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HGH is next, and it could get testy

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / February 25, 2010

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FORT MYERS, Fla. - If you’re a major league baseball player trying to beat the system by taking human growth hormone, then be warned: It’s time to wean yourself off it. Testing for HGH is on the way.

You would think this time around players will be smart enough to get off the stuff, unlike the 2003 random testing in which more than 100 players tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, triggering stricter penalties for steroid use.

Major League Baseball has had a panel of experts looking into a new test for detecting HGH but it hadn’t come up with one. But when a United Kingdom anti-doping authority announced a two-year ban of British rugby player Terry Newton Monday after his blood tested positive, MLB told The New York Times that testing of minor leaguers could begin this year.

“We are well aware of the important news with respect to the HGH blood test in England,’’ MLB said in a statement. “We are consulting with our experts concerning immediate steps for our minor league drug program and next steps for our major league drug program. The commissioner remains committed to the position that we must act aggressively to deal with the issue of HGH.’’

Listen, we’re all grown-ups here, and we know there are probably 10 other things out there that players could take that are undetectable, but the fact is, this could be a major enhancement in drug testing. There are many steps to come, of course, before major leaguers are tested, the big hurdle being an agreement with the Players Association on the issue.

In the past, the union has not caved quickly on testing, citing privacy reasons. That caused delays in the implementation of steroid testing. The HGH test is even more invasive - it’s a blood test rather than a urine test - so the privacy issue is compounded because while they’re testing for HGH, could medical staffs test for other things they could hold against the player?

The Players Association continued to dig in, saying in a statement that “a report of a single uncontested positive does not scientifically validate a drug test . . . Inherent in blood testing of athletes are concerns of health, safety, fairness, and competition not associated with urine testing.’’

“They take our blood now anyway,’’ said Red Sox utilityman Bill Hall. “We just had physicals and they took our blood to test for other ailments, so I don’t think that’s a big issue.

“I think the big thing is we as players have already put this issue and that era behind us, so if they need to take one more step and put this to bed once and for all, I don’t see a lot of opposition to that.’’

The key issue with the players is how reliable the test is.

Travis Tygart, chief executive officer of the US Anti-Doping Agency, told the New York Daily News, “All of us who have helped develop a test wouldn’t put it in place if it wasn’t forensically sound and reliable.’’

Will the players believe that?

“I think if there’s a test, it has to be foolproof,’’ said Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell. “It can’t be a situation where you’re getting false positives and ruining people’s lives.

“I think we’d all be for it if we could be guaranteed that the results are accurate. I don’t think the taking of blood is what players would be concerned about because that’s already done to check on other things, but the accuracy of the test is what we’d all be concerned about and what we’d have to have guarantees about.’’

The fact that Newton didn’t contest the results even after his contract was nullified by his team, the Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, speaks volumes. It’s only one case and one player, but the fact that the test was considered valid gives it credibility.

The union will do what the majority of its constituency wants it to do, but judging by the few players I asked, and published comments from players on other teams, it seems players will welcome this as a way of turning the page. But there are trust issues to be worked out. Remember, the ’03 testing was supposed to be confidential, yet the names of prominent players like David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez got out in public.

One Red Sox minor leaguer, asked whether the testing would scare any of his teammates said: “I don’t think so. I don’t know anyone who uses that stuff. We’re all in our early 20s. I don’t think anyone our age needs HGH.’’

While HGH has been banned by MLB since 2005, there has been virtually no way of knowing who has or hasn’t been using.

There has been endless debate about the effects of HGH on athletes. Those who have used it and been caught, like Andy Pettitte, have cited quicker recovery from injuries and possible improvement of eyesight, but unlike steroids, it hasn’t been linked to the superior strength that allows a player to hit a ball farther or throw it harder. Former Patriot Rodney Harrison, who served a four-game suspension for HGH use, said he took it because he wanted to get back on the field sooner from injury.

For the most part, players are sick of hearing about PEDs and HGH. They feel the problem, in large part, has been taken care of.

“I think they’ve done a great job cleaning up the game,’’ said Hall. “The drug program is working. I think the players feel the issue is behind them.’’

But the debate over blood testing vs. urine testing isn’t one that will go away. It appears MLB will move forward with testing in the minors, which means the ball will once again be squarely in the Players Association’s court.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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