TORONTO — Chris Colabello says he’s passed 20 drug tests in the last four years. He says the only supplements he takes are certified and provided to him directly by the Toronto Blue Jays strength and conditioning staff. He says he’s taken every precaution imaginable. Chris Colabello says he has no reason to lie. And he says he has no idea how a trace of dehydrochlormethyltestosterone (DHCMT), an anabolic steroid, found its way into his urine sample.
“I would never, have never and will never compromise the integrity of baseball. Ever. In my life,” Colabello says in an interview with Sportsnet. “And whether that means taking a performance enhancing supplement—I just wouldn’t do it. I don’t do it. I haven’t done it. I won’t do it.”
Speaking publicly for the first time since he was suspended 80 games on Friday, Colabello fought back tears as he repeatedly asserted he doesn’t know how he tested positive. He said he’s gone to extreme lengths to figure out how this could have happened, and that he’ll continue searching until he finds an answer.
“I’ve never called into question the science. That’s not my intent,” Colabello says. “There’s no denying that my urine sample had this DHCMT-M4 metabolite in it. I don’t deny that.
“They found a trace amount of metabolite in my urine stream. And that’s the only thing I know for a fact. I don’t know where it came from. I’m still trying to figure out how it got there. It’s all I can do.”
So, is there any way that a metabolite of DHCMT could be found in your urine sample without actually ingesting the drug?
“If you have a metabolite, then you had the drug in your system and you enjoyed the benefits of that drug at that time. You doped at some point,” says Dr. Stuart Phillips, a professor in the department of kinesiology at McMaster University and an expert in exercise metabolism. “Whether you did it inadvertently or whether you did it deliberately is the question. But you still had it in your system.”
DHCMT is an anabolic steroid with East German roots that’s been around for more than half a century. It’s commonly known as turinabol and ingested orally.
Turinabol’s metabolites, which were detected in Colabello’s urine, are essentially a receipt saying the steroid was in his system at some point. While it’s possible that a drug like turinabol could be out of your system within five or six days of ceasing use, the metabolites hang around much longer, on average for two or three weeks, but sometimes for as long as six.
“That’s standard operating procedure. A lot of times people don’t get caught with the original drug in their system. They have a signature of metabolites that says ‘this person was taking this drug,’” Phillips says. “People can get caught when they might have taken the drug 6-8 weeks prior to the test. The metabolites linger, and those metabolites would not otherwise have been there if they had not taken the drug.”
These metabolites are generally easy to detect simply because testing has advanced so far in the half century since DHCMT was first invented. Phillips has a machine in his lab at McMaster that can detect DHCMT metabolites all the way down to parts per trillion.
“Everybody who gets caught says, ‘well, it’s a metabolite in trace amounts.’ But everything’s trace when you’re measuring on that level,” Phillips says. “If you fail the test, and its four parts per trillion, it means there’s not very much of it in there. But there was none of it before.”
Colabello agrees with this, by the way.
“Everything I’ve been told about this drug,” Colabello says, “Is that it’s probably the stupidest drug you could ever take if you were trying to cheat.”
Here’s how it started. On February 21 of this year Colabello provided his urine for drug testing at the Blue Jays’ spring training facility in Dunedin, Fla. Position players weren’t scheduled to take their tests until five days later, but Colabello says he wanted to get his out of the way.
“I went in for pitchers’ and catchers’ physicals, knowing that there was a drug test and knowing that I had nothing to hide,” Colabello says. “I made the choice to go in five days early because, why wouldn’t I? There’s nothing for me to worry about. I don’t hide things. I don’t have to.”
A little more than three weeks later, on March 13, Colabello got a phone call telling him that he’d tested positive for a metabolite generated from DHCMT.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been more shocked, panicked and confused in my life. Literally the most gut-wrenching phone call you can imagine,” Colabello says. “Short of anything bad happening to my family, like death and illness in the family, this is literally the worst thing that anybody could do to me.”
One of Colabello’s defences is that his testosterone level at the time of his test was 1.04 nanomoles — essentially right in line with that of an average male his age, and perhaps even a little low for a professional athlete.
But this defence doesn’t work in his favour. Orally-ingested turinabol essentially mimics the action of natural testosterone, which tells the body’s ultra-sensitive feedback system that it doesn’t need to produce any more of its own.
If anything, testosterone levels generally would go down when someone takes turinabol because the body senses the drug generating testosterone for it.
“His testosterone reading is irrelevant,” Phillips says. “That’s not damning evidence in either direction. From the drug testing side of things, it means absolutely nothing.”
Colabello says he doesn’t know how the metabolite got into his system, doesn’t know if it came from some other supplement he was taking or a product he was exposed to.
But pharmaceutical companies stopped making turinabol in the 1990s. Now, it can only be acquired on the black market, from underground labs. That means cross-contamination in a facility producing other, legitimate supplements, or the possibility that DHCMT was in a hair product or hand soap Colabello uses, is practically impossible.
“If there’s any deniability on Chris Colabello’s part, it’s that it could potentially have entered his system inadvertently. Is that possible? Sure,” Phillips says. “It’s possible to win Lotto-649 as well. But it’s unlikely. Highly unlikely.”
Colabello says the first week after he got word of the positive test was the hardest.
“It’s a really scary thing. I cried and cried and cried and cried. Because I sat there and thought about how diligent and careful I’ve been,” he says. “I’m losing sleep, waking up in the middle of the night in cold sweats, trying to figure out and pinpoint what could have happened in my life.”
As he prepared for his appeal, Colabello says he started writing down timelines of his days, weeks and months since his final game in the 2015 postseason. He combed through text messages, phone calls, receipts, bank records and Instagram pictures to create a log of everywhere he’d been and everything he’d done, searching for a clue as to how the metabolite entered his system. He spent four and a half hours scrutinizing those timelines with his agent after the Blue Jays’ opening day win in Tampa Bay.
He says he’s asked scientists and doctors for advice and theories. He’s spoken to fellow athletes as well, like Philadelphia Phillies reliever Daniel Stumpf, who received an 80-game suspension of his own for testing positive for DHCMT earlier this month. Colabello talks about moving from Massachusetts to Florida this winter, and wondering if there was something in the water at his new home.
He tells a story about his new dog, Clutch, a jet black French bulldog puppy he got in the offseason. Clutch got sick this winter and went on a variety of medications. Colabello had all of them analyzed to see if that was where the metabolite originated. He had Clutch’s blood and urine tested as well.
“I’ve sent every piece of medication and anything that was different in my life in. I’ve tried to examine or identify whether it was a hand cream, a toothpaste, a shampoo,” Colabello says. “I’ve looked into my mom’s medications for her health issues that she’s had over the last year. The extent to which I’ve gone to try to identify this is beyond bewildering.”
Colabello says he brought all of this forward during his appeal. He submitted all the evidence he could, including statements from character witnesses and email records dating back four years that show him communicating with drug testers during off-seasons, indicating exactly where he would be at all times and asking for confirmation that they’d received his notes.
“I welcome drug testing. I’ve been open and adamant about that throughout my career,” Colabello says. “I’ve never questioned the program. I’ve never said anything about how it’s run. I’m a proponent of it because I believe in it. I’ve always been open and honest about it.
“And I’ve had offseason drug tests. Two out of the last four seasons, I’ve had people come to my house and do a drug test. So, it’s not like I don’t know that tests happen. I have nothing to hide.”
“I used to say this all the time: I’m the guy that can’t test positive,’” Colabello says. “And guys on the team have said this to me. Josh [Donaldson] has said that to me. Jose [Bautista] has said that to me. It’s been like a topic of conversation while this was going on. Just, how is this possible? You’re more careful than all of us.”
During the interview, Colabello thoroughly details the precautions he says he’s taken throughout his career to avoid violating MLB’s drug policy.
He says every nutritional product he ingested this offseason was sent to him by the Blue Jays and certified by NSF International—an independent organization that tests and approves products that are “guaranteed to not cause a positive test result,” according to MLB’s Joint Drug and Treatment Program.
“Using anything else is too much risk,” Colabello says. “I’ve come across guys who don’t use NSF certified products and I’m like, ‘are you crazy? Are you nuts? You’re putting your career in your hands right now. You don’t know how somebody mixed something in a manufacturing plant. It’s not worth it.’”
Colabello recalls as far back as four years ago, when he was given a bottle of Muscle Milk, a popular post-workout product. MLB players have access to a mobile app that allows them to confirm that a product is approved under the drug policy. Colabello remembers punching the product’s lot number into the app ten times in a row, just to make sure he hadn’t made a mistake. After all that, he says he still threw the unopened bottle away.
He also talks about an experience he had three years ago, after his first season with the Minnesota Twins. Colabello woke up one morning with Bell’s palsy, a facial paralysis that left him unable to move the right side of his face. He went to see a doctor, who quickly diagnosed him and recommended Colabello take a medical steroid—a common prescription for Bell’s palsy—to treat the condition.
“He says, take this right away. And I didn’t. I was afraid to. I was terrified. I texted our trainer with the Twins and I was like, ‘hey, the doctor prescribed this steroid to me, I don’t know what to do. I can’t take this, right?’” Colabello says. “They had to assure me it was a different kind of steroid, a medical steroid. They said, ‘you’re okay, it’s fine.’ I’ve always been the guy that’s asked questions.”
Colabello remembers doing just that at the MLB Players Association board meetings this winter when, during a drug education meeting, he asked if it was okay to eat Cheerios Protein, a variety of the popular breakfast cereal advertised as being high in the muscle-repairing nutrient. He also recalls a story of working out with Blue Jays catcher Josh Thole in Las Vegas this winter. Once the pair finished, Thole purchased a protein shake from the gym’s smoothie bar, but Colabello declined, because he didn’t trust it.
“Being around Chris and getting out and travelling, I know how careful he is with the supplements he takes. He’s a guy who travels with his own stuff. He doesn’t go to a smoothie place and ask for the protein. He provides his own. It’s shocking,” says Blue Jays centre fielder Kevin Pillar, who also worked out with Colabello during the offseason. “I know Chris the human being. I know Chris the baseball player. I know his family. I know where he’s been. I know what he’s gone through. I know what kind of person he is. And he’s not a person that deserves any of the labels as a cheater or as a guy trying to manipulate the system.”
Colabello says that this past offseason he was actually trying to lose weight in response to criticisms that he wasn’t mobile enough as a first baseman. He says he reported to spring training at 208 pounds, down from the 215 he played at last season. He says he ate carefully-managed meals during the weeks this winter to help him lose the weight, treating himself to dinners out at Chipotle and Qdoba on the weekends.
But it’s important to note that turinabol isn’t always taken to solely gain muscle mass, especially in professional athletes as opposed to body builders. It allows athletes to recovery from injury, or even to recover from their day-to-day grind.
“Turinabol does help you gain mass a little bit. It helps you gain some strength. But the biggest thing a baseball player would stand to benefit from is in the recovery phase,” Phillips says. “I don’t think Ben Johnson ever took steroids to get big. I think he took them to recover from the hamstring injury that he had leading into Seoul. That’s the advantage of it. You recover much faster.”
Colabello played through a wrist injury in 2014 when he was fighting to stay in the majors with the Twins. He says he’s passed multiple tests since then. And yet, he won’t deny that the trace of DHCMT was in his urine this spring.
“Ultimately, I don’t have answers. I don’t have an answer to the timeframe of when it got in my body. I don’t have an answer to how long it was in my body for. Everything that I’ve asked or that I’ve tried to figure out, I don’t have an answer for,” Colabello says. “What I know is what I’m saying. That’s the only thing I can tell you for sure. It’s scary stuff. It’s scary to try to figure out where something came from when you don’t really know.”
On Friday, April 22, two months after his positive test, Colabello got a phone call saying his appeal had been denied. He was suspended for 80 games, beginning immediately. He asked his teammates to gather in the Blue Jays clubhouse at 3:30 that afternoon.
Many of them knew what Colabello had been going through; some did not. But almost all of them knew something strange had been going on over the past month, because the Blue Jays first baseman simply hadn’t been himself. He’d been quiet, distant and moody, while struggling to a 2-for-29 start. Colabello stood up in front of his teammates at 3:31 pm and immediately began to cry.
“It’s hard to stand in front of a room of guys like that. They’re your brothers,” Colabello says. “I can’t imagine being in their shoes. I can’t imagine having to be on the other side of that and not knowing what to say, not knowing what to do to help somebody, knowing that there isn’t anything you can do.”
Colabello spoke for ten minutes, telling his teammates everything that had already happened, and what might happen next. He told them he was going away for a while, and that he wished them the best of luck while he was gone. Over and over again, he told them to be careful.
“I said I wish I could stand here and tell you what to do differently or what to watch out for, but I don’t have that answer right now,” Colabello says. “And that’s why I’m so committed to the idea of figuring it out. Because this is bigger than me. It’s bigger than any of the other guys going through it. I told them, ‘I need to find an answer, guys. Until then, just please—if this can happen to me, this can happen to anybody.’”
Throughout this interview, Colabello frequently said he has no incentive to lie, because he’s already lost his appeal and begun serving his suspension. He said he’s seen how others who have been caught doping have handled the fallout, and that he believes the best method is to own up to one’s actions.
“It would be so awesome for me if I could stand here in front of you and tell you that I did this,” Colabello says. “I know how the world works. I know how things are. I’m not naive or stupid. I’ve seen the way this has played out. Guys have done this stuff in the past, they’ve come out and said ‘I’m really sorry guys, I didn’t mean to’ or ‘I made a mistake.’ And then people move on. They wipe their hands of it and they forgive people. But I can’t stand in front of a camera and apologize.”
Still, those DHCMT metabolites were in his urine, and he can’t deny that. According to the test—which was required to be specific and reproducible, and to have no false positives—at some point over the last several months, Colabello had an anabolic steroid in his system.
MLB does have an out clause. If Colabello can produce something he took that was contaminated with DHCMT and led to his positive test, he can bring it to the league. If he can’t, he’ll be eligible to return to the Blue Jays on July 23. Until one of those things happens, Colabello says he’ll continue searching.
“I won’t rest until the day I figure out how this happened,” Colabello says. “The damage has already been done to me emotionally and mentally. I’m never going to get that back. I just need to figure out why. Figure out where it came from. And then go from there.”