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Saturday, November 19, 2011

New Contract Will Enable Baseball to Test Blood for H.G.H.

Major League Baseball’s owners and players are close to completing a new collective bargaining agreement that for the first time will include blood testing for human growth hormone, according to two people in baseball briefed on the matter. The testing will be a significant step for baseball, allowing it to move ahead of other professional sports leagues, including the N.F.L., in confronting the troublesome issue of a drug that has long evaded detection.
The bargaining agreement, which could be announced early next week, calls for blood testing to begin in February, when players report to spring training. Players who test positive will face a 50-game suspension, which will be the same as the first-time penalty for a positive steroid test, according to the two people.
Baseball will be the first of the major North American professional sports to do any type of blood testing for drugs among their unionized players. In 2010, baseball introduced blood testing for H.G.H. on minor league players because the step could be taken without the consent of the union.
Commissioner Bud Selig, who is sensitive about his legacy and the longstanding criticism that he was too slow to react to the use of performance-enhancing drugs in his sport, will now be able to cite the H.G.H. testing as proof of how seriously baseball now treats the issue of drug use. And without mentioning the N.F.L. by name, he will be able to take satisfaction in accomplishing what his biggest rival has been unable to do.
Last summer, the N.F.L. and its union reached agreement on a new labor contract that included blood testing for human growth hormone, leaving the details of the testing to be worked out after the deal was signed. But the players have since refused to sign off on the testing, citing various reservations.
Members of Congress have become involved in the stalemate, but the N.F.L. players union continues to raise questions about the testing, in particular expressing concerns that the natural level of H.G.H. in football players might be higher than that of the general population, and that too many players would unfairly test positive as a result.
Although there is no urine test for H.G.H., Olympic athletes have been blood-tested for the substance for nearly a decade. Baseball officials and players had long expressed skepticism about the test, however, pointing to the fact that it was not producing any positives. Meanwhile, evidence mounted that the substance was being used in the sport.
In 2007, an investigation into a ring of pharmacies and doctors in Florida led to disclosures that tied numerous players to H.G.H. And at the end of 2007, George J. Mitchell, at the behest of Selig, produced a report on drug use in baseball that tied a number of players — including Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens — to the substance.
“Players who use human growth hormone apparently believe that it assists their ability to recover from injuries and fatigue during the long baseball season,” Mitchell said in his report. “This also is a major reason why players used steroids.”
Sentiment in baseball began to change in 2010, when a professional rugby player in England was suspended for testing positive for H.G.H. The blood test had seemingly worked.
Selig embraced the development and several months later implemented blood testing at the minor league level. This year, first baseman Mike Jacobs, who had played in the major leagues for a number of seasons, became the first minor league player to test positive for the substance.
Agreement on H.G.H. testing was not the only issue that the two sides in baseball had to wrestle with as they moved toward completion of a labor deal that would last for five seasons and will guarantee two decades of a peace in a sport that suffered numerous work stoppages before that.
In particular, the owners wanted a tougher financial slotting system for draft picks so that some teams with huge financial resources would not spend far more on players coming out of high school and college. In the end, the sides agreed on a luxury tax of sorts that would penalize teams that go over a threshold for spending on draft choices.
The agreement also makes official a new playoff system, in which an extra wild-card team will qualify in each league.
But most significant for Selig and everyone else in the sport is that an agreement was reached without public rancor in a year in which the N.F.L. went through a protracted lockout and the N.B.A. is in a labor standoff that could cost it the entire 2011-12 season. And that the agreement will have a drug-testing clause that will put baseball ahead of other sports.

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