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
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
“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
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
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
“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
“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.”