Friday July 23rd, 2010

Baseball took an important if, for now, largely symbolic step on Thursday by announcing that it will test all minor leaguers for human growth hormone -- minor leaguers, anyway, who are not on organizational 40-man rosters and thus don't have the protection of the Major League Baseball Players Association. It keeps baseball in the lead among North American pro sports in being proactive about combating performance-enhancing drugs. It also gives commissioner Bud Selig more bricks in his legacy-building, that when he could act on drugs without collective bargaining with the union, he did.

Selig moved quickly on HGH testing once an English rugby player, Terry Newton, in January became the first athlete banned for failing an HGH test. Sounds simple, right? Use HGH and you risk getting caught, a risk that never before existed for ballplayers.

Like most PED issues, though, it's not so simple. Newton was nabbed only because the United Kingdom Anti-Doping Agency acted on "intelligence" that Newton was using HGH. The testers showed up for an out-of-competition test last November, about 18 hours after Newton took a dose of HGH. (The agency has a toll-free number for anyone to call with anonymous tips.)

So how good is the test? Not as good as "intelligence." Newton's rugby league tested 628 players. He was the only one who flunked an HGH test, even though Newton estimated that as many as 100 players were using it.

The window for detecting HGH use is narrow, though getting bigger. Newton figured it would be undetectable 20 minutes after usage. The newest HGH tests, which are blood-based, are said to catch cheats within two weeks of usage.

And just how serious is baseball about getting drugs out of the sport? Not as serious as the Super League of English rugby. Newton, having admitted his usage after the flunked test, immediately was banned for two years and stripped of his contract. Baseball's penalty for using HGH? A 50-game suspension. It's inadequate, especially when players weigh that risk against the odds of a test that catches drug use only in a two-week window.

At the very least, though, Selig has placed another obstacle in front of the would-be cheaters. There is some risk, as opposed to none, that a minor leaguer could be discovered to have used HGH.

The next move? That's up to the union. It still has problems with the scientific effectiveness and the invasiveness of the test. Drawing blood during the competitive season, it argues, introduces new levels of concern as compared to providing a urine sample, the drug-testing method in place since 2003. But once there was a time when the union fought even those urine-based tests, even after Selig introduced them in the minors.

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