Nats’ Tres Barrera, hit with 80-game suspension for banned substance, fires back with lawsuit

Then, at the end of last week, that suspension was officially issued under the Joint Drug Agreement between MLB and players’ union. Barrera, a 25-year-old catcher for the Washington Nationals, has now sued MLB, MLB’s commissioner’s office, the director of an anti-doping lab and two league-contracted labs in Utah and Montreal. Barrera is alleging that MLB’s test for DHCMT is “junk science”; that the levels found in his system do not quality as performance-enhancing; that the test results can’t conclusively determine when the substance entered his system; and that MLB’s arbitration process was ultimately unfair, since Daniel Eichner, the Utah lab director and an MLB-contracted expert, was the only scientist who testified.

Barrera requested an emergency temporary restraining order Monday, which would have enabled him to rejoin the Nationals with a judge’s ruling. But that request was denied Wednesday, according to court documents, and there will not be a hearing on the matter. Micaela Alvarez, a U.S. district judge in southern Texas, ruled that Barrera could not prove he would suffer irreparable harm during his suspension, and cast doubt on whether Barrera’s overall case could succeed.

Beyond the temporary restraining order request, Barrera looks to form a class of players who have tested positive for DHCMT by MLB. He’s seeking an unspecified amount of monetary damages, as well as interest on those damages and the money he won’t earn from the Nationals while suspended. Alfonso Kennard, Barrera’s attorney, says Alvarez’s initial ruling does not shift their plans, adding: “It doesn’t change what this lawsuit ultimately seeks to accomplish for Tres and others.”

MLB declined to comment through a spokesman, citing the “confidential nature of the Joint MLB-MLBPA Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.” Attempts to reach Eichner were not successful. The MLB Players Association declined to comment through a spokesman, citing its inability to do so on pending litigation. The Nationals declined to comment as well.

“Tres Barrera is willing to sit on a grenade so no other players have to go through this,” Kennard said in an interview with The Washington Post. “He knows that waging this sort of fight could affect his reputation moving forward. But he is not a cheater.”

The original complaint, filed Monday in McAllen, Texas, details Barrera’s history of workout supplements. This was an attempt to show how DHCMT could have entered his system before he started in professional baseball. Players cannot be punished by the rules of the joint drug agreement — or JDA — for supplements consumed before their careers start. Barrera bought over-the-counter workout supplements while in high school. He took team protein powder in college.

Barrera received no substance education in high school or college, according to the complaint. In the first eight drug tests of his career, between August 2016 and July 2019, there were no traces of the drug. Eichner’s opinion, according to the complaint, was partly drawn from the fact of the drug not showing up in those previous tests. The complaint says he concluded to the arbitration panel that the drug “would only be detectable for a maximum period of 50 days after exposure.”

But the complaint states that Eichner has acknowledged the test for DHCMT is unable to accurately determine how long the drug has been in a player’s body. On top of that, Barrera tested positive for 10 picograms of the banned substance, an amount he believes would have no effect on his performance. UFC, for example, does not sanction fighters for anything under 100 picograms of DHCMT. In mass units, a picogram is equal to 0.000000000001 of a gram.

Jeff Novitzky, UFC’s head of athlete health and performance, recently tweeted about Barrera’s case, saying: “There is something screwy with this substance. We have athletes with small amounts of the DHCMT M3 metabolite in their systems for 2 and 3 years … Too many uncertainties.” An image of the tweet was included in the complaint. Eichner also testified in a past UFC hearing after an athlete tested positive for DHCMT, and his conclusions were included.

In that case, Eichner determined that 60 picograms of DHCMT made it “extremely likely unlikely that [name redacted] will gain any advantage from the picogram levels detected in his system.” Eichner is the director of the Sports Medicine Research & Testing Laboratory in Utah. He has “extensive anti-doping experience,” according to the website, and is a go-to banned substance expert for MLB.

“DHCMT is a unique and anomalous substance, yet the MLB is trying to impose an 80 game suspension on a player who may well have had an inadvertent exposure to DHCMT before he was subject to any MLB drug program in breach of the JDA and CBA,” Barrera’s original complaint stated, summarizing the crux of his argument. “Furthermore, the low picogram levels indicate that the substance found would not have any performance enhancing effect, which is the purpose of the JDA to ensure the integrity of the game.”

“This does not feel in the spirit of why the drug program was designed,” said Kennard, Barrera’s lawyer. “If he unknowingly ingested this, we can’t really prove when, and it didn’t even help him in competition; what is the actual point here?”

The complaint describes two functions of the joint drug agreement: The first, it says, is to “prevent a player from gaining an unfair advantage by using performance enhancing drugs while subject to the JDA.” The second, it says, is “to provide and produce accurate and reliable tests for certain prohibited substances,” and that’s where Barrera feels he was wronged.

The arbitration decision was rendered by Mark L. Irving, chair of baseball’s independent arbitration panel. After filing an appeal and grievance against the league, Barrera had exhausted his contractual options for recourse. And that’s what led to this lawsuit.

Barrera was part of Washington’s 60-player pool for 2020, and had a shot to make the Opening Day roster on July 23. The complaint claims that he was about to, before Pat Houlihan, an MLB labor lawyer, told the Nationals that Barrera would lose his arbitration case. The complaint alleges Houlihan did so before the decision was finalized, making it a violation of confidentiality. A spokesperson from MLB and the Nationals both declined to comment on the matter.

But it still had no bearing on the ultimate outcome. Barrera issued a statement through the players’ union last Saturday. He apologized to his teammates, to his family, to any young players who look up to him, all while maintaining that he’s never cheated. He contacted Novitzky on Twitter, asking for help. Then he and his wife, Lindsey, began a days-long drive from Washington to Texas. The public process of clearing his name had begun.

“He won’t stop until that happens,” Kennard said. “Because so much about this isn’t right.”

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