In a bizarre attempt to avoid a 50-game drug suspension, San Francisco Giants star Melky Cabrera created a fictitious website and a nonexistent product designed to prove he inadvertently took the banned substance that caused a positive test under Major League Baseball’s drug program.
But instead of exonerating Cabrera of steroid use, the Internet stunt trapped him in a web of lies. Amid the information-gathering phase of his doping case last month, his cover story unraveled quickly, and what might have been a simple suspension has attracted further attention from federal investigators and MLB, the Daily News has learned.
Famed steroid cop Jeff Novitzky, a criminal investigative agent for the Food & Drug Administration, and agents from MLB’s Department of Investigation have begun looking into Cabrera’s associates and his entourage, including trainers, handlers and agents, as they search for the source of the synthetic testosterone that appeared in a sample of the All-Star Game MVP’s urine.
Staten Island Advance
The scheme began unfolding in July as Cabrera and his representatives scrambled to explain a spike in the former Yankee’s testosterone levels. Cabrera associate Juan Nunez, described by the player’s agents, Seth and Sam Levinson, as a “paid consultant” of their firm but not an “employee,” is alleged to have paid $10,000 to acquire the phony website. The idea, apparently, was to lay a trail of digital breadcrumbs suggesting Cabrera had ordered a supplement that ended up causing the positive test, and to rely on a clause in the collectively bargained drug program that allows a player who has tested positive to attempt to prove he ingested a banned substance through no fault of his own.
“There was a product they said caused this positive,” one source familiar with the case said of Cabrera’s scheme. “Baseball figured out the ruse pretty quickly.”
Nunez told The News Saturday that he was “accepting responsibility for what everyone else already knows,” regarding the fake website, adding that the Levinsons were not involved in the website in any way. They also adamantly deny any knowledge of the scheme or having been involved with it.
“Sam and I absolutely had no knowledge or dealings with anyone at anytime associated with the website,” Seth Levinson said in an email to The News. “I will state unequivocally and irrefutably that any payment made to the website does not come from ACES (their New York-based sports agency, Athletes’ Career Enhanced and Secured Inc.)”
“I was the only one who had dealings with the website,” Nunez said. “Neither Seth nor Sam had any dealings with the website, nor did anyone else in the firm.”
According to a union source, “the MLBPA has not been presented with any evidence at this time that the Levinsons had any connection to the website.”
The website was part of the presentation Cabrera and his representatives made to MLB and the players’ union before the league officially charged him with a doping violation.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Cabrera was at that point hoping to repeat the success Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun found earlier this year in challenging the evidence in arbitration. Braun escaped a 50-game ban for elevated levels of testosterone by raising doubts about the collection and storage of the sample, setting a hopeful example for other players who test positive.
MLB’s department of investigations quickly began asking questions about the website and the “product” — Where was the site operating from? Who owned it? What kind of product was it? — and quickly discovered that an existing website had been altered, adding an ad for the product, a topical cream, that didn’t exist.
As the website alibi imploded, so did Cabrera’s hopes of getting off and leading the Giants to the World Series. Once a candidate for the National League’s MVP award, Cabrera is now serving the 50-game suspension and has exposed his associates to scrutiny from Novitzky, who uncovered the BALCO doping ring and Kirk Radomski’s steroid distribution network, and other investigators.
According to Seth Levinson, the agents hired the Spanish-speaking Nunez to help them obtain and deal with their Dominican clients, including Cabrera. On Saturday, Levinson distanced himself and his brother from Nunez.
“Juan Nunez is NOT a salaried employee of ACES and does NOT receive the benefits that all ACES employees receive,” Levinson said. “Most importantly, any and all calls, texts and emails that he sends come from his own PERSONAL devices (BlackBerry).”
According to sources familiar with the case, the Levinsons are not a target of a probe by the feds, who are believed to have become interested in the Cabrera case as a result of the website machinations.
While the particulars of the Cabrera case are unusual, the case fits a familiar pattern. From Barry Bonds’ personal trainer, Greg Anderson, to A-Rod’s cousin, to trainer Angel Presinal, many of baseball’s recent doping scandals have been facilitated by individuals in a player’s entourage who weren’t accountable to team officials.
The Giants organization’s steroid problems didn’t stop with the departure of Bonds. The News reported in November 2010, that former Giant Jose Guillen had arranged for a shipment of nearly 50 preloaded syringes of human growth hormone to be sent to a San Francisco address in his wife’s name.
According to a source close to the federal investigation of Guillen, Drug Enforcement Administration agents who were monitoring the activities of the suspected supplier intercepted the package when it was sent to the Giants’ outfielder to the attention of his wife.
The DEA agents contacted baseball’s DOI and have continued to keep an eye on whether anyone else in baseball might have been involved. Now, the feds’ interest in how ballplayers are obtaining performance-enhancing drugs is rekindled, and baseball itself is prepared to find answers.
Major League Baseball declined to comment on the Cabrera case but at the owners’ meetings in Denver last week, commissioner Bud Selig touched on the issue of those who facilitate drug use by players, telling owners they would be “shocked” when they hear what’s been going on “when this all comes out.”
“If you engage in this type of activity,” one source said of the investigation, “you do it at great risk to your livelihood.”
Hillery Smith Garrison/AP
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