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Sunday Baseball notes

Debate on HGH issue is bound to get testy

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / August 21, 2011

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Major League Baseball wants testing for human growth hormone to be part of its next collective bargaining agreement, but the players want to allow it only under certain conditions.

If anything gets contentious in these labor talks, it could be this issue.

Former major league first baseman Mike Jacobs was suspended 50 games for a positive HGH test in the minor leagues, where a program is in place. His case has given MLB further resolve to see that there is an HGH test in baseball’s future. The NFL has agreed to test for HGH, which makes baseball even more eager.

There will be resistance by players. Not all of them, but enough to make this a significant debate.

“All players want to make sure the game is clean and know they’re competing on the same level,’’ said Daniel Bard, the Red Sox player representative. “I think it will happen eventually as the technology gets better.

“Until they have a little more accuracy in the tests, there’s going to be apprehension. I think it’s mixed among the players right now. A lot of guys are against having blood taken before and after games, which is when the drug tests are taken for steroids. I think the players would like to see a test that was accurate which they could do using urine rather than blood.’’

Jon Lester expects there eventually will be a test that the players will agree on, but he said, “Nobody wants a needle stuck in their arm. I haven’t been informed enough on it to really have a strong opinion on it, but I know that everybody wants to make sure the game is clean.’’

The players have questions on the table, with not the easiest of answers. How much HGH in the system is enough to trigger punishment? How will the blood be drawn? Will they have a needle stuck in them before or after they play a three-hour-plus game? Will it be done as often as steroid testing (HGH is said to be detectable for only 36-48 hours after it is injected)?

When baseball began steroid testing, it started in the minor leagues. Then it tested major leaguers in 2003, for informational purposes. There were not consequences for those testing positive, but the agreement was that if 5 percent or more were positive, testing would be done regularly in the majors. Well, sure enough, 8 percent were dumb enough to test positive.

So steroid testing was put in place. For the most part, the testing has worked to clean up baseball - even though there was the aberration of Manny Ramirez testing positive twice.

Jacobs is the first baseball player to come up positive for HGH since the testing started in July 2010, though Braves outfielder Jordan Schaefer was suspended in 2008 when evidence showed that he obtained HGH.

Jacobs, in an apologetic statement, said he used HGH to recover from back and knee injuries.

“Taking it was one of the worst decisions I could ever have made, one for which I take full responsibility,’’ Jacobs said.

The public is unlikely to be sympathetic toward players who are reluctant to have a blood test, but that’s not the concern of the players or union chief Michael Weiner. Weiner’s job is to get the safest, most reliable testing for his constituency. He has shown an ability to work with MLB, so perhaps the sides can come up with a compromise.

Suffice to say, testing is around the corner, and the clock is ticking for any players using HGH to stop.

The question unlikely to be answered is how many players actually use HGH knowing they are not tested? It’s the same question we asked for years with steroids.

While the benefits of HGH are very much in question, many athletes in many sports use it to help them recover from injuries and replenish cells. There is probably a performance-enhancing nature to it, which is why it’s considered a banned substance.

In speaking to baseball people about the subject, there is a mixed reaction as to exactly how many are into this.

“I think anytime you have a substance that isn’t tested for that can help your body with an edge, there’ll be a lot of people who take advantage of that,’’ said an ex-player. “And when that opportunity is over, they find something else to go to. It’s the nature of the beast.

Said a major league executive, “Obviously, players are taking it and MLB knows players are taking it, which is why they want this testing to take place. The Mike Jacobs positive gives them tremendous fuel for the debate.

“Yes, players are taking this stuff. If they’re getting caught in the minors, where there’s already testing, what do you think is happening in the majors, where there’s no testing?’’

In retrospect, Jacobs seemed like a perfect candidate for this. He was a journeyman player, languishing in the minor leagues, then got hurt and needed an edge to get his performance level up. He played with the Mets, Marlins, and Royals, hitting .253 with 100 home runs in 556 games.

Now 30, Jacobs has vowed to resume his career after he serves his suspension.

But he has touched off the next great debate in baseball.

SNAKING INTO IT
Towers has the D-Backs smelling blood So how are the Diamondbacks in first place in the NL West?

“After years of being with the Padres, when I saw how that roster came within the last day of beating the Giants, I thought that the Diamondbacks could do the same, the rosters were very similar,’’ said Arizona general manager Kevin Towers, who as Padres GM helped build that Cinderella team in San Diego last season.

“What we have is a team that plays all-out every night. They play to the last pitch. They’ve experienced winning after losing for so long and they like the feeling.’’

What Towers did best is what he didn’t do.

He thought about dealing Justin Upton but is happy he held onto him.

“While we thought there were some deals that made sense to us, it didn’t make sense to the other teams at the time,’’ he said.

He also kept Kirk Gibson as manager - an interesting move because he had no history with Gibson and easily could have gone with his own guy.

“I knew people who knew Gibby, like Alan Trammell, and the more time I spent with Gibby, the more I realized he was the right person for this job,’’ said Towers. “He’s a tremendous motivator and he demands you play the game the right way. I was very impressed.’’

One thing he did do was rebuild the bullpen. Towers brought in veteran J.J. Putz, despite a recent history of injuries, for the back end.

Towers has always been known for his bullpen building, and he’s done it again.

“There’s nothing worse than being in a game for seven innings and then giving it away,’’ he said.

Then there is emerging starter Ian Kennedy, who is 15-4 after a 4-1 loss to Philadelphia Thursday.

Towers has pushed the right buttons, and he may not be done because he’s looking for a middle infielder on the waiver wire. Even the signing of the discarded Lyle Overbay (after Xavier Nady broke his hand) has paid dividends.

Overbay, after being released by Pittsburgh, was washing his car at his Centralia, Wash., home when he got a call from the D-Backs. He hit a two-run double in the ninth to beat Roy Halladay Tuesday.

It’s deja vu for Overbay, 34, who broke into the major leagues in a pennant race with the D-Backs in 2001.

Gibson, an old-school guy, is as intense as a manager as he was as a player. And he loves the race. The Diamondbacks entered yesterday with a 2 1/2-game lead over the Giants.

“It’s going to get down and dirty,’’ he said. “It’s going to get nasty. It’s going to get frustrating. It’s going to get much, much, much tougher, physically and mentally. There is a long way to go.

“It looks like we have a lot of character. It’s yet to be determined. Trust me. We try to keep our team in a position where we will be able to withstand it.’’

TIGER BURNING BRIGHT
Verlander shows stuff of an MVP Curtis Granderson may have taken the lead in the AL MVP race, but another interesting name is entering the mix: Tigers ace Justin Verlander.

In fact, with an 18-5 record, he could be a candidate for the Cy Young Award and MVP all rolled into one, which would not be unprecedented in Detroit, since Willie Hernandez (1984) and Denny McLain (1968) have also pulled off the double.

Verlander has won six straight games after winning seven straight earlier in the season. And this is crunch time, as the Tigers try to separate themselves from the Indians.

Verlander already has surpassed 200 strikeouts and 200 innings to go with those 18 wins - 14 of which have come after Tiger losses. He has at least eight more starts to add to his impressive numbers.

This isn’t much different from Roger Clemens in 1986.

There are MVP voters who consider pitchers only after exhausting all other players, but in this case, Verlander’s dominance and ability to right the ship are indisputable. He is an event every time he pitches, a guy who has thrown a no-hitter this season and flirted with others.

He can turn on the 100-m.p.h. gas any time, even late in games when most pitchers are dragging.

It is everything a No. 1/Cy Young/MVP guy is supposed to do.

ETC.
Apropos of nothing 1. Would you deal Carl Crawford for Jayson Werth? 2. Here’s another potential pair to swap. Both Magglio Ordonez and J.D. Drew have lost their right-field jobs. Both are Scott Boras clients. And both are at the end of their contracts; 3. Crawford is pressing. That’s the best anyone can come up with; 4. Every time I see Frank White, now a Royals broadcaster, I wonder whether we as Hall of Fame voters dismissed his candidacy much too quickly?; 5. It wasn’t so much that the umpires got the home run call wrong in Kansas City (vs. the Yankees Wednesday), but what bothered me is that they didn’t know the Kauffman Stadium ground rules.

Updates on nine 1. Joe Mauer, C/1B/RF, Twins - A few baseball people found it interesting that the Twins played him in right field Thursday. They did it because Michael Cuddyer and Denard Span were out with injuries, but as one general manager put it, “Mauer is athletic enough to pull that off permanently.’’ If injuries with Mauer persist, who knows if that’s the answer?

2. Carlos Beltran, OF, Giants - It’s probably a good thing the Red Sox didn’t trade for him. Entering yesterday, the Giants had played 22 games since Beltran’s arrival and lost 15 of them. He has not played since straining his right hand swinging at a pitch Aug. 7, and the latest word is that he should return by Tuesday. The Giants have a pathetic offense without the injured Buster Posey and Freddie Sanchez, and having Beltran out does them no favors. He will have about 34 games to show what he can do after the Giants gave up top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler for him.

3. Jim Crane, prospective Astros buyer - Major league owners are wading through a lot of personal stuff on Crane before approving him. And he has some baggage, including complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission because of his position on hiring blacks, Hispanics, and women. He paid $9 million in damages to workers at his Eagle USA Airfreight company in part over remarks he made to an associate to the effect that you should never hire blacks because you can’t fire them. He was also involved in a very messy divorce. So this is not a slam dunk.

4. Ben Cherington, assistant GM, Red Sox - With Jim Hendry fired, he would seem to be a top choice for the Cubs job. Owner Tom Ricketts is looking for an analytical, young executive who has a résumé with a successful organization. That seems to describe Cherington perfectly. J.P. Ricciardi, Jim Beattie, Rick Hahn, and Josh Byrnes are other names being heard.

5. Jim Hendry, former Cubs GM - He will get hired as soon as he wants to, as a senior adviser type. Hendry’s work ethic and experience (nine years with the Cubs) are invaluable. You can criticize some of his moves and the money he spent, but his diligence is second to none, and other GMs appreciated that. Hendry, 56, has lots of friends in the business, from Doug Melvin in Milwaukee to Walt Jocketty in Cincinnati. We’re sure he’ll have many opportunities to stay in the game.

6. Michael Young, DH, Rangers - Talk about the best deals you never made. Rangers GM Jon Daniels has to feel that way about Young, who has thrust himself into the MVP discussion. Young was nearly dealt to Colorado and Kansas City, and the Rangers also explored bringing in DH types such as Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez. Manager Ron Washington has called him the MVP of the team and “maybe the league, too.’’ Young had asked for a trade after the team acquired Adrian Beltre, bumping him off third base. The thought of DHing full-time wasn’t that appealing, but he has done quite nicely, and now he’s playing third with Beltre on the disabled list. Young is nipping at Adrian Gonzalez’s heels for the batting lead and is on pace for 100 RBIs with fewer than 15 homers for the second time in six years. Only two other AL players have done that in the last 20 years: John Olerud with Seattle in 2000 and Paul Molitor with Minnesota in 1996.

7. Cole Hamels, LHP, Phillies - Rotator cuff inflammation, miss one start? Let’s see if this actually happens. The Phillies don’t always give out the most accurate medical information, and there has to be concern that one of the Big Four is experiencing issues this late in the season. The flare-up is similar to what Brad Lidge had, and he missed four months. It’s always tough to keep all four guys healthy, and the Phillies already have had to endure injuries to Roy Oswalt, who is now back and pitching well, and fifth starter Joe Blanton, who has missed most of the season.

8. Vernon Wells and Alex Rios - The former Toronto tandem have been benched by their teams, the Angels and White Sox, at various times recently. That the Jays were able to unload both is a small miracle. Wells was sitting on some awful numbers as of yesterday: 4 for 40, 12 for 92, and an average of .177 since a mid-June power surge provided the only signs of life. His season average was down to .201, with an OBP of .234. Rios is hitting .211. Together, they are earning $35 million this season (Wells $23 million, Rios $12 million).

9. Desmond Jennings, LF, Rays - The rookie hit five homers in his first 24 games, crazy power that has surprised manager Joe Maddon and the Rays brass. Jennings, long billed as Crawford’s replacement, seems to be doing just fine in that regard.

Short hops From the Bill Chuck files: “Jim Thome has the most homers by anybody who has stolen fewer than 20 bases. Thome has 601 homers and 19 steals, passing Mark McGwire, who hit 583 homers with just 12 steals, and Harmon Killebrew, who hit 573 homers and also stole 19 bases.’’ Also, “Evan Longoria hit .347 against the Red Sox in 2009, .246 last season, and .118 so far this year.’’ . . . Happy birthday to Ramon Vazquez (35), Tuffy Rhodes (43), and John Henry Johnson (55).

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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