HGH Testing in MLB Will Be Nothing More Than a Small Hurdle for Cheaters

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HGH Testing in MLB Will Be Nothing More Than a Small Hurdle for Cheaters

In recent years, MLB has gotten tougher on steroid use. 

After instituting mandatory testing in 2004, baseball followed that up by imposing severe penalties for players caught using performance-enhancing substances.

First-time offenders draw a 50-game suspension. Those testing positive for a second time draw a 100-game suspension. Failing a test for the third time results in a permanent ban from the game. 

However, there has always been the underlying belief among those who follow baseball that the problem with PED use would never truly be solved until MLB could detect and test for human growth hormone (HGH). 

Testing for HGH appeared to be a tricky proposition for MLB because it requires a blood test. Baseball players and their union didn't seem likely to agree to such testing.

Concerns over the perception of competitive fairness among players and whether or not the game is clean has apparently overtaken such concerns, however. MLB and the players' union announced that random HGH testing will indeed be implemented, beginning with the 2013 season. 

MLB's executive vice president of labor relations, Rob Manfred, believes these changes to baseball's drug policy are a significant development for the sport and its players.

"HGH can be used at any point during the year," Manfred told MLB.com, "and we think it's very important from a deterrence perspective that players be subject to blood testing just like they're subject to urine testing year-round."

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Did Ryan Braun's positive PED test prompt new measures?
Additionally, MLB has incorporated stricter testing for testosterone. Every player's baseline testosterone levels will be on record, making it easier for urine testing to detect a spike in the amount of testosterone in someone's system. 

It's curious that the expansion of MLB's drug policy was announced one day after players strongly associated with steroid use—such as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa—failed to earn election into the Baseball Hall of Fame. 

Commissioner Bud Selig said that was a coincidence. However, according to ESPN.com, he did seem to relish the timing, saying, "But it wasn't too bad, was it?"

Selig has reason to be proud, of course. This is a big step for baseball, one that shows MLB is more serious about drug testing than the NFL, NBA and NHL. The NFL, for example, does not currently test for HGH, largely because the players have not agreed to a testing program.

For baseball players to reach an agreement with MLB on an HGH-testing program indicates the desire to make the game clean and prevent fans, reporters and analysts from making broad judgments about cheating in the sport. Those who don't use PEDs want to be recognized for that, which is reflected in this expanded drug policy. 

But will these new tests for HGH and synthetic testosterone truly be the deterrent that MLB envisions? 

The new testing program certainly presents an obstacle and will make PED users have to work harder to avoid detection. But have the science and chemistry used by those aiding baseball players in boosting their performance already exceeded what MLB's testing program is prepared to catch? 

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Is Barry Bonds casting a shadow over baseball?
One of the reasons that it's been so difficult to wipe PED use out of sports—whether it's baseball, football or amateur Olympic sports—is that the chemistry is always evolving. Scientists who design these performance-enhancing substances are constantly ahead of those trying to create tests to detect them. 

MLB's tougher steroid policy does seem to have yielded some positive effects.

Hitting 30 or 40 home runs is once again an achievement that truly stands out during the course of the season. Smaller middle infielders are no longer bulked up, hitting over .300 and cranking 30 home runs out of the park. Elite pitchers are able to dominate opposing lineups once again. 

Yet is MLB's drug-testing program truly a deterrent?

The number of players getting caught for using PEDs seems to be increasing. Is that because the tests are doing a better job of detecting steroid users? Does the random nature of the tests prevent players from following a schedule that eludes detection? 

Or, are more players testing positive these days because so many are still using PEDs? Does the risk of a 50-game suspension for a positive test outweigh the benefit of putting up the sort of numbers and performance that could yield a major league career—let alone a long-term, multimillion-dollar contract?

Ryan Braun flunked a drug test after the 2011 season and was suspended for 50 games. However, raising questions about how his urine sample was handled created enough doubt for his test to be questioned. His suspension was overturned, and he was effectively acquitted. 

Melky Cabrera surely cost himself such a mega-contract by testing positive for excess testosterone last year and drawing a 50-game suspension.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
How much did a positive PED test hurt Melky Cabrera?
Prior to that, he was on his way to winning a National League batting title with a .346 average. He compiled a .906 OPS with 25 doubles, 10 triples, 11 home runs, 60 RBI and 13 stolen bases.

Obviously, the validity of those numbers has to be questioned in light of Cabrera's testing positive for PEDs. As a result, Cabrera didn't get the five- or six-year deal that he may have have been in line for previously.

Yet he still got a two-year, $16 million contract from the Toronto Blue Jays, who were willing to take a chance on a productive player who had suddenly become a bargain. 

Did taking PEDs pay off for Cabrera? Even if it cost him potential millions of dollars in earnings, how can anyone say otherwise?

We don't know exactly how much that additional testosterone boosted Cabrera's performance. But it had enough of an effect to yield an eight-figure contract from a team that will almost certainly compete for a playoff bid this year. 

For which side does Cabrera present the better example? Does MLB point to him and say getting caught by its drug program cost him dearly in terms of potential earnings? Or, do players considering using PEDs look at Cabrera and see a player who was still able to cash in, even if it was for a far lesser amount? 

The latter possibility is a mentality MLB will have to work for years to overcome, regardless of how many testing measures and penalties the sport and players' union implement. As long as using substances such as HGH and synthetic testosterone yields positive results in terms of performance, some players will take a chance on them. 

That's not to say the new program is not an important step. It certainly is. As noted earlier, it's significant that MLB and the players agreed to these new measures. 

But those seeking an edge will continue to search for one. Cheaters are still going to cheat. At the risk of being glib, the old saying that "if you're not cheating, you're not trying" still applies. 

 

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