VERO BEACH, Fla. - Two weeks into his annual information tour through spring training camps, Major League Baseball Players Association director Donald Fehr is still playing defense.
Baseball owners have used the heatstroke death of Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler to justify a new effort to restrict the use of products that contain the weight-loss aid and stimulant ephedrine.
The Senate, which held hearings last June to examine claims of widespread steroid use in Major League Baseball, is pondering a new inquiry to take a similar look at the way professional sports deals with ephedrine and other potentially harmful legal supplements.
The Food and Drug Administration recently announced an effort to force manufacturers of ephedrine products to include strong warning labels to caution users about the possibility that the substance may cause heart attacks, strokes and death, but that could take months.
In the meantime, the players union is facing pressure from several directions to cooperate with management on a plan to ban the substance - which already is prohibited by the International Olympic Committee, NCAA, NFL and many other sports federations.
Fehr, who will visit Fort Lauderdale Stadium today to update Orioles players on a variety of subjects, has had little to say publicly on the ephedrine issue, choosing to delay any substantive comment until after the toxicology report from Bechler's autopsy is released by the Broward County medical examiner. That report is expected late next week.
"We will obviously look at what comes out, talk to players and make judgments as we go along," Fehr said yesterday, after meeting with the Los Angeles Dodgers at their spring training facility.
The arguments for a baseball ban are fairly simple. Ephedrine is a chemical that has been linked to more than 100 deaths by the FDA, and it is a stimulant that many players have admitted to using to perk up before games.
The case can be made - and has been made by the IOC - that it is a performance-enhancing drug.
The arguments against a ban are more complex. The union has long resisted random drug testing for illegal substances on civil liberties grounds, so the case for an enforceable ban on a legal, over-the-counter product is even more problematic.
In short, how do you tell a 37-year-old baseball player he can't use a product that can be purchased by his teenage son at the local health food store? The union - long protective of the privacy rights of players and suspicious that a wide-ranging drug-testing program might be applied opportunistically by management - clearly isn't ready to join the rush to judgment on ephedrine.
Fehr and his fellow union officials are, in a sense, running down the clock while they wait to see whether the toxicology report shows a clear connection between ephedrine use and Bechler's death.
If the results are inconclusive, the union will be in better position to stave off any management attempt to change the sport's drug policy. If the toxicology report strongly supports the preliminary conclusion of medical examiner Dr. Joshua Perper that ephedrine was a significant factor in Bechler's death, there will be more public pressure on the union to go along with a ban.
Fehr may be guarding his comments on the subject in the aftermath of the Bechler tragedy, but it is no secret the union would like the FDA to take baseball off the hook by changing the status of ephedrine to a prescription-only medication.
The issue of federal control came up during the Senate subcommittee hearing on steroid abuse June 18, and Fehr hinted yesterday that his comments at that hearing - though directed toward legal steroid-like substances such as androstenedione and human growth hormone - could also be applied to ephedrine if clear evidence emerged of a link to Bechler's death.
"It may well be time for the federal government to revisit whether such products should be covered by Schedule 3 [prescription-only] or otherwise the subject of appropriate legislation or regulation," Fehr said on June 18. "And we would welcome such an examination by the Congress, by the Food and Drug Administration or by any other appropriate body."
The union will distribute a memo to players today updating them on the ephedrine situation and, according to union sources, restating the conclusions drawn by the FDA last week when it released a Rand Corp. research study on the potential dangers of the substance.
Coincidentally, that will happen the same day that Fehr holds his annual union meeting with the Orioles. There are other issues to discuss - most notably the union's ongoing collusion investigation - but the focus in Fort Lauderdale figures to be on ephedrine, for obvious reasons.
"We don't comment on internal discussions," Fehr said, "but that certainly wouldn't surprise me."
Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Brewers distributed a memo of their own at spring training in Phoenix, outlining the dangers of supplements, both legal and illegal, containing stimulants and steroids, the Associated Press reported. Everyone on the team signed the document.
Though the document states, "Club policy forbids the storage of supplements in the clubhouse [including in your locker]," the team cannot actually ban any legal substance from the locker room, something general manager Doug Melvin acknowledged, calling the memo more of a suggestion than a ban.