Major League Baseball announced Thursday that it will institute blood testing of Minor League players for the detection of human growth hormone, effective immediately, becoming the first U.S. professional sports organization to conduct testing for HGH.
"The implementation of blood testing in the Minor Leagues represents a significant step in the detection of the illegal use of human growth hormone," Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. "The Minor League Program employs state-of-the-art testing procedures and the addition of HGH testing provides an example for all of our drug policies in the future."
Baseball's testing program for performance-enhancing drugs until now has not included testing for HGH, which is naturally produced and previously has been seen as difficult to detect. The HGH testing announced Thursday falls under MLB's Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, which was introduced in 2001, so it does not affect players currently on 40-man Major League rosters.
Blood sample collection will be conducted by the National Center for Drug Free Sport, the organization that currently performs all urine sample collections under the Minor League testing program. Blood samples will be collected from the non-dominant arms of randomly selected players after games, and the samples will be shipped to the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory in Salt Lake City for analysis.
"We fully support these programs that will help eradicate performance-enhancing drugs from baseball," said Pat O'Conner, president and CEO of Minor League Baseball. This is just another step in that direction."
The move to begin HGH testing in the Minors could be made by MLB because Minor League players are not members of the Major League Baseball Players Association. While HGH is banned in the Major Leagues, players only undergo urine testing, which is not used to detect HGH.
Braves catcher Brian McCann is among the Major Leaguers who would welcome the same testing in the Major Leagues that went into effect in the Minors.
"I think it's great," McCann said. "I think any way we can clean up this sport, I'm all for it. The more strict the testing, the better. The Minor Leagues is a great place to start. We'll see how it goes and then go from there. I'm 100 percent all for it."
Any such testing on Major Leaguers would be subject to collective bargaining, and the MLBPA has expressed skepticism about the viability of an HGH blood test. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires Dec. 11, 2011.
"Obviously, we make a separate decision with regard to the Minor League program, but the Major League Baseball Players Association has been proactively engaged in conversations with us on the scientific and logistical issues associated with blood testing at the Major League level," Rob Manfred, MLB's executive vice president of labor relations, told The Associated Press.
Doping experts welcomed the announcement. World Anti-Doping Agency chairman Dr. Gary Wadler called it "a significant step forward," and U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart said, "We applaud MLB's efforts in this regard."
"One important thing is, as young players evolve through the Minor Leagues, the concept of a blood test will no longer be alien to them," Wadler told the AP.
Baseball first started conducting urine tests for performance-enhancing drugs in the Minors in 2001, and the first testing program in the Major Leagues went into effect in 2003. That year's "survey testing" of 5 to 7 percent positive results set into motion mandatory testing and punishment.
The drug program has been strengthened in the years since, with stimulants and so-called designer drugs like THG being added to the list of banned substances, and punishment raised to 50 games for the first offense, 100 games for a second and a lifetime ban for a third.
Until Thursday, HGH was banned but not subject to testing in professional baseball, and never before has blood testing been used in the sport.
"This represents a major development in the detection of a substance that has previously been undetectable and been subject to abuse," said Dr. Gary Green, Medical Director for Major League Baseball. "The combination of widespread availability and the lack of detection have led to reports of use of this drug amongst athletes. This is the first generation of HGH testing and Major League Baseball will continue to fund the Partnership for Clean Competition for ongoing research to refine testing procedures in this area."
In January, MLB joined with the National Football League, the United States Olympic Committee and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to form the Partnership for Clean Competition, which raises funds to underwrite scientific research into the detection and consequences of doping.
MLBPA executive director Michael Weiner issued the following statement in reaction to Thursday's announcement:
"The union's position on HGH testing remains unchanged; when a test is available that is scientifically validated and that can be administered safely and without interfering with the players' ability to compete, it will be considered. We have been engaged with the Commissioner's Office on this subject for several months, though they have not shared with us the specifics behind their decision to begin blood testing of Minor Leaguers. We look forward to further discussions with the Commissioner's Office on this important topic."
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.