PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – Just how badly does baseball want to return to the era of legitimate home run records? We're about to find out, now that a blood test for HGH has finally emerged.
Theoretically, this is the winning lottery ticket everyone's been waiting for. Thanks to the new detection process, Bud Selig can show off his sanitized game to the public and the players can prove the cheating era is over.
Too bad this scenario is far from reality. That's because -- surprise -- the union is unconvinced of this test's accuracy. Another shocker: they're citing privacy issues, because of the invasive nature of drawing blood.
Union chief Michael Weiner is just a rookie, only a few months into his tenure as Donald Fehr's successor. But he sounds like the old boss in dampening the enthusiasm over the test, which recently discovered a British rugby player using HGH.
It was a landmark case; in testing by a national anti-doping agency, no athlete had been discovered with HGH in his system.
The player, Terry Newton, did not challenge the result nor its penalty -- a two-year ban. But Weiner was nevertheless unmoved, telling the Los Angeles Times one case, "doesn't make (the test) scientifically valid."
Weiner is an extraordinarily bright man, and a far better communicator than his predecessor. He has to know Fehr lost the baseball public because he stalled long enough on steroids to eventually become an enabler.
Weiner is running the same risk with HGH testing. This time, the union has to be on the front lines of any anti-PED campaign, not looking for reasons to stop the clock. The current Collecting Bargaining Agreement doesn't expire until after the 2011 season – it would be a mistake for the union to put this off until 2012.
Why? Because of the widely held suspicion that a generation of steroids users weren't scared straight. The didn't suddenly develop a conscience. They just moved on to HGH, which is undetectable in urine tests.
There's a good reason why the cheaters have migrated to HGH. First, its calling card is less obvious than steroids -- no cartoon-sized muscles and enlarged skulls. Still, HGH still makes for an uneven playing field. Users experience an increase in energy, a surge in metabolism. With it comes an increase in strength and fast-twitch muscles.
It sounds like 1998 all over again, except this time around there are clean players who refuse to look the other way. Derrek Lee is one of them, telling USA Today he's ready to "test for everything, get it all out. Then there would be no more questions."
There is hope. There's a precedent. The Fehr-led union agreed on four difficult occasions to re-write the CBA, allowing for stiffer penalties for steroid use. But that was only after Congress had finally intervened. There's no such governmental push on HGH -- not yet, anyway -- but if we're lucky, Weiner will take the initiative before the feds back him into a corner.
But Weiner's first response wasn't encouraging. Speaking to the Times, he said, "I don't equate a single, unchallenged positive (result) with scientific validity, and I don't think anyone would.
The World Anti-Doping Agency begs to differ.
"There was always a valid test," said board member Gary Wadler, "but now that we have a positive, their argument no longer carries weight."
Opponents will cite logistics, and with some merit. Drawing blood is more taxing on the body than a simple urine test. It could leave a player weakened, especially if the test is administered before a game. And if the test is done six times a year, mimicking the current steroids schedule, players could ask how much is really enough?
Unfortunately, it'll take drastic measures to restore baseball to its default setting. The cheaters have become more sophisticated; policing them will, by necessity, become more unpleasant.
It's worth it, if you believe the sport's hold on America was borne out of fairness. It used to be that home runs were the result of perfect timing and bat speed, not chemicals.
It would be nice for baseball to regain that trust, stamping out this insidious designer drug. If he chooses, Weiner is undoubtedly smart enough to filibuster on HGH until 2012.
Question is, is he smart enough not to?
The Johnny Damon saga, continued
Here's an interesting nugget offered by a member of the Yankees' organization: Johnny Damon has made it known he regrets not taking the Bombers' two-year, $14 million offer back in December.
"He told one of our people that he knows he (messed) up," one Yankee insider said, referring to Damon's one-year, $8 million deal with Detroit.
If so, that would be in stark contrast to the comments Damon made during his introductory press conference last week, when he said he Tigers had been his No.1 choice since leaving the Red Sox in 2005.
Damon was in no position to say otherwise; new boss, GM Dave Dombrowski was sitting next to him on the podium. But the leftfielder nevertheless looked tense and uncomfortable answering questions about the Yankees.
It was just as telling that agent Scott Boras chose not to attend the press conference, forcing Damon to fend for himself with the tougher questions.
Had he attended, Boras would've been asked how, exactly, he got Tigers owner Mike Illitch to cough up $8 million despite Dombrowski's opposition to the deal.
"If Dave knew there was a spare $8 million lying around, he would've never gotten rid of (Curtis) Granderson," said the source.