Will Bud Selig's war on HGH make a difference?
HGH. Human growth hormone. A hormone that makes humans grow.
It just sounds bad, doesn't it? It might as well be called HBGHTH: Human big green hulk transformation hormone.
Whatever the moniker, Major League Baseball wants it gone. The league announced in January that it will begin doing random in-season blood tests for HGH this year.
Sluggers who have been using it and avoiding detection all these years will surely get off the stuff, and the league's power numbers will take a nosedive as a result. Right? Even if players aren't getting caught, we'll really know that the new testing is having an impact when power numbers fall to an all-time low. Right?
Wrong. That won't happen. Feel free to take out your bottom dollar and bet on it.
The real issue with the new HGH testing is that MLB is chasing a ghost. Human growth hormone may sound like a drug that turns ballplayers into superhuman conquerors of outfield fences, but it doesn't work that way.
The truth is that as far as performance-enhancing drugs go, HGH is actually pretty useless.
Said BALCO founder Victor Conte to USA Today:
The blood test is a waste because HGH doesn't enhance performance nearly as much as testosterone...Why spend money on HGH when testosterone is the real problem? They are plugging the wrong hole.
Though he's certainly an expert in the field of performance-enhancing drugs, you don't have to take Conte's word for it. You can take the word of researchers instead.
A couple years ago in 2010, Australian researchers did a study of the effects of HGH on athletes and concluded that using it only brings about "modest" enhancements. The most important finding as it pertains to MLB was that HGH was not proven to enhance strength or fitness.
The key passage from the Associated Press report on the study:
The study volunteers who took growth hormone lost body fat and gained lean body mass, but it was mostly from water retention, not from bulking up muscle, the researchers reported in Tuesday's issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.
So despite the reality that HGH is often lumped together with steroids, the two don't belong in the same boat. Steroids help build muscle mass, which is very much appealing to ballplayers looking to hit the ball a long way. HGH doesn't have the same effect.
There's at least one ballplayer who can vouch. Former Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch was highlighted in the Mitchell Report as a player who had obtained HGH in 2001, and he wasn't shy about fessing up in an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune a couple years ago.
I did HGH. It didn't help me out. It didn't make me any better. I had the worst years of my career from a batting average standpoint. And I got hurt. So there was no good that came out of it for me -- it was not performance-enhancing for me.
The Mitchell Report claims that Knoblauch acquired HGH from former New York Mets employee Kirk Radomski in 2001. He hit .250 that year, which was indeed the lowest batting average of his career. He also slugged .351, a figure far removed from his career .406 slugging percentage.
Former utility man F.P. Santangelo admitted to ESPN.com in 2007 that he had also received HGH from Radomski. He hit .197 in each of his final two big league seasons and retired with a .351 career slugging percentage.
Houston Astros outfielder Rick Ankiel was reported by the New York Daily News to have received shipments of HGH in 2004, but he maintained that he was prescribed it to help him recover from elbow surgery.
As it is, the Daily News said that Ankiel stopped receiving shipments in 2005 just before MLB officially banned HGH. If so, he had been off the stuff for a couple years by the time he resurfaced in the majors as a hitter in 2007.
Former catcher Gary Bennett also used HGH as part of an effort to come back from an injury in 2003, but he told reporters that he had "no way of knowing whether it did or didn't help." It certainly didn't help his offensive performance, as Bennett hit just .238 with a .306 slugging percentage in 2003.
Actual star players who have been linked to HGH in the past include Jason Giambi and Mark McGwire. Giambi admitted to a grand jury in 2003 that he had taken HGH, but that he had also taken steroids. Given the effects of the two drugs, it's more likely that the steroids helped him inflate his numbers in the early 2000s rather than the HGH.
Likewise, McGwire admitted a couple years ago that he had used both steroids and HGH in his playing days. It was probably the steroids that helped him hit 245 home runs in a four-year span between 1996 and 1999.
Based on what the Miami New Times reported about his dealings with Biogenesis, New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez may have used HGH between 2009 and 2012. If so, it might have helped him recover from his hip surgery in '09, but he didn't perform any better on the field that year than he had in 2008. His slugging percentage dropped from a league-high .573 to .532.
A-Rod's slugging percentage has dropped each year since then too, from .506 in 2010 to .461 in 2011 to .430 last year. If he is indeed on HGH and other PEDs, they're not doing him any good. Given the fact that he's just had another hip surgery, they're not even prolonging his career.
Based on what experts like Conte have to say, what researchers have concluded and what the list of ballplayers who have been linked to it can tell us, it's clear enough that HGH in and of itself is not a legitimate performance-enhancer. Major League Baseball is thus looking to defend against an imaginary enemy.
So why do it?
A recent poll carried out by ESPN's SportsNation can shed some light on the matter. The show asked fans to vote on which of the four major American sports leagues they think has the highest percentage of PED usage, and MLB won by a landslide. It received 60 percent of the vote, and Alaska was the only state in the union that went for a league other than MLB (it went for the NFL).
And that's completely bogus. MLB definitely had a rampant PED problem in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but you have to give credit where it's due. MLB and the MLB Players Association have gone to great lengths to turn the league's PED testing procedures into the toughest in American sports, and you can tell by the way offensive numbers have declined that the testing is having the desired effect.
Do you believe MLB has gotten cleaner over the years?
Despite this, MLB clearly still has work to do to convince the public that it's the cleanest professional sports league in America (if not the whole world). That's the real advantage of random in-season blood testing for HGH. In the PR war MLB is fighting, this is its latest blitzkrieg.
After this, it will be tougher testosterone testing. Once MLB has that problem taken care of, it will be on to Super-Soldier Serum and gamma radiation.
It doesn't matter if the drugs that find its way into MLB's crosshairs actually enhance performance. If it even sounds like something that could enhance performance, you can rest assured MLB will start testing for it eventually.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
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