Baseball to Expand Drug-Testing Program

By: New York Times Email
By: New York Times Email

WASHINGTON — A day after suffering through the embarrassment of seeing no new players selected to the Hall of Fame, Major League Baseball and its players union moved ahead Thursday by announcing that they had reached an agreement to expand their drug-testing program.

For the first time, baseball will conduct in-season blood testing for human growth hormone. In addition, it will employ a new test designed to catch players using synthetic testosterone, a substance that appears to be growing in popularity because it washes out of a player’s body fairly quickly after being used, making it hard to detect.

The expansion of the testing program allows Major League Baseball to again argue that it has moved ahead of the National Football League on the drug front and that it now has the toughest testing program of any of the professional sports leagues in North America. The N.F.L. has yet to test for H.G.H. and does not have a comparable testosterone test. In 2011, the N.F.L. and its players union said they had agreed to initiate blood testing for H.G.H., but since then the union has expressed reservations and no testing protocol has been established.

The disclosure that there would be expanded testing in baseball came 24 hours after the members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America delivered a tough verdict on the role that performance-enhancing drugs have played in the sport, emphatically rejecting the first-time candidacies of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens because of their direct links to such substances.

No other candidates received the support needed to win induction, in part because several of those players were also viewed as possible drug cheaters by some of the voters. The vote results underscored the lingering damage done by baseball’s steroid era, an extended period in which both baseball and its union stand accused of looking the other way while players used performance-enhancing drugs to gain an edge on the field.

But that era ended nearly a decade ago, and since then, Commissioner Bud Selig has gradually, and then more insistently, pushed for tougher testing. And the union has increasingly cooperated. After the Hall of Fame vote was disclosed Wednesday, Selig tried to make the best of the moment, saying he respected the writers’ decisions. Michael Weiner, the union’s executive director, disagreed with the writers’ verdict, calling it “simply unfair” that players like Bonds and Clemens had been denied access to Cooperstown.

Those differing reactions demonstrated that the two men have different constituencies to answer to. Still, the two have worked together to strengthen the existing testing program for several years now and the results are becoming increasingly apparent.

For instance, Major League Baseball was the first major sport in the United States to sign on to H.G.H. testing, reaching an agreement with its union in November 2011 to begin testing for the substance. It was a significant hurdle to clear because accepted H.G.H. testing requires blood samples, and baseball players, like any number of other athletes, had been reluctant to take that step after years in which drug testing was restricted to urine samples.

However, the 2011 agreement called for testing only in spring training and the off-season, reflecting concerns by the players about how their blood would be collected before or after regular-season games and whether the process would impact their performance on the field.

When the original agreement was announced, both sides said they would look into expanding the testing program for 2013, which they have now done. As a result, there will now be in-season testing for H.G.H., a substance that can help players build muscle mass and recover quickly from extended physical activity but which cannot be legally used without a prescription.

The agreement also establishes a testing regimen to detect abnormal levels of testosterone in a player’s body. In the last year, positive drug tests have linked a number of notable players — Ryan Braun of Milwaukee; Melky Cabrera, who was then with the San Francisco Giants; and Bartolo Colon of the Oakland A’s — to a high level of testosterone. Braun’s test result was overturned on appeal.

The new test will establish baseline levels of testosterone in players, creating a so-called longitudinal profile of each player’s testosterone ratio. Additional tests will be conducted on player samples that are considered outside their baselines to determine whether the player has used a performance-enhancing drug to increase the testosterone level.

In announcing the testing regimen, Selig stated that baseball would “continue to do everything we can to maintain a leadership stature in antidoping efforts in the years ahead.” Weiner, in his statement, said that “players want a program that is tough, scientifically accurate, backed by the latest proven scientific methods, and fair.”

So a day after the Hall of Fame vote, Selig and Weiner changed the subject and looked ahead, rather than keep gazing back at the rejected candidacies of some famous players.

Read more from the New York Times


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