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How strong is MLB’s new HGH testing plan?

As part of Major League Baseball’s new labor agreement, a new testing requirement for human growth hormone is being instituted. With MLB long having been accurately viewed as a laggard in drug testing among the major sports, Commissioner Bud Selig is now taking bows for what on the surface appears to be an aggressive stance.

“It meant a great deal to me personally, and a great deal to our sport,” Selig told the AP this week.

Even one of MLB’s most vocal critics took positive notice.

“The agreement to begin testing puts baseball ahead of other American professional sports leagues and is a credit to their leadership,” U.S. Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said.

Earlier this month, Waxman, the ranking member of the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce, had issued a warning to MLB and the NFL to begin HGH testing procedures or face the wrath of Congress. His open letter was published by ESPN.

At first blush, this seems like a significant turnaround for the grand old game. But how strong is this agreement, really?

Let’s start with the announcement itself:

“Commencing in Spring Training 2012, all players will be subject to hGH blood testing for reasonable cause at all times during the year. In addition, during each year, all players will be tested during spring training. Starting with the 2012-2013 off-season, players will be subject to random unannounced testing for hGH. The parties have also agreed on a process to jointly study the possibility of expanding blood testing to include in-season collections.”

Just as for an initial positive test for any banned performance-enhancing substance today, a failed HGH test would result in a 50-game suspension.

MLB first experimented with HGH testing in the minor leagues, where the program began late in the 2010 season. Eligible players are those not the 40-man roster. In other words, players covered by the union were exempted. That was not surprising since the union had been steadfastly against HGH testing.

Digging in deeper, the players did not really give up much in the new agreement.

The MLB collection process is yet to be disclosed. In the minors, blood samples are collected from the non-dominant arm of players after games by representatives from the National Center for Drug Free Sport. The samples are sent for analysis to a testing laboratory in Utah.

In August, a former major leaguer, Mike Jacobs, then playing in Triple-A for the Colorado Rockies, was the first player to be suspended for a positive HGH test. Almost immediately, the Rockies released the first baseman.

As mentioned above, the new MLB process includes off-season testing, but how random can that really be? Will representatives travel all over the world, running down players in their home countries or on the beach? Will they show up without notice? How could they?

Players’ Union head Michael Weiner acknowledges that to be effective, testing must occur within a few days of HGH usage. He said scientists have determined that the HGH test can detect the substance in the blood for just 48 to 72 hours.

More importantly, the agreement does not include in-season testing – unless “reasonable cause” is determined. Yet to be clarified is precisely who will decide what is reasonable. More than likely, unless a smoking gun is found that cannot be ignored, no in-season testing will occur.

Without unrestricted in-season testing, the new agreement lacks any significant teeth. Further, expect a major battle if somehow, a union member actually tests positive for HGH use at any time, in-season or off.

“We are sufficiently comfortable with the science to go ahead with testing, but we have preserved the right if there is a positive test for there to be a challenge — if that’s appropriate — to the science at that point in time,” Weiner said.

Despite his effusive praise, Rep. Waxman noted the obvious – the agreement has major exposures.

“It will be important that the testing be extended to the regular season to avoid creating a loophole in the new policy,” Waxman told the AP.

The sides have agreed to explore in-season testing, but there is no assurance anything further will get done during the five-year term of the new agreement.

“The players want to get out and be leaders on this issue, and they want there to be a level playing field,” Weiner said. “The realities, though, are that baseball players play virtually every single day from Feb. 20 through October. And that’s unlike any other athlete — professional or amateur — who’s subject to drug testing. We want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can on the HGH issue, but that it be consistent with not interfering with competition and not interfering with players health and safety.”

The bottom line is that MLB did something, which generated a lot of positive initial press. Years down the road, looking at this in hindsight, will it be considered to have been enough, however?

Probably not.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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9 Responses to “How strong is MLB’s new HGH testing plan?”

  1. blingboy says:

    Nobody knows if HGH use among major leaguers is widespread, so it might be. If so, owners would not really want their long term contracts compromised with players suddenly not being the same guy they agreed to pay a lot of money to. It would be usightly for the MLBPA too. Better to provide an opportunity for players to wean themselves off if they need to, and for owners to get comfortable with knowing what they are getting in the case of bigger, longer contracts.

    Waxman is a jackass.

    • JumboShrimp says:

      Waxman is a prize piece of work. He may represent Beverly Hills and Boras.

      HGH supplement use will be pervasive, because natural to the human body and what helps our muscles grow, normally. Owners probably love having their players full of HGH to buff their bods. HGH must be a fountain of youth, used by jocks in all sports. If I was an athlete, I would be full to the brim with HGH.
      A testing regieme will be designed to protect the players and MLB both. Since we know Glaus, Ankiel, and everybody must be buying the stuff, MLB know they need some kind of control program, so as to have a PR cover story ready, before the next ballplayer gets found to have a prescription or to have bought HGH from a fly by night pharmacy. Smart.

  2. JumboShrimp says:

    Because HGH is natural to the human body as a source of invigoration, its supplementary use across all sports must be common. Recognizing this, it behooves the Union and MLB to have a testing program in place for PR purposes. When the next player is reported to have bought HGH from a dubious pharmacy, MLB can say it has a program and the situation is under control. This new HGH program helps innoculate the business of baseball against chemophobia.

  3. easy says:

    Does anyone know if any individual player contracts have been done with banned substance clauses that would void the contract if a player tests positive? Since the main movitvation for the use of the substances is economic, wouldn’t that be more effective than the player just losing money for the suspension period? Wouldn’t that also provide more protection for the teams?
    Maybe it can’t be done but it seems that, if teams were really serious about this, it’s something that they would explore.

  4. easy says:

    Yes it would and I’m sure the union would have issues with it. I’m not sure why MLB would if they were serious about eliminating banned substance usage. From the clubs’ standpoint it would be a protection. They are paying a guy usually millions of dollars a year over a period of years for what they expect is a certain level of play. Then they find out that that level of play was established with the help of HGH or other drugs and it is likely that the level of play will go down. Should they be stuck with a contract for several years that was obtained by the player under false pretenses? Should the fans of that team be stuck with it? Should not the player be forced to renegotiate his contract based on the likelihood that his production will regress?
    I realize that this is simplistic and that political realities make simple solutions unlikely. My attitude, though, is that MLB should either accept the usage of PEDS or make it’s usage so unpalatable that few players would dare to risk it.

  5. bigchieftootiemontana says:

    So this means there is testing only during spring training? If that’s true I can see why the owners and players agreed to it.

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