Biogenesis - the Elephant in the Room, Part 1

USA TODAY Sports

The Biogenesis PED scandal rocked Major League Baseball and implicated two core Padres players. The episode was an embarrassment for the MLB and through much damage control and eventual spin about "cleaning up the game" we still know next to nothing about what actually happened. In this three part series Gaslamp Ball will attempt to analyze and understand what happened, what the implications are the future of the team, and what the Biogenesis scandal means to the MLB's greater war on drugs.

In the 2012-2013 Biogenesis scandal the Padres lost two rising stars to PED suspensions with shortstop Everth Cabrera and catcher Yasmani Grandal being sidelined for 50 games each. The Padres fanbase was tremendously shaken and divided by the suspensions and the team's roster was flung into turmoil. The suspensions have created colossal uncertainty for the players involved and the long-term implications for the roster could be massively significant. Arguably the most important revelation of the 2013 season, there has been very little discussion about what actually happened and what it really means for the team. The first part of this series will function as a primer for understanding drug use in the MLB.

What even is Biogenesis? Is it better than Bionintendo?

Bioegenesis was the name of an anti-aging clinic in Coral Gables, Florida. Within the industry, "anti-aging" often serves as a euphemism for testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) and/or the administering of human growth hormone (HGH). This is usually a legal procedure, done under the supervision of medical professionals, with a doctor's prescription. Although TRT is legal and medically accepted, the process can be incredibly suspect and just reading about it makes me make unintentional Nicki Minaj faces. Despite the perhaps morally ambiguous nature of anti-aging medicine (and the hormones involved) commercials for such procedures famously air regularly during MLB games which pretty much tells you all you need to know about where Bud Selig really stands on PED use.

As per the MLB drug policy, MLB has not elaborated on the drugs Cabrera and Grandal were caught using, but we know that Cabrera was officially suspended for records that indicated he received "biogenesis products," which he admitted to taking prior to the 2012 season to recover from injury. Grandal was suspended for testing with a high testosterone level though this does not preclude the use of other drugs. Because Biogenesis legally sells testosterone and HGH, the presumption is that the players probably took either or both. Testosterone and HGH are not the most effective anabolic drugs, but they are among the most readily available PEDs and are thought to have the most applicability to athletic performance and modern training techniques.

Testosterone

Testosterone is the male androgenic hormone. It contributes to things like growth, sexual function, energy, aggression, and of course muscle mass. Testosterone was first synthesized in the 1930s, and its use as a PED allegedly began shortly thereafter. Athletes and warriors had already been trying to manipulate their testosterone levels long before testosterone use had become widespread - famous examples include the pre-fight celibacy rituals of fighters like Jack Dempsey and Rocky Marciano and Babe Ruth's alleged injection of sheep testicle extract. Testosterone also acts as the hormonal precursor to HGH - raised testosterone levels will elevate natural growth hormone production. Testosterone is thought to be the most commonly used illicit PED because it provides tremendous payoff for athletes while being relatively easy to procure because of its gray-market availability in the US.

"But nobody would take testosterone nowadays, they know they'll get caught!" Maybe not. MLB players are tested twice a year for PEDs - once during spring training and once randomly in-season. The NBA has a similar system which tests a maximum of four times a year, and has a well-documented "Christmas day effect" where it is understood that players often start abusing drugs immediately after their final test - knowing evidence of drug use will be long-gone from their urine before they are tested again. For some reason this is not called the JR Smith effect.

This problem is less well-documented with baseball's system, but the effects are even more severe on the integrity of the game. First, players are only urine-tested once during the 162 game season. Second, PEDs (especially testosterone) are often administered in "cycles" so as to preserve the user's endocrine system. The idea is that when testosterone is used in cycles as opposed to uninterrupted use the body never becomes dependent on synthetic hormones, so test levels return to the body's own natural baseline when off-cycle.

As a member of the fitness and strength-sports communities, I see rampant drug use regularly (though ironically, most gym-goers use steroids for cosmetic purposes). What I have observed is that "cycling" doesn't always happen with drug users. The reality is that the effects of testosterone can be as addicting as the effects of any other drug. The average T-level for a normal adult male is between 300-900 ng/dl. When Ryan Braun tested positive for testosterone use, his number was allegedly several thousand. For a user like Braun, the effects of returning to "normal" testosterone levels could be akin to any other heavy drug user going through withdrawal. People who intended to dope for "a cycle or two" often end up reaching the critical mass for drug users: "why ever come off cycle?" - akin to a daily drug user or pack-a-day cigarette smoker. Given the seeming ubiquity of testosterone use and it's burgeoning cultural acceptance, testosterone as a PED figures to be a growing problem in the MLB.

Human Growth Hormone

HGH is thought to be the "other" most widely used PED, because of its regenerative properties, its use in legitimate medicine, and the fact that it is completely undetectable in a urine test. So called "designer" HGH (what's up, BALCO!) is virtually undetectable even in Olympic-style blood testing. It is also thought to be the most commonly used "in-season" drug in the NFL, where players are desperate for enhanced recovery from the season's brutal schedule. The Mitchell Report concluded that HGH is mostly used in the MLB to aid in injury recovery. Both the NFL and MLB have vowed to work on blood-testing for HGH, but as we've seen there is no slam dunk HGH policy. Though essentially undetectable with current testing protocols, HGH use and possession is against the rules and MLB is willing to suspend players for it. The most common ways to detect HGH users in the American sports thus far have been 1. Evidence of sale or criminal possession of HGH. 2. Evidence of testosterone or amphetamine use. HGH is a hormone that forces the body to grow and repair tissue. HGH in large doses can make users slow and groggy because it diverts resources away from the body's other functions to promote growth and healing. Amphetamine use is incredibly common among bodybuilders, and milder (though still scary) quasi-amphetamines like 1, 3 dimethylamylamine are even more common place - marketed in pre-workout drinks like Jack3d. The relationship between amphetamines and HGH is also thought to be a major sticking point in discussions surrounding Adderrall use in the NFL. 2010 almost-hero Miguel Tejada was handed multiple suspensions for amphetamine use and has admitted to possessing HGH in the past. I plan to discuss MLB's response to HGH use and lack of a coherent HGH policy in part 3 of this series. Until then I'll let you stew over the fact that Wally Joyner admitted to taking steroids and there is probably no God.

Stay tuned for part 2 where we discuss the outlook for Cabrera and Grandal in 2014 and beyond.

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