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MLB to begin testing minor leaguers for HGH

Feb 24, 2010, 7:56 AM EDT

One day after I pondered whether baseball would react in an ignorant, knee-jerk fashion to that positive HGH test by that British rugby player,  the New York Times reports that baseball plans react in an ignorant, knee-jerk fashion to that positive HGH test by that British rugby player:

Major League Baseball, which had long been skeptical about a viable
test for human growth hormone, now plans to implement blood testing for
the substance in the minor leagues later this year, according to an
official in baseball with direct knowledge of the matter . . .

. . . The decision to move ahead with blood testing comes one day after a British rugby player was suspended for testing positive for H.G.H. It was the first time
that an athlete had been publicly identified for testing positive for
the substance and was seen as overdue proof that the blood test, which
has been in limited use for six years, actually works.  In a statement in response to questions from The New York Times, Major
League Baseball said it was “well aware of the important news with
respect to” the positive drug test of the British athlete.

As the professor quoted at the end of the article notes, this test has been around for several years, and they’ve caught one dude with it. Does that not suggest to baseball — and anyone else with half a brain — that the test is prone to giving false negatives? I mean, it’s not like it’s reasonable to think that one random British prop is the only guy on the stuff. But hey, if the Daily News is pumping up a single positive, why shouldn’t Major League Baseball and everyone else go all-in?  Sheesh.

But hey, every other thing baseball has done with respect to PED testing has been PR, as opposed to science-driven, so why change now?

(thanks to reader Jeffrey S. for the heads up)

  1. lessick - Feb 24, 2010 at 8:31 AM

    Well, f course it’s about PR, and it’s hard for me to blame baseball for jumping on this before the NFL does.

    For years, MLB has been bashed for failing to address PEDs while the NFL had been testing for many years. Of course, anyone with eyes and half a brain knows that PED testing in the NFL is pathetically ineffective. However, the mere fact that the NFL had been testing its players seems to give the NFL a free pass when it comes to media outrage about PEDs.

  2. Jonny5 - Feb 24, 2010 at 8:41 AM

    Why be against testing players for injecting a banned substance into their bodies? What’s the sense of banning it if they don’t enforce the rules?? Craig, are you a roider? I mean you seem to want to let everyone off the hook for using, and you seem to feel this blood test is BS… I don’t get it. HGH is known to cause Liver and thyroid problems as well as a known PED. Athletes of every persuasion have been using it for over a decade. For what? To enhance their performance. MLB isn’t the only sport to ban it for the obvious reasons..

  3. Craig Calcaterra - Feb 24, 2010 at 9:02 AM

    Jonny — the article (and the articles from yesterday) say that the British rugby league and the IOC have been using this test for some time, and yet the rugby player is the first positive. It seems highly likely, however, that he is not the only one using HGH. In light of that, it also seems highly likely that the test is less-than-effective and provides a lot of false negatives.
    If you truly care about PEDs in sports as opposed to mere PR in which you pretend to care about PEDs in sports, the last thing you want is an ineffective test, because it will give players a greater sense of security for using PEDs, leading to more PED-use, not less.

  4. Jonny5 - Feb 24, 2010 at 9:29 AM

    I don’t know about the false positives, all I know is they’ve just now found a way to detect it through new blood tests. If it does cause false positives then I’m sure they’ll be able to test and retest the samples to ensure it wasn’t a false positive. If the test is faulty in any way which causes non users to be suspended then I’m with you on this, but until I see evidence that this new test will do so I feel the testing is a great idea. You see, I’m very against the unfair advantage cheats can obtain in sports. I know, it’s quite tempting to keep ahead of the curve to help maintain your career, but I see it as an unfair advantage over guys who do follow the rules.

  5. willmose - Feb 24, 2010 at 9:33 AM

    Big problem for A-Rod. How else do you explain his miracle hip recovery?

  6. Church of the Perpetually Outraged - Feb 24, 2010 at 9:42 AM

    Craig’s point is the test might be the total opposite. Craig said that, since the test has been out for a few years (aka it’s not a “new” test) and yet only one person has been caught, it’s likely that the test generates false negatives meaning people who are taking and not getting caught.
    If you find a way to get around the testing, like the BALCO cream/clear, then as Craig says “it will give players a greater sense of security for using PEDs, leading to more PED-use, not less.”

  7. Luis - Feb 24, 2010 at 9:43 AM

    False negatives. Not false positives. He’s not saying it’ll lead to non-users being suspended, he’s saying it’ll allow cheaters to keep cheating unimpeded.
    Which, by the way, seems like a pretty suspect claim. I don’t really see how an ineffective test is any better for cheaters than no test at all. It might not improve the situation, but it seems kind of ridiculous to claim it’ll make things worse.

  8. sjp - Feb 24, 2010 at 9:48 AM

    HGH is NOT a known PED. Indeed, all attempts to measure performance enhancement have found that none exist for otherwise healthy adults. The only effects it has on people with normal hormonal levels are all negative. In contrast, the performance effects of steroids are well documented and can be dramatic (depending on the sport).
    False negatives, Johnny; false negatives.
    It is obvious that using the current test for HGH is a waste of time and resources. In 7 years of testing, they have now caught one guy. That means that either no one uses it or that the test is wholly ineffective. Regardless of the answer, there is no reason to use the current testing protocol as performing blood tests for something with no PEE (performance enhancing effect) that people don’t use or that the test can’t effectively detect is idiocy.

  9. lessick - Feb 24, 2010 at 9:49 AM

    Jonny5, it’s not false positives that are the problem, it’s false negatives. Only one rugby player? Common sense tells me the test is ineffective and that the number of rugby players who have used HGH is a lot more than one.

  10. James - Feb 24, 2010 at 9:57 AM

    Jonny, not “false positives”, but “false NEGATIVES”. Meaning if there are 100 players using, and all of them get tested, 99 of the tests return negative and only one player gets caught (numbers just for illustration, but 6 years of testing and one positive indicates this is likely conservative). This gives players a sense the test DOESN’T WORK reliably (which it doesn’t), and will not act as a deterrent, at least not any more than a simple ban itself. Plus, if it’s that ineffective, and extremely expensive, why bother, and who pays for it?
    Plus, HGH is not “known to cause liver and thyroid problems”. Rather, ANY substance taken in excess of suggested dosage has the potential to cause tons of problems and side-effects. You can die from an aspirin overdose, not to mention tobacco or alcohol. “Performance enhancement” as a definition is a very slippery slope. Players take cortisone (a steroid) shots all the time to be able to play through the pain of some injury. People argue that’s merely allowing the player to perform at their usual level (same argument for Lasik and tons of other treatments and drugs). I call bullshit, since THAT PLAYER’S “usual level” includes propensity for injury.
    No advantages of HGH have been proven as performance enhancing. Jumping the gun on this is going to bite MLB in 10 years when 75% of insured males over the age of 35 are going to be using HGH for health benefits…
    I say let the players do what they want under the care of a physician, and if they destroy their own bodies stupidly, so be it. People in all walks of life use caffeine, cocaine, uppers, etc to perform their job better. Just because a baseball player makes millions of dollars doesn’t make the argument “well they’re making it unfair for the non-users who can’t compete” any more valid. If I want to be a long-distance trucker but refuse to take No-Doz because of the side effects, then I’m out of luck. I simply can’t compete. So? That’s life. The sanctimonious crap dished out by executives, sportswriters, etc, shows a distinct lack of understanding of what these drugs are actually doing, and the fact that the vast majority of them can be, and are being, used completely safely and effectively with little risk of long-term side effects.
    Arbitrary lines drawn by the government to deem one substance legal and another illegal are almost always based on politics and PR, rather than on actual science. Citizens should have the freedom to put whatever substance they want to in their own bodies, regardless of potential risk or benefit to them, as long as there is no direct and immediate physical harm to another person.

  11. Church of the Perpetually Outraged - Feb 24, 2010 at 10:00 AM

    Which, by the way, seems like a pretty suspect claim. I don’t really see how an ineffective test is any better for cheaters than no test at all. It might not improve the situation, but it seems kind of ridiculous to claim it’ll make things worse.

    Saying that because the test is ineffective could lead to more security with using PEDs is a little ridiculous when taken at face value; however, since the cheaters are usually always ahead of the testors, the cheaters could find the loophole and exploit it (see earlier comment about Cream/Clear).

  12. Craig Calcaterra - Feb 24, 2010 at 10:05 AM

    If baseball is content to go with an ineffective test, and if doing so gets the media off its back, there will be absolutely zero incentive for baseball to ever research, let alone implement, an effective test.
    If there is no test and the heat remains on — and if baseball resists the urge to do an ineffective quick fix — it will incentive the league to find an effective test.
    In the short term no test is better for cheaters. In the long term and ineffective test will create even more.

  13. Jonny5 - Feb 24, 2010 at 10:32 AM

    False negatives. Not false positives. Ok, Ok I get it. Lol!!

  14. Luis - Feb 24, 2010 at 10:49 AM

    You still haven’t really addressed the question of how implementing an ineffective test would create new cheaters. Sure, your hypothetical loophole would mean such a test would merely force current users to put a little more effort into their cheating. But I don’t buy that there exists a group of people who will say, “Well, before when there was no test I had no interest in HGH. But now that there’s a shitty test in place, I’m totally going to exploit that loophole.”
    However, Craig’s most recent point about an ineffective test reducing or removing the incentive for baseball to come up with an effective one is well taken. And I see how that could lead to more cheating in the future than there might otherwise be if the powers that be remained committed to a legitimate solution instead of being content with a PR band-aid. I never really suggested they should implement the current test; I was just skeptical of some of the logic being tossed around.

  15. sjp - Feb 24, 2010 at 10:59 AM

    Taking HGH for the purpose of “cheating” at baseball is like drinking absinthe for the purpose of “cheating” on a test. Any effect will be slow to develop and ultimately negative.

  16. Rays fan - Feb 24, 2010 at 6:46 PM

    I just want to make a couple points…
    1) All drug testing programs are crap shoots in that they are dependant upon the body’s metabolism. If a drug is metabolized and eliminated from the body quickly, then the odds of a random drug test happening in the short time period that the drug is still in the body after being taken is correspondingly smaller.
    2) All testing programs use a threshold level for calling a test “positve” to avoid random error or naturally occuring levels (important for hormones like HGH or testosterone).
    Putting #’s 1&2 above together, a person can take drug X, and come up negative when tested simply because enough time has elapsed that the blood or urine levels have dropped below the threshold level. As a result, name any drug in any testing program and there will be at least some users subject to testing who use that drug and do not get caught.
    Human Growth Hormone both occurs naturally and clears fairly quickly. This makes it hard to catch the cheaters unless they (a) use it a lot or (b) are just unlucky–especially if the testing program is infrequent. It does not mean the test is “bad.” I also disagree that infrequent positives means the testing program is either worthless or harmful (unless MLB is content to use the current technology with no effort to improve it over time). The main purpose of testing programs is to deter use. The HGH test has been shown to be able to detect use, and thus a testing program creates a risk of getting caught for the potential user–even if small–and might give him second thoughts.
    1 test positive in seven years does sound suspiscious, but have any of the articles about the rugby player getting caught detailed the frequency of how often they are tested? Has every player been tested or is it a certain percentage? Is the schedule of testing random? The answers to these questions, along with the prevalence of use and the specific drug involved, plus the test itself all contribute to the expected frequency of positive tests.

  17. Nathan Nobbe - Mar 4, 2010 at 10:56 AM

    Really bad people, so why do they feel the need to do this?

  18. Shanel Yenor - Mar 6, 2010 at 9:48 PM

    You have some great insights here. Well done and perhaps when I have more time, I will come back and go through more of your blog.

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