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Commentary

HGH may be baseball's next 800-pound gorilla

March 01, 2009|Wallace Matthews | Matthews writes for New York Newsday.

"I haven't seen one that's reliable. What we've said is that when one becomes available, we're certainly willing to look at it and see what it is. We would obviously want to have it validated by scientific experts other than the people who are trying to sell it to you. Then we'll evaluate it and talk to the players about it."

So says Donald Fehr, union lawyer, to explain why he remains adamantly opposed to testing baseball players for the drug he acknowledges is the game's next big scourge: Human growth hormone.

"That's absolutely wrong," says Dr. Gary Wadler, an anti-doping expert. "There's a blood test, and a good one, that's been used since the 2004 Olympics."

You decide which of those two men you choose to believe. But it sounds to me like it is Fehr who is trying to sell you something.

Welcome to the 2009 edition of Don and Gene's Excellent Adventure, an annual excursion in which Fehr, the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, advised and abetted by Gene Orza, his own personal Dick Cheney, visits the clubhouses of every major-league team to deliver a very powerful message:

Shoot as much HGH as you can. Shoot it on a daily basis if you like. Shoot it in the clubhouse for all we care. We're not going to find it. Hell, we're not even looking for it.

That is what the above statement, delivered to the Mets and their beat writers on Tuesday and repeated, with minor variation, in 29 other spring- training camps this month, essentially tells us, and by extension, the players.

We have no reliable HGH test. Nobody does. Trust us, we're looking for one. But it's going to take time. A lot of time. And even after we find it, we're going to have to evaluate it, talk about it, negotiate it. And maybe someday in the distant future, we'll even get around to implementing it.

In other words, just keep doing what you're doing.

In the past couple of weeks, Fehr and his co-conspirator, Bud Selig, have taken great pains to deliver the message that baseball's performance-enhancing drug problem has been fixed. HGH, they acknowledge, is still a problem, but they're working on it.

Sure they are. Working to buy themselves another five years or so before they have to do anything about it. If ever.

This notion that HGH is the proverbial needle in the roid-stack, difficult to test for and all but impossible to detect, is a lie baseball has repeated so often it is now generally accepted as fact.

This lie is so accepted that few baseball writers question it, and so authoritatively delivered by both the union and the commissioner's office that not only does it not act as a deterrent to PED use, it in fact serves as the go-ahead for cheaters to fire away.

Even if you don't care about performance-enhancing drug use in professional sports -- and I am well aware that many of you don't -- surely you must care about being taken for a fool by people like Fehr and Selig, who have so little regard for your intelligence or mine they would try to sneak this blatant a lie past you.

And it must come as a great comfort to baseball's HGH users to hear Fehr and Selig basically admit that not only can't they find HGH, they can barely spell it.

But in truth, there is a test for HGH, an infallible one, implemented five years ago at the Athens Olympics by the World Anti-Doping Agency, the independent testing agency employed for all international competition.

According to Wadler, WADA's Manhasset-based expert, the blood test for HGH easily detects the presence of commercially manufactured growth hormone by the fact that its molecules are identical in size and shape.

This "monotony of form" does not occur in nature and can only be the result of a man-made compound introduced into the bloodstream. To the trained eye of the scientist, it is a foolproof method of detection. The only hitch is, the test must be applied in true random fashion, year-round, because HGH is traditionally a drug used in the off-season whose effects on the muscles linger for many months even as its traces in the body fade.

If baseball were to introduce truly random, year-round testing, it could easily detect what is likely to be scores, if not hundreds, of HGH users.

But baseball isn't going to do that, nor is it going to allow anyone to stick a needle into any of its players without a long and drawn-out negotiation process.

Instead, baseball continues to pour money into the development of a urine test for HGH, even though HGH levels in urine, according to Wadler, are so "exquisitely tiny" as to be virtually undetectable. This is, in fact, just another of baseball's delaying tactics, a "search" for something it knows it never will find.

In the meantime, players continue to use HGH, safe in the knowledge baseball does not, cannot and will not test for it, and in the process perhaps reap the benefits of illegal testosterone use as well, because WADA studies indicate that HGH use allows a player to inject a low enough dose of testosterone to both experience its muscle gains while avoiding its detection.

Baseball has fixed its steroid problem, all right.

Fixed it so that it is guaranteed to remain broken for a long, long time.

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