Leadership from Selig needed in drug mess

Sources: He's asking union for rigid steroid testing


March 04, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Major League Baseball is facing its greatest credibility crisis since the Pittsburgh Pirates drug scandal of the mid-1980s, which could leave the sport with little choice but to go to war with the players union over the game's tepid steroid policy.

Three major stars - Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield - already have been tainted by the scandal, even as they insist they never used illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Baseball, which seemed poised for a public relations renaissance after one of the most exciting postseasons in history, now must find a way to convince skeptical fans that the game is still on the up and up.

Commissioner Bud Selig has yet to weigh in on the subject publicly, but baseball sources said yesterday that the commissioner's office is working behind the scenes to persuade the Major League Baseball Players Association to join it in an effort to restore public confidence by beefing up the much-criticized steroid testing program that was instituted in the 2002 collective bargaining agreement.

Selig declined to comment on the situation yesterday and has sent a directive to club executives to take a low profile on the steroid controversy, hoping to minimize the negative impact of a scandal that threatens to overshadow the opening of the season. But a major league source said baseball lawyers are attempting to determine whether Selig has the power to act unilaterally to protect the best interests of the industry if he cannot reach an accord with the union.

Short of that, Major League Baseball could try to invoke a clause in the existing drug policy that would allow targeted testing of individuals who are suspected of steroid abuse, a possibility that was reported yesterday in The Washington Post.

The current steroid policy already allows for the random testing of all major league players this season, but there is no penalty or public disclosure for a first positive test and the progressive penalties for subsequent violations are relatively light in comparison with anti-doping measures in some other sports.

The players union has long opposed random testing for recreational drugs or illegal performance-enhancing supplements, casting it as a violation of civil liberties. The union grudgingly accepted a modest steroid policy in the 2002 Basic Agreement, but on the condition that a year of survey testing be performed to determine if there was enough of a steroid abuse problem to warrant random testing.

The random testing program was triggered when more than 5 percent of players tested positive for steroids in the survey testing last season.

Perhaps that would have been enough to quiet public discomfort over baseball's steroid problem if not for the grand jury investigation into an alleged steroid-trafficking operation that involved Bonds' personal trainer, Greg Anderson. Anderson and three others have been indicted for steroid distribution and money laundering, and five current major league players have been linked to the scandal.

Baseball officials can only hope that is the extent of it, but the game figures to be haunted - at least for the next few weeks - by the specter of high-profile players coming under indictment.

Either way, it appears, Selig has little choice but to take dynamic action to clean up the sport, something that hasn't been attempted since former commissioner Peter Ueberroth announced heavy fines and suspensions on the major figures in baseball's drug scandal nearly 20 years ago.

Ueberroth allowed those players to avoid the suspensions if they donated 10 percent of their 1986 salaries to drug rehabilitation charities and performed community service, but he sent a clear message to the public that drug use by major league players would not be tolerated. The drug scandal also prompted baseball to take a more active role in clubhouse security, which again has become an issue during the current controversy.

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