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Byrd ‘not afraid’ of association with convicted steroid dealer

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

MESA, Ariz. — Sammy Sosa is long gone from the Cubs, but one of their newer fan favorites seems to be inviting his own skeptics over performance-enhancing drugs, if not challenging the establishment to prove he’s not clean.

And unnecessarily, Major League Baseball officials say.

Nobody’s accusing Marlon Byrd of using steroids or other banned substances, and it’s not like he’s hitting 50 home runs a year — or even half that.

But Byrd’s four-year association with convicted BALCO ringleader Victor Conte — which gained its highest-profile exposure during an airing Tuesday of HBO’s ‘‘Real Sports’’ — continues to leave Major League Baseball officials scratching their heads about why Byrd would risk using unverified supplements from a convicted steroid dealer, especially after repeated warnings from MLB.

Byrd, a first-time All-Star for the Cubs last season, admittedly is the only major-leaguer working with Conte, whose Bay Area-based operation was behind the federal investigation into alleged steroid use by Barry Bonds and eventual federal perjury and obstruction charges against the home run king.

According to the HBO report, Conte continues to invent supplements he gives his clients as part of an apparently high-tech training regimen — a regimen Conte swears is 100 percent clean as he seeks redemption after his prison time.

Several of Conte’s fellow conspirators in the BALCO scandal continue to work with him now, including disgraced Bonds trainer Greg Anderson, who want to jail for refusing to cooperate with investigators — and who last month was assigned to work with Byrd, according to HBO.

‘‘Our position with respect to supplement manufacturers generally is that if their products are not certified under the NSF [league-provided testing] program, players shouldn’t be using them,’’ said Rob Manfred, MLB’s top labor-relations official. ‘‘And we told Mr. Byrd that.’’

Manfred stressed that MLB’s concern is the bigger issue of players accepting uncertified supplements from any distributor, not a matter of necessarily singling out Conte.

‘‘Obviously, Mr. Conte is a high-profile guy with a well-documented history,’’ he said. ‘‘But for any players taking a chance that can put their careers at risk, we apply that policy across the board.’’

Even Byrd seems to understand well the risks and skepticism he invites with his association with a man who has become a pariah in national and world athletic circles.

‘‘He was the king. He was the king, bottom line,’’ Byrd said during an interview for the HBO show. ‘‘If you wanted to cheat and you wanted to be the best at it, you went to Victor Conte.’’

So why shouldn’t we wonder if he’s not slipping Byrd the latest undetectable performance-enhancing drug, he was asked.

‘‘You should wonder,’’ Byrd said. ‘‘That’s the way the world is, and he is Victor Conte. I made the decision to work with him, and I wasn’t worried about it. I know the truth. I know what he does. I know how he’s helped me, and I know I’m clean.’’

And, sources say, Byrd’s drug-testing record backs that up, with Byrd never having failed an MLB drug test.

His relationship with Conte was publicized when Byrd was with the Texas Rangers. And the Cubs were aware of that a few years ago when they originally tried to acquire him.

Although the Cubs deferred public comment on the subject to Major League Baseball, club officials said Byrd’s relationship with Conte never was brought up during their internal discussions over pursuing him as a free agent before last season.

But for all of Byrd’s good will, good nature and clean record, why tempt fate? Why risk the added scrutiny? Why chance the potential unwitting gulp of the wrong mixture that triggers the wrong test result?

And why go in that direction when all of the other 749 major-leaguers are going in other directions?

‘‘I’m not afraid of Victor Conte,’’ he told HBO.

Byrd hasn’t been in Mesa the last two days after leaving for an awards ceremony Monday in Chicago, and attempts to reach him Tuesday were unsuccessful.

‘‘Why would I associate myself with Victor Conte? People that know me, they understand,’’ he told HBO. ‘‘Some people that don’t know me, they’re always going to question.’’

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