By Larry Fine
(Reuters) - Major League Baseball and the players' union have agreed to expand their drug program to include random in-season blood testing for human growth hormone and a new test for testosterone, they said on Thursday.
The advanced testing will start this season, in what will be the sternest doping program in major North American professional sports.
"This agreement addresses critical drug issues and symbolizes Major League Baseball's continued vigilance against synthetic human growth hormone, testosterone and other performance-enhancing substances," MLB commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement.
The new steps moved baseball well ahead of the National Football League (NFL), which does not test for HGH or have a similar test for testosterone.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) challenged the NFL Players' Association (NFLPA) to follow suit in agreeing to such tests.
"This is a strong statement by the players and the league not only confirming the scientific validity of the HGH blood test and the benefit of longitudinal testing, but also the importance of clean athletes' rights and the integrity of the game," USADA said in a statement.
"This agreement, following the recent Congressional hearings on testing in the NFL, leaves no reason for the NFLPA not to step up and implement the same to give its players an equal level of protection and confidence that they deserve a level, drug-free playing field in the NFL."
Michael Weiner, executive director of the MLB Players' Association, said Major League players supported the expanded program.
"Players want a program that is tough, scientifically accurate, backed by the latest proven scientific methods, and fair," said Weiner in a statement.
"I believe these changes firmly support the players' desires while protecting their legal rights."
The announcement came one day after the players' union criticized results of the balloting for the Baseball Hall of Fame, in which no one received enough votes for enshrinement in what appeared to be a referendum on widespread doping during what has become known as the game's 'Steroids Era'.
All-time home run king Barry Bonds and seven-time Cy Young winning pitcher Roger Clemens, have playing records that would have ordinarily made them certain Hall of Famers.
But both players have been linked to performance enhancing drugs and punished by voters, receiving about half the ballots required for election.
Major League Baseball, striving to remove the stain of doping, was the first major sport in the United States to test for HGH in an agreement with the union in November 2011.
MLB has been conducting random blood testing for the detection of HGH among minor league players since July 2010 and had previously been testing major leaguers during spring training and off-season.
To detect testosterone use, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)-accredited Montreal laboratory will establish a program in which a player's baseline testosterone/epitestosterone (T/E) ratio and other data will be maintained in order to enhance its ability to detect use of the drug and other banned substances.
Christiane Ayotte, the Director of the Montreal Laboratory, praised the steps baseball has taken.
"The addition of random blood testing and a longitudinal profiling program makes baseball's program second to none in detecting and deterring the use of synthetic HGH and testosterone," she said in a statement.
Doping in baseball has not disappeared.
In the last year, Melky Cabrera of the San Francisco Giants, who was leading the league in batting average, and Oakland A's pitcher Bartolo Colon tested positive for testosterone and were suspended.
"I am proud that our system allows us to adapt to the many evolving issues associated with the science and technology of drug testing," Selig said. "We will continue to do everything we can to maintain a leadership stature in anti-doping efforts in the years ahead."
(Reporting by Larry Fine, Editing by Gene Cherry/Steve Keating/John O'Brien)