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Congress urged baseball to save samples

Lacking growth hormone test, MLB balked at request to store urine

By Jeff Barker

Sun Reporter

June 9, 2006

WASHINGTON

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Months before former Oriole Jason Grimsley said he and other players were using human growth hormone, Congress was quietly pressuring baseball to save players' urine specimens so they could be analyzed when a test for the performance-boosting drug becomes available.

The idea was to make certain a deterrent existed so that players could not use the growth hormone with impunity while a screening procedure was still in development.

But Major League Baseball balked at the request, according to interviews with baseball officials and congressional staff.

After talking to scientists, baseball was left with questions about the "veracity" of samples stored for long periods, according to MLB spokesman Richard Levin. He said there were doubts about whether the tests "would still be reliable," and for how long.

Levin also said baseball was powerless to act on its own and, under its collective bargaining agreement, would have needed to approve the new procedures with the players union.

Grimsley has admitted he and other players used growth hormone, according to a federal affidavit. His attorney says the pitcher was prodded by federal agents to wear a listening device to obtain evidence from players against San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds, according to The Arizona Republic. Attorney Edward Novak told the newspaper that Grimsley was "outed by the feds" because he didn't cooperate.

Aides told The Sun that the matter of saving urine samples was raised with baseball late last year by Rep. Henry Waxman, a Californian who is the top-ranking Democrat on the Government Reform Committee. Team owners and players were then in negotiations to toughen their steroids agreement so that third-time violators would be banned from the game.

Waxman argued that the toughened policy would be left with a gaping hole if baseball had no safeguards against growth hormone. "Unfortunately, until this loophole is closed, questions will remain about the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball," Waxman said through a spokesman this week. "It's important that they save samples for future testing."

A federal investigator's affidavit in the Grimsley case says: "Grimsley stated that since Major League Baseball began its drug testing for steroids and amphetamines, the only drug that he has used is human growth hormone."

It was Waxman's committee that investigated drug use in the Orioles' clubhouse last year as part of an investigation into whether former first baseman Rafael Palmeiro lied when he denied ever using steroids in March 2005. Grimsley was not interviewed by investigators as part of that probe, according to congressional aides. Palmeiro was suspended by baseball in August for using a powerful steroid, but the committee found no evidence that he perjured himself.

Although there is no urine test for growth hormone, there is an available blood test that was used on athletes at the Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, in 2004.

According to Levin, MLB is funding research with the goal of developing a urine test.

Waxman isn't the only federal lawmaker troubled by Grimsley's case. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said yesterday that he is "deeply concerned" about reports that the pitcher, most recently of the Arizona Diamondbacks, "has admitted to being a longtime user of human growth hormone, steroids and amphetamines."

"Even more troubling," McCain said, "is that the use of these substances was - and may continue to be - much more widespread than many previously believed."

No congressional hearings are scheduled on Grimsley. Congress wants to let federal investigators continue their probe of the pitcher's claims without interference.

Grimsley, who played for seven major league teams, was an Oriole from June 2004 through the end of last season, although he was injured for a significant period. The affidavit said Grimsley, who has not been charged with a crime, admitted using growth hormone and named other players who had used the drug, too.

Growth hormone has long been used by athletes to enhance their endurance and healing. "I know athletes who used cadaver-based growth hormone from the pituitary gland in the '70s," said Charles Yesalis, a Penn State expert on performance-enhancing drugs. "The synthetic version is safer."

Yesalis said he didn't know if saving urine samples - for testing later - would be as much as a deterrent as some may believe.

"We live in a time where shame means nothing," Yesalis said. "In today's world, this might not make much sense."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com