Many lauded MLB and its Players Association when the announcement about the HGH program was made in November as part of a new collective bargaining agreement. Certainly there were holes in it you could drive a FedEx delivery van through, but for the most part the reception was greeted positively, as a fine beginning.
But the decision by the arbitrator that overturned the drug suspension of the Milwaukee Brewers’ outfielder — the first time such a ruling had gone against MLB — may have created doubt in the public’s mind that the sport is effectively cleaning up its act.
The new HGH testing program already had a tiny flaw in it: no testing during the season, unless there is probable cause to do so; otherwise, testing will only be done before and after the season. So conceivably, a player could reap the benefits of injecting himself with HGH from Opening Day until the last out in the World Series.
Will this new HGH testing program be at all effective? Or is it the public-relations equivalent of a placebo?
“It’s a significant step,” explained Travis Tygart, CEO for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. “While it certainly would be better to have the ability to randomly target testing in season as well as during the offseason, and that’s where we hope it will evolve, it doesn’t undercut the value of having it in place.
“Athletes now have the risk of testing positive and being disciplined and suspended for 50 games. That’s a significant deterrent that doesn’t exist in any other league.”
Athletes take human growth hormone to maintain lean muscle mass and recover more quickly from workouts and injury. HGH is also believed to enhance the effectiveness of anabolic steroids.
The MLB's HGH testing program requires drawing blood, one of the reasons why athletes have balked. Already this spring there have been some grumbling by players over the amount of blood drawn and the detrimental effects they claim it causes — which may or may not be a pre-emptive campaign to discourage MLB from someday pressing for in-season testing as well.
Veteran NBC sportscaster Bob Costas acknowledges that a baseball player under the new HGH testing guidelines could “use it with impunity” during the season. “The problem is you’re not going to get professional athletes in a team sport to have blood drawn a dozen times a year, which is basically what they’d have to do,” he explained. “You’d have to randomly test a guy 15 times to catch him.
“They’re not going to stand for that.”
Dr. Don Catlin is one of the world’s foremost authorities on anti-doping procedures. When asked about the new program, he replied: “I don’t think very much of it. But I have to give baseball credit for taking the first step. Their heart is in the right place. They’re trying.
“Will it be effective? Probably not. Athletes will know when the testing will take place and will just stay away from HGH for a while.”
Catlin also said he has doubts that HGH really does what many athletes believe it does.
“It’s hard to prove, at least beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they really do work,” he said. “Most people who are armchair endocrinologists believe HGH does work, that it makes you bigger and stronger. But they’re not like anabolic steroids. They work differently.
“If you take HGH with low doses of testosterone it shows that combination is good for strength and performance. That is a scientific fact that is well established in several publications. I do think growth hormone improves performance, but I’m reluctant to say how much. A small percentage. I don’t think it’s great.”
One of Catlin’s colleagues, Dr. Charles Yesalis, is a professor emeritus at Penn State and also an expert on performance-enhancing drugs. He is skeptical that MLB’s new HGH testing program will have any impact at all.
“I think it continues the façade of testing to convince (the public) that they’re watching a clean sport,” he said. “Sorry, I don’t buy into that.
“These guys (professional athletes) hire scientific handlers, the serious ones. Most of them don’t do cowboy chemistry. They don’t look on the Internet and do it themselves. Dr. Catlin has often said that if he were going against himself, he’d beat himself. … If you get a good chemist and you know the frailties of the test you could use the stuff.”
It’s still unclear exactly what happened in Braun’s case, and it likely will never be sorted out. Right now he can play baseball and does not face a suspension.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
“I don’t think the average fan should infer that baseball is fighting a losing battle,” Costas said. “The intention to clean up the game is clear. I think they got to it a bit late, but they’re coming at it aggressively.”
He believes that, although there will still be some raised eyebrows out there among hardball aficionados, generally fans are hopeful.
“Basically, people love the game and want to embrace the game,” Costas said. “No thinking person denies the serious effect of PEDs on the game and the record books. But I think they have concluded that they don’t see cartoonish bodies or videogame statistics anymore.
“They’ve concluded that, while use of PEDs has likely not been eliminated, it’s been substantially curtailed, and even those who are using are not using at the crazy levels of the ‘90s or the turn of the century.”
Michael Ventre is a regular contributor to NBCSports.com. Follow him on Twitter http://twitter.com/#!/MichaelVentre44
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