It would be nice to be able to believe everything Chris Colabello said about his positive drug test without reservation, but sadly, that ship has sailed. Too many years, too many athletes making heartfelt denials, too little truth.
And it would also be nice to be able to discuss the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport minus the moral overlay, to get out of the realm of good guys and bad guys, cheaters and straight shooters, to have a more nuanced and realistic conversation about how arbitrary doping rules actually are, but sadly that ship hasn’t yet arrived.
So instead we’re left with this.
You would be hard-pressed to find a more sympathetic figure. Last year, Colabello played the lead in a fairy tale within a fairy tale, the independent-league nobody suddenly achieving major-league stardom during the Toronto Blue Jays‘ magical run to the post-season. All of us who are something less than can’t-miss prospects identified with him immediately and shared with him the joy of a fantasy fulfilled. Toronto sports fans, in particular, have always tended to prefer the plucky underdog to the superstar, the player who had to scrap for every bit of success over those who won the genetic lottery.
Plus, pretty much everyone who knows him now or knew him back when seems to believe he’s a terrific guy.
In spring training, Colabello looked awful, and when the season began, he looked worse, and just moments before the fan conversation shifted to “Maybe it’s time to ship him to Buffalo…” along came the news of his positive test and suspension.
The drug involved was an odd one—a steroid dating back to the former East Germany, no longer produced legally anywhere in the world. Colabello’s urine showed not the drug itself but its marker, and by the time fans (and the team) learned he’d been suspended for 80 games, his B sample had already been tested, and his appeal had already been denied (MLB’s drug-testing regimen is strict, with good reason, but because of the power of the union, it is also as fair to the players as any in sport).
Colabello told his side of the story in a powerful, tearful interview with Sportsnet’s Jamie Campbell, looking and sounding like someone whose dream had just died, and judging by the social-media reaction, the Jays’ fan base mostly believed him. He said he had no idea how it could have happened. He even had his dog’s blood and urine tested, just to make sure it wasn’t a source.
But the science was damning. The chance of a false positive was infinitesimally small, and alternate explanations that might clear him required either a conspiracy or some kind of colossal snafu. That was especially true after Colabello himself closed a significant loophole. There was no mystery supplement that might have been contaminated, no independent trainer who might have given him something under false pretenses. Everything he had taken, he said, came directly from the team. And everything the team distributed, as president Mark Shapiro confirmed in an interview, was certified and approved.
Which leaves just three plausible explanations:
The Blue Jays knowingly distributed a banned substance in some form to one of their players and then denied it.
The Blue Jays inadvertently distributed a banned substance to one of their players, and presumably to only one of their players, since no other Blue Jay tested positive.
Chris Colabello is lying.
If the answer is indeed found behind door number three, it’s hard to blame him, either for the original sin or the denials.
The very same unlikely career arc that made him a sentimental hero is also one of somebody who might have been willing to take a chance in order to get to the big leagues—or to remain in the big leagues after suffering an injury (Colabello was hurt twice last season after he made it to Toronto). The risk-reward equation is pretty clear.
And the payoff for coming clean when caught? Well, Andy Pettitte pulled it off—or at least offered up a guilty-with-an-explanation tale that many fans accepted—but he’s part of a very short list. There’s no practical benefit to confessing. In this case, and in most cases, even though logic and science point strongly in one direction, there will always be a little bit of room for doubt, unless someone else comes forward with evidence—and here, that’s highly unlikely.
The case is closed. The appeal has been lost. The penalty has been delivered, and in July, Colabello will be eligible to return to baseball (though ineligible for the post-season if the Jays make it again).
He’ll be a long shot, once again, having to convince doubters that his brief moment of glory was neither a by-product nor a fluke.
And many people will be rooting for him. Here’s pining for the day when they can do that with a clear conscience, without having to worry about what is or isn’t in his sample.