No matter how Major League Baseball tried to frame its implementation of a human growth hormone blood test for minor leaguers, the upshot was very simple: This is an attempt by Bud Selig to rescue his legacy.
Selig cares deeply about how people view him. Friends and contemporaries said he still sees himself as much a fan as the man who has run MLB for nearly 20 years. And the thought of retiring on Dec. 31, 2012, as baseball's great steroid enabler terrorizes him.
So came a shot across the bow Thursday, when minor leaguers were stuck and drawn for the first time. Superficially, Selig played this perfectly. No longer does the silliness of banning HGH without a test in place exist in the minors. The anti-doping blowhards who regularly flay MLB greeted the move with huzzahs. Baseball beat the NFL to the HGH-testing punch. And by foisting the tests upon minor leaguers, Selig essentially said to the MLB Players Association: go ahead and try to wiggle out of this during collective-bargaining negotiations next year.
Unfortunately, he ignored one important fact: The test has caught one person in the world in six years. One out of thousands of tests. Doping experts can vouch for the test's efficacy all they want. In baseball, no one considers a .0001 batting average much of a success.
And about that one positive: It came when British doping officials last year targeted a rugby player named Terry Newton after intelligence led them to believe he was using. This was no random test, like the ones baseball will use in the minor leagues. It used outside evidence, and MLB already suspends players for such non-analytical positives.
Selig never lets such details get in the way of his plan to rid baseball of performance-enhancing drugs. He has used a particular word: "eradicate," like they're some sort of a pest capable of extermination. It's in such moments, confidants say, that Selig overcompensates. The leftover guilt from cheering Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, from watching Barry Bonds beat his friend Henry Aaron's home run record, from seeing star after shamed star define the last two decades of baseball more than any other person or event could – all of that compounds and turns Selig single-minded.
"He's so intent on making this right," one associate said. "He doesn't realize that it never can be."
However good Selig's intentions, the damage done is irreversible, even with baseball now boasting the strongest drug program in American sports, far superior to the NFL's self-proclaimed "gold standard" that's more like pyrite. While Selig can celebrate the next generation of players seeing blood testing as the norm, he cannot disassociate himself from the previous generation, not when he and the rest of baseball wore blinders as players created their own pharmacological test center.
HGH somehow was lumped in with steroids by the anti-doping leeches who proselytize about the necessity of ethics in sports while they profit from the very tests they demand. HGH doesn’t build musclebound Neanderthals, it promotes quicker healing, a moral and ethical gray area. Toss aside legality for a moment – HGH is banned by the United States government except in cases of growth hormone deficiency, AIDS wasting and undersized children – and answer: If a doctor were able to remedy a player's injury more quickly, shouldn't he?
It's more complicated than that, of course. Some doctors do believe HGH serves a larger purpose than fast recovery and that its place among performance enhancers is warranted. Like so much science, the opinions vary, and Selig chose instead to let public backlash shape his response.
HGH is baseball's Shirley Sherrod, the anti-doping clowns its Andrew Breitbart and Selig the Obama administration. Selig's initial response when the steroid hysteria cropped up – "eradicate" – shaped his policies thereon, and his eagerness to realize HGH blood testing comes with a price.
Surely Selig can't say, with a straight face, that the Newton positive convinced him and the rest of MLB's brain trust the HGH test that for so long they had laughed off was now fair game. One MLB official last year, when asked about the possibility of blood testing for HGH, said: "Maybe they'll use all this money we're giving them and figure out a test that actually works."
The test from last year is the same test they're using today.
Selig wouldn't dare let that get in the way of his futile reclamation project. For all the good he has done – the expanded playoffs and the massive revenue growth and 15 years of labor peace and MLB.com – indelible is his holy trinity of flubs: the All-Star Game tie, the World Series cancellation and the Steroid Era.
The last haunts him the most. Selig, as usual, will use minor leaguers as guinea pigs, hope like mad a bonus baby is taking HGH and needles up within 24 hours of a random test – most minor leaguers can't afford the stuff – and show the world that baseball means business. The union, sources say, is nearly resigned to blood testing for HGH; the fight will be over the frequency of those tests, and if no player in the minor leagues tests positive and all Selig can stand on is the Terry Newton case, it's a shaky bargaining position.
Then again, Selig's previous steroid policies have made enough hay. Positives are, for the most part, limited to teenagers from Latin America, an issue MLB executive Sandy Alderson is trying to clean up. Loopholes remain – Edinson Volquez(notes) serving his 50-game suspension while on the disabled list was a particularly embarrassing one – but everything from Selig's 50-game suspension for first-time violators to the league's Department of Investigations ensures rampant steroid abuse will no longer exist. All that’s left, then, is the HGH issue, and Selig wasn't going to retire without addressing it.
"This was really important to him," one MLB official said, and it was important because Selig wants to believe the vigor with which he went after performance-enhancing drugs – the Mitchell Report, the strong plan and now the first American sport to blood test – will at very least erase some of his misdeeds and perhaps eradicate them.
Deep down, he must know better. The sin never goes away. The stain is permanent. This legacy cannot be rewritten.