their own.

But while Stone's decision to suspend Soto for just seven games may look soft on the surface, if you scratch a little deeper you'll find some tooth marks. And it could well pave the way for a drug-testing policy that actually has some teeth in it.

RANDOM TESTS

Stone has ordered the Goldeyes to random-test Soto at least three times during the coming season, at their own cost. It'll mark the first time the club has ever drug-tested a player.

"Perhaps this is a wake-up call, that we need to take a real look at what we're doing in this area," Stone said from his Texas office yesterday. "We need to test. You can't have an effective program without testing. Otherwise, it's who's telling the truth. Denial city."

It was Stone who convinced league owners two years ago to put some kind of drug policy on paper. But nobody does any testing.

Now that Major League Baseball is cracking down on drugs, Stone says it's time to get serious at the independent level, too.

And he's going to use the Soto case as a starting point, making sure the Goldeyes test him and forward the results.

"I want to see it," Stone said. "It's going to be comprehensive enough to catch anything that may be going on in this league."

Goldeyes GM Andrew Collier says he doesn't know what it'll cost the team, but he's all for testing.

"It's an important step by the Northern League to do something about this," Collier said.

Within the next week or two, Stone will also hold a conference call with the league's executive council to determine what should be done if Soto tests positive a second time. That decision will likely be part of the framework of the league's policy in years to come.

"I know this much: if you have no clear limits and contingencies in any kind of abuse policy, you're enabling it," Stone said.

NO ARGUMENT

The commish won't get an argument from Hal Lanier. The Goldeyes manager isn't thrilled with the idea of losing his bullpen ace for the first seven games. But he maintains his stance against steroids. "If I knew exactly what it was, and if it was steroids, he wouldn't be part of the Goldeyes organization," Lanier said.

According to the agreement between MLB and its players, the substance isn't revealed. Soto has claimed, through is agent, his positive test came from a supplement he didn't know contained a banned drug. Stone took that at face value.

"There tends to be, in all kinds of cases like this, a benign neglect of dealing with it. This league has got to take a look at it. Period." 


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