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Mets� Trouble With the Grass / Sources: At least 7 players suspected of marijuana use

At least seven Mets have been suspected of using marijuana

this season, part of an alleged pattern of drug use that reaches from the

team's minor league system right up to the major league roster, sources close

to the team have told Newsday.

Manager Bobby Valentine acknowleged he worried about the drug problem on

his team as early as spring training and said he spoke to general manager Steve

Phillips about his concerns, although Phillips yesterday said he didn't recall

such a conversation.

"I've seen signals, but nothing definitive," Valentine said yesterday.

A top team official, however, said the manager confronted rookie reliever

Grant Roberts over his suspected drug use this season.

Valentine said he met with his team to discuss the "foolishness" of drug

use when rookie pitcher Mark Corey was hospitalized with seizure-like symptoms

June 26 after smoking marijuana with teammate Tony Tarasco mere blocks from

Shea Stadium.

Tarasco, Corey and Roberts are three of at least seven major league Mets

who have been suspected of using marijuana this season. Most of the players

involved came up through the Mets' farm system. In addition to Corey, a number

of those suspected are no longer with the team.

Phillips disputed there is a problem yesterday. "I don't think we have

rampant drug use on our major league team," he said.

Interviews with a high-ranking team official, a former prospect and two

people close to players in the organization in the aftermath of the

Corey-Tarasco incident raised new allegations.

According to one friend of some Mets players, marijuana has allegedy been

mailed into Shea Stadium inside a jar of peanut butter and at least one Met

regularly smokes marijuana in the players' parking lot. The same source also

said that a number of Mets players have been known to share a marijuana-filled

limousine ride rather than taking the team bus from one city to another while

on the road.

A former prospect and two friends of current Mets confirmed that the team's

minor leaguers have been warned in advance of supposedly random drug tests and

have learned how to avoid drug detection.

One of the friends said that Mets minor leaguers have been known to buy

marijuana and drug paraphernalia near hotels on the road in order to access it

on the next trip to town.

A team official and a friend of the players said in addition to marijuana

Ecstasy was another drug of choice among Mets minor leaguers.

Valentine recounted how he talked to his team after Newsday reported the

Corey-Tarasco drug use in June.

"After the one incident we had, I addressed the team about this stuff

specifically, about how foolish it was, how it was illegal and how embarrassing

it could be for it to continue," Valentine said.

In order to evade the bomb-sniffing dogs that occasionally patrol Shea

Stadium, a source who refused to be named said one player instructed an

accomplice to pack the marijuana in partly-filled peanut-butter jars.

"They leave about a half inch to an inch of peanut butter on the outside

wall and then they just throw the bag inside the peanut butter," said the

source, who also has knowledge that two of the young Mets may have provided

drugs to teammates and players on other teams during spring training.

Told of the drug allegations, catcher Mike Piazza said, "It's kind of

disturbing if that's the case. I'm not against having fun. For me, it's having

a few beers, if you're of age. You have to blow off steam somehow. But you'd

think guys at this level would be completely focused on their careers."

First baseman Mo Vaughn said yesterday: "I personally was never into drugs.

It's hard enough to play this game if your brain is normal. I don't know if

it's a problem on this team. I hope to God it's not. If there's something going

on, we need to correct it."

None of the Mets contacted made any connection between the team's miserable

2002 season and drug use. However, medical experts say marijuana use can

impair coordination.

While major-league players are not subject to random drug testing, as

stipulated in the collective bargaining agreement, minor leaguers do undergo

drug tests, although the results are not released to the public. One source

said star prospects are sometimes warned in advance about coming drug tests or

let off the hook after failing tests.

Phillips said that while team officials know when tests will be

administered for coordination purposes, he doubted whether any club official

has tipped off players. The general manager estimated that no more than three

to five Mets minor leaguers test positive for drugs each year. Two former Mets

prospects who have been sent home after failing drug tests are outfielder Rob

Stratton and pitcher Erik Hiljus, sources said. Bill Pulsipher also was caught

smoking dope by club officials.

Phillips strongly disputed any preferential treatment within the minor

league ranks, citing the rigorous testing administered throughout the season.

He said minor league players are tested for drugs by an outside agency up to

four times a season.

"In my opinion, we have to be among the best organizations in addressing

and educating our players on this. And we have among the least number of

positive tests in the game," Phillips said.

The former prospect said that certain minor league players are not only

given a heads-up about pending drug tests, but have learned how to cheat

detection, using concoctions that flush traces of drugs from their system or

mask it with bleach, ammonia or herbal teas. Many of these quick fixes are

available over the counter at fitness stores.

"I've seen guys get busted even though they knew they'd be tested," one

former Mets prospect said. "Everyone's going to test the waters, even if they

know there are sharks."

The source blames the organization. "What ticks me off is that they know

this is going on and they're not doing anything about it," said the close

friend of a Mets player. "I've seen that firsthand, the lengths the team will

go to protect the player."

When confronted before yesterday's game with a December of 1999 snapshot of

Roberts, then a minor-leaguer, dragging on a bong, an apparatus used to smoke

marijuana, Roberts was silent for a long time before saying, "I can tell you

that wasn't recently."

Asked whether he still uses drugs, Roberts kept his head down and shook it

"No" before walking back into the clubhouse.

The former Mets prospect said that many minor leaguers take advantage of

promotion to the 40-man roster to more freely use drugs.

"A big goal is to make the 40-man," he said. "The players' association

doesn't allow them to test if you're on the 40-man, so guys are more apt [to do

drugs]. Guys lower down [in the minors] don't do it as much just because of

the fear of getting caught. My first year out of school, I got caught. I never

saw the result, but I confessed when they told me."

Phillips said that active enforcement is near-impossible once a player is

put on the 40-man roster and no longer subject to random drug testing.

"Unless you have firsthand evidence, there's nothing you can do about it,"

Phillips said. "If we had definite evidence, we would act ... We want a

drug-free environment for our players at the major-league and minor-league

level. Unfortunately, the rules don't allow that right now."

The Corey incident, which took place on June 26, is an example of what can

happen under the current system. Both Tarasco and Corey, who were called up

from Triple-A Norfolk earlier this season, smoked marijuana during a short

drive, and Corey suffered from seizure-like symptoms before collapsing in front

of his hotel, the Ramada Plaza, located a quarter-mile from Shea.

While Corey said later that doctors described his sudden illness as nothing

more than an "anxiety attack," a Newsday source who is a friend said he had to

be revived by the hotel's security guard using mouth-to-mouth resuscitation

before an ambulance rushed him to New York Medical Center in Flushing.

Corey and Tarasco have been put into the Employee Assistance Program and

will be subject to drug testing as first-time offenders. Corey was sent to the

minors then recalled to the Mets and was traded July 31, along with Jay Payton,

to the Rockies. Tarasco has remained with the team. People close to Corey said

they had never seen him smoke marijuana before.

Tarasco, who reportedly admitted his marijuana usage to police, declined

comment when reporters approached him the next day. After three days of medical

tests, including one by a neurologist on July 1, Corey was medically cleared.

The Mets said that doctors were unable to uncover a cause for Corey's

seizure-like symptoms, but the friend believes Corey reacted badly to whatever

the street-bought marijuana was laced with.

"I was kind of hoping it would be a wakeup call for everybody else," the

source said. "Unfortunately, it's not. Not at all."

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