Can MLB Drug Testing Catch Up to Ever-Evolving PED Industry?
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Baseball's new drug-testing policy appears to be a big step in the battle to sweep the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) out of the sport.
As MLB.com's Paul Hagen explained, players will now be subjected to random blood tests to detect Human Growth Hormone (HGH).
In addition, stricter tests for testosterone have also been incorporated. Every player's baseline testosterone levels will be on record, so tests can detect a significant increase in someone's system.
Though this expanded testing system will surely be a deterrent and push some PED use out of the game, the trainers and chemists that aid players with artificially boosting their performance always seem to be at least one step ahead of the testing process.
As soon as MLB and other sports organizations figure out how to test for certain PEDs, athletes looking for an edge are on to the next substance that can't be detected yet.
That obviously doesn't mean MLB shouldn't try to do all it can to make sure its sport is being played clean. The embarrassment of the 2013 Hall of Fame vote—in which no players were elected to Cooperstown—is the latest indication of how the perception and prejudice of steroid use has stained baseball's signature achievements.
But can MLB ever expect to get ahead of the players—and those who supply them with PEDs—when it comes to detecting illegal substances like HGH and synthetic testosterone?
Will the drug tests—regardless of how advanced and sophisticated they might become—always be behind the latest iterations of PEDs or the newest trends in banned stimulants and supplements?
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What is the next HGH that players will use to try and get an edge? Is it something readily available like Adderall or Viagra—prescription drugs that NFL players have tested positive for during the past year, according to Fox Sports reports?
Adderall isn't just limited to the NFL, either. Deadspin's Barry Petchesky reported that one out of every 10 MLB players used the stimulant, according to information released by MLB's drug-testing program.
Is deer antler powder the next HGH, as Yahoo! Sports' Dan Wetzel wrote a year ago? Deer antler "velvet," as it's called, contains the substance IGF-1, which is banned in every sport. That includes MLB.
Testing for IGF-1, Wetzel explains, could be extremely difficult since the "velvet antler" substance is natural, not synthetic. Attempting to detect it will require another sort of blood test, as it wouldn't show up in a urine test.
But deer antler powder (or velvet) is already in the game.
Adam Greenberg, whose one-game comeback with the Miami Marlins drew headlines last October, used the substance as he attempted to make it back to the majors, according to Yahoo! Sports' The PostGame.
Greenberg also started a company that sells deer velvet antler. That creates a potentially awkward situation between him and MLB, one that could be worth keeping an eye on as Greenberg tries to make the Baltimore Orioles' major league roster this spring.
Another battle MLB has to fight is increasing the penalties for positive PED tests. A 50-game suspension for first-time offenders might seem like a harsh penalty. The 100-game suspension for a second positive test and lifetime ban for a third offense are even stricter punishments.
But is that initial 50-game suspension enough of a deterrent? Does the risk of losing that many games for a positive test outweigh the benefits that increased performance can provide to a major league career? Is the potential long-term contract worth millions of dollars just too big of a prize not to chase by any means necessary?
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Some might point to Melky Cabrera as an example. With a .346 average, .906 OPS, 25 doubles, 10 triples, 11 home runs, 60 RBI and 13 stolen bases, Cabrera had a big free-agent payday ahead of him.
But whether or not getting caught with excess testosterone in his system affected Cabrera's free-agent value depends on how the situation is viewed.
Yes, Cabrera cost himself the type of contract that B.J. Upton and Nick Swisher got in the free-agent market. He didn't get a four- or five-year deal worth $60-$75 million. Getting caught for using PEDs and being suspended hurt him financially.
However, Cabrera still signed a two-year, $16 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. Testing positive for PEDs may have cost him $40-$50 million on the open market—that's a significant loss.
Which side can point to Cabrera and say it won this battle? Does MLB say its drug program ultimately worked because of how much Cabrera lost in potential earnings? Or, do any players who use or are considering using PEDs see a player who still got paid?
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?
Baseball will have a difficult time beating that mentality, no matter how much the sport improves its testing system and discourages the use of illegal substances.
The alternative may have to be trying something drastic.
Perhaps MLB has to set up sting operations among players, following a handful of them to their PED source and busting up the transactions.
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It sounds like something out of a movie, with someone wearing a wire while people listen in on conversations from a van outfitted with all sorts of recording equipment. Would the bust take place at the back of a restaurant or out on the docks, surrounded by towering stacks of shipping containers?
Something even more far-fetched might be placing a mole within a clubhouse to try and sniff out PED users and the people who supply them with those illegal substances. The mole could be a trainer or clubhouse attendant, but that might not be nearly as effective.
Could an MLB team actually convince a player to rat out a teammate and expose an individual or group of PED users in a clubhouse?
It seems unlikely that a club could get someone to turn on his colleagues. The sanctity and camaraderie of a clubhouse would be violated.
The mole would risk being an outcast among his peers for the rest of his career, a penalty most—if not all—players would consider far too severe. General managers—some of whom are former players—likely wouldn't touch such a whistle-blower either. His days as a major leaguer would effectively be over.
This might be fantasy territory for MLB. Obviously, the players' union would never agree to such a circumstance. And creating moles would just divide players from executives and ownership even further.
But what other avenues can the commissioner's office pursue if it's truly serious about wiping PED use out of the sport? Drastic measures and non-conventional thinking might have to be employed.
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