Both players said they unintentionally ingested the banned substances, which were not identified on the labels of the supplements they purchased at GNC stores in different parts of the country. They both grieved the results of the tests, but lost their cases in front of an arbitrator.
"Our view is that the arbitrator correctly interpreted our agreement and imposed the mandatory 50-game penalty," Rob Manfred, MLB's executive vice president of labor relations and human resources, told MLB.com in an exclusive telephone interview on Tuesday. "Don't lose track of the fundamentals.
"[Romero] did test positive for a banned steroid. He made all of his arguments to a third-party arbitrator and that arbitrator upheld the discipline that was imposed by the Commissioner on the theory that an athlete is responsible for what he puts in his body."
MLB usually announces these suspensions without comment or detail because of privacy clauses in the drug agreement, but in this case, Manfred said, once a player goes public, "all bets are off."
Manfred's comments came hours after the Players Association reacted to the punishments in a strongly worded statement issued by general counsel Michael Weiner.
"Sergio Mitre and J.C. Romero were suspended for fifty games each by the Commissioner because they tested positive during the 2008 regular season for a Performance Enhancing Substance," the statement said. "Those suspensions were upheld by a neutral third-party arbitrator after hearing. We strongly disagree with the Commissioner's discipline and with the arbitrator's decision.
"Mitre and Romero both legally purchased nutritional supplements from national chain stores in the United States. Nothing on the labels of those supplements indicated that they contained a trace amount of a substance prohibited under Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. Neither player intentionally ingested this prohibited substance, but the arbitrator nevertheless found -- wrongly, in our view -- that the players' conduct violated the Program's 'no fault or negligence' standard.
"The Union respects the arbitration process and treats the decision as final. In our view, though, the resulting discipline imposed upon Mitre and Romero is unfair. These players should not be suspended. Their unknowing actions plainly are distinguishable from those of a person who intentionally used an illegal performance-enhancing substance."
Romero became the first player on a 25-man roster of one of the 30 Major League teams to be suspended under the auspices of the Joint Drug and Prevention Program for testing positive during the 2008 season.
Under terms of the agreement, which came into force for the first time on a survey basis for the 2003 season and has since been revised several times, a first positive test for a player nets a 50-game suspension without pay, a second a 100-game suspension without pay and a third a lifetime ban with the right to seek reinstatement after two years.
Romero told ESPN.com on Monday that he bought a supplement Manfred identified as 6-OXO from a GNC store in Cherry Hill, N.J., on July 22. The supplement is produced by Ergopharm Performance Nutrition and is identified on the Sports Nutrition Center Web site as the "new gold standard for testosterone elevation." Romero said he had the supplement checked by his personal nutritionist, and there was no warning on the label.
"I still cannot see where I did something wrong," Romero told ESPN.com. "There is nothing that should take away from the rings of my teammates. I didn't cheat. I tried to follow the rules."
Mitre said that he unintentionally used an over-the-counter supplement, this one purchased at a GNC outlet in Florida while he was pitching for the Marlins this past season.
Mitre failed a drug test because the supplement contained traces of androstenedione, a substance that is banned by MLB and the Players Association.
"I did take the supplement in question and accept full responsibility for taking it," Mitre said in a statement released through his agent, Paul Cobbe. "What has been difficult for me to understand is that I legally purchased this supplement at GNC and had no intention nor desire to cheat or to circumvent the system in any way."
Romero tested positive twice for use of the supplement: on Aug. 26 before a Phillies-Mets game in Philadelphia and on Sept. 19 before a game in Miami.
On Nov. 21, the union sent a letter to all players stating: "We have previously told you there is no reason to believe a supplement bought at a U.S.-based retail store could cause you to test positive under our Drug Program. That is no longer true. We have recently learned of three substances which can be bought over the counter at stores in the United States that will cause you to test positive. These three supplements were purchased at a GNC and Vitamin Shoppe in the U.S."
Romero said he had unwittingly taken one of those supplements.
"The season is a grind," Romero said. "When you're a middle reliever, you have to be ready to get up and down and pitch every day. Everyone takes something. Some guys drink coffee, others supplements. We try to make sure they're all legal. I certainly did."
On Sept. 23, Players Association counsel Bob Lenaghan informed Romero he had failed the initial test.
"I immediately stopped taking all supplements, although I had no idea it was the cause of the positive test," Romero said.
Romero was tested again on Oct. 1 before the start of the playoffs. The results were negative. He pitched eight times in the postseason and was the winning pitcher in Games 3 and 5 of the World Series, which the Phillies won over the Rays in five games.
Manfred said Romero could have taken precautions before using the supplement.
"The union has consistently told the players that over-the-counter supplements run the risk of a positive test," Manfred said. "Every spring, we show the players a video that contains that message. MLB and the Players Association works with a company named NFF that gives players a certified list of supplements that they can rest assured are safe. Mr. Romero elected to use a product that was not on the safe list.
"Every clubhouse has a poster that contains a Web site and an 800 number where you can call the Center for Drug Free Sport with questions about supplements. Mr. Romero never called that hotline. And if he had called that hotline, he would've been told that the product he was using had caused positive test results in other sports."
Three games into the National League Division Series, Romero said he was told by MLB officials that they would be willing to reduce the suspension to 25 games at the start of the 2009 season if he admitted he was guilty. Romero declined. On Oct. 12, the results of the Sept. 19 test came back positive and MLB again offered 25 games, beginning immediately, if he admitted he was guilty.
Romero opted for an arbitration hearing. It began on Oct. 22 in Tampa, Fla., the day of Game 1 of the World Series, and lasted two days.
At the hearing, it was revealed that in early July, the Center for Drug Free Sport had notified MLB of questions about the supplement Romero had purchased. Romero said that somehow, MLB and the union never quite connected on that information at the time, ESPN.com said.
The union said in a second statement issued on Tuesday by Weiner that "the Association knew nothing about the particular supplements involved here prior to learning of these positive results."
The Phillies said they wouldn't appeal the suspension and that the defending World Series champs were prepared to deal with the consequences.
"It is a situation that has occurred," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said during a conference call on Tuesday. "The policy stands, and we support it. It's unfortunate J.C. has to face the suspension, but we support it, and we support J.C., and hopefully, he'll be back pitching for us within 50 games. And we'll continue to strive forward to win the championship again in 2009."
The bottle of the supplement MLB presented at the hearing contained the warning: "Use of this product may be banned by some athletic or government associations." Meanwhile, the bottle containing the same substance that Romero had purchased and brought to the hearing didn't offer a printed warning.
In December, the Players Association told Romero that the arbitrator had ruled against him. On Sunday, that was confirmed, ESPN.com reported, and on Tuesday, the suspension was announced.