HELENA — They grew up idolizing sluggers like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, back before performance enhancing drugs were as associated with baseball as hot dogs and peanuts and pine tar.
They’re the ones who are trying to make a profession in a sport that now has a tarnished reputation because of the steroid era.
And now, they’ll be the “guinea pigs” as Major League Baseball begins to take steps to improve its image.
On July 22, MLB implemented random blood testing for human growth hormone for players in the minor leagues. The tests will be limited to these players still climbing the ladder to the big leagues, because they are not members of the players’ association, which has long been against blood testing.
The Pioneer League is no exception, though not everyone agrees it’s a step in the right direction.
“It’s not going to have much of an impact in the minors,” said Helena Brewers outfielder Robbie Garvey. “We don’t make enough money to buy that stuff, so unless you’re a bonus baby it’s tough to get your hands on. HGH is super expensive.”
Blood samples will be randomly taken from a player’s non-dominant arm after games. HGH isn’t like other steroids, which can help build muscle and make players stronger, therefore enhancing their performance. It’s primarily taken because players believe it helps them prevent injuries, as well as recover from injuries faster. But it’s been difficult to detect in the past, because there are already some traces of HGH in each one of us. Different HGH levels are present at different times, depending on exercise, sleep, emotional stress and diet.
“I think it’s pointless to begin it in the minor leagues and not immediately test for it in the majors,” Garvey said. “They might catch one here and there, but it’s not like steroids where it just makes you bigger and stronger. When you’re older, you might need it more to recover, and the guys in the big leagues are older than us. I would think they’d be the ones using it.”
HGH testing already takes place in the Olympics, but the recent implementation means MLB becomes the first professional sports league in the United States to conduct the blood test. Some players are thrilled that the organization is finally taking an aggressive stance against doping.
“I think it’s a great way to level out the playing field,” said Helena catcher Tony Pechek. “I’m all for it ... there’s no reason for me to do it. I’m not real worried about it, but it’s going to be in the back of people’s minds that if you do something like that, it’s a risk and you’re going to get caught now.”
But not everyone agrees that players who currently take HGH will stop just because there is a chance they’ll get in trouble.
“As far as the HGH goes, people still take it,” said Helena pitcher Eric Marzec. “I’ve talked to guys who have access to it and are willing to take it just because it can’t be tested for. Now they have something in place to test it ... but it’s a job, it’s a career, and if that’s the only way they can perform they’re probably just going to walk the tightrope and hope to not get caught, just ride it as long as it lasts.”
Marzec said while it may not be immediately effective, the more testing there is the better.
“I feel it will filter out some of the weeds in the system in baseball, where guys use that kind of stuff to get ahead,” the reliever said.
Great Falls Voyagers manager Chris Cron is the first to admit he doesn’t know a lot about HGH, or the proper way to test for it.
“I’m so naive to the whole process,” he said. “I know it’s out there, I know people do certain things to get edges — it’s an issue with pro sports in general. It’s good baseball’s trying to take a stand, but I know it’s going to be a tough test to administer.”
Cron understands the league’s rationale for beginning testing in the minors, while major league players will not be tested, at least not now. He gave examples of other rules the minors implemented before big league players had to abide, like prohibiting chewing tobacco.
“You’ve got to start somewhere, but it’s different worlds,” Cron said. “Maybe that deters players from bad habits early on so they don’t do certain things when they get to the major league level. If there is something going on, it’s important to keep an eye on it.”
First-year Helena manager Joe Ayrault said it will be a great test, especially if it results in pushing HGH out of the game. He said he doesn’t have any problems with the fact that only minor league players are being tested for now.
“Whatever they want to do is fine by me,” he said. “I work in baseball, whoever makes those decisions ... I just go with them. I’m just one of those guys, anything to do with all that I just stay out of it.
“As long as it’s none of our players, I’m not going to worry about it.”
Some people in the profession feel that baseball has been unfairly targeted, saying their sport isn’t the only one with a drug problem. They said in light of the Mitchell Report, people simply associate steroids and doping with baseball more than others, but that it doesn’t mean baseball players are all cheaters or that other athletes aren’t also using. The Voyagers’ Cron believes the fact that baseball is such a numbers game, with a heavy emphasis on stats, is why it’s targeted more than others.
“We have been picked on a little more because our records are more sacred,” he said. “We know there’s certain numbers, like Hank Aaron’s 755. But now, like Barry Bonds’ record for instance, we don’t know for sure ... we don’t know what to believe. So numbers have been shattered.”
What’s it going to take for players to stop using HGH or never begin at all?
“Somebody’s gotta get caught first,” Cron said.
Great Falls shortstop Kyle Davis hopes the league gets positive feedback from the test and that it eventually makes its way to the big leagues. He’s eager for baseball to be seen in a more positive light.
“It’s definitely a tough subject to talk about,” Davis said. “The steroid era’s always going to be associated with baseball. Some guys didn’t know the consequences. In a sense, it was just part of the game.”
In a sport where people are trying to not only survive the daily grind but get ahead and have success, everyone is constantly looking for advantages. The Chicago White Sox prospect who was drafted last year and finds himself playing at the rookie level knows how high that ladder can seem.
“Guys who have taken it, I can understand why,” Davis said. “It’s not that it’s right, but there’s so much pressure to succeed, and a desire to get over that hump or get that contract. People can talk bad about it, and I don’t condone it, but I can see why people would do it.”
Davis said he was surprised to hear the testing was implemented, and believes blood testing is the only way it could work. He’s fine with the more invasive method if it means it will clean up the game.
“It’s blood testing ... you can’t piss in a cup and say it’s not yours,” he said.
Still, it doesn’t mean the tests will be flawless. Critics say the current HGH test has a limited period of detectability and is unproven, which could lead to false-positives. Scientist Don Catlin, who worked to develop a urine test for human growth hormone, told The Associated Press in a July 24 story that the blood test baseball plans to use for minor leaguers can only detect the substance for 6-12 hours.
Billings Mustangs pitcher Pat Doyle said it’s just another test. Players are already administered blood tests as part of routine physicals prior to the season, which checks for street drugs. Doyle is all for HGH testing, even if it’s random. And he has no problem with it beginning with guys like himself.
“It’s better to catch guys when they’re younger,” he said. “Nip it in the bud early. Sometimes it’s too late by the time they get into the big leagues.
“You hear so much about it, it sucks to have that reputation,” Doyle said of baseball’s bad rap. “But MLB and the minors are taking steps in the right direction to clean it up.”
Fellow Billings pitcher Tyler Cline said the fact that some guys have cheated shouldn’t make it seem like the steroids were the only reason for their success. Especially when it comes to HGH.
“You’ve still gotta be able to hit,” he said. “It’s not like it helps with your power or strength.”
Pechek, Helena’s catcher, holds the same belief. He hopes his sport can get a few untarnished records, but holds nothing against the guys who did use. Even those sluggers who made him want to play the game when he was younger.
“I can’t be mad at them,” he said. “They were trying to get the best out of their performance and there’s no reason to hate them for doing that. They were doing the best they could at the time, they didn’t know the risks, didn’t know it was as illegal as it was or that it was frowned upon.
“They are still my idols, if they did use or didn’t use,” Pechek continued. “In my mind it still takes hand-eye coordination to hit a baseball and takes a God-given talent to have an arm.”