Steroid cloud obscures sun of spring camp

March 11, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - In a clubhouse where one year ago, Steve Bechler took a dietary supplement that led to his death, Orioles right fielder Jay Gibbons wore an expression that told the story of baseball that won't go away this spring:

Agony mixed with a little dread, frustration and anger.

"We should be talking about Opening Day," he said.

Instead, as it turned out, the Orioles' annual meeting with a representative from the Major League Baseball Players Association took place on the very day Congress held another hearing in Washington on steroids.

"Everyone supports the union," said Gibbons, the Orioles' player representative.

"The sad thing is that we didn't hear anything about this for the past few years and now that we have a program and we're doing something about it, it's worse. We just started this. It's not a perfect program, but you've got the Olympic extreme and what we had. You have to find something in the middle. Let's see how this works."

The backlash is harsh. Last week, baseball players got a brief reprieve in the war on steroids when, in the face of so much scrutiny, some players and media members were able to characterize the current spring climate as a "witch hunt."

Cameras trailed Barry Bonds. Weight Watcher clients compared exchange cards with a slimmer Jason Giambi.

Thank goodness for the war between the Evil Empire and Red Sox Nation. Otherwise, the witch hunt would have led to baseball players being asked to do a Damon Stoudamire.

Stoudamire, of the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers, voluntarily took a drug test last week to prove he no longer smokes pot.

Then Stoudamire was scolded by the National Basketball Players Association, which has a drug-testing and penalty program in place and doesn't want players taking "free-lance drug tests," even when the player is eager to publicly clear his name.

Witch hunts. Free-lance drug tests. What a wonderful world of sports, huh?

If the relentless probe into steroids by the national media felt like a witch hunt to major league baseball players last week, what about now?

Yesterday, Sen. John McCain joined Attorney General John Ashcroft and President Bush in making baseball's "credibility problem" an election-year political football. The purpose of the congressional hearing was to apply a little heat to baseball. Adopt a more stringent testing and penalty program, or we will, McCain threatened.

Martha Stewart has been found guilty. The Enron probe drags its feet. Guess it must have been a slow news day for gay marriage, which gave Congress another opportunity to drag baseball to the chamber.

Baseball deserves to have its tail chewed off for a stand on drug testing that has plunged every player, every statistic, every record into the netherworld of suspicion.

Baseball does have a credibility problem, but it shouldn't be up to the Senate, attorney general or president to fix it. That much should be abundantly clear to everyone who ever wondered about campaign finance and staggering trade deficits.

The fact that we might question Bonds' single-season home run record is a depressing footnote baseball might have to carry forever. The blame must be pointed squarely at Donald Fehr and Gene Orza.

The rulers of the powerful MLBPA have sacrificed the reputations of the majority of "innocent" players because they have been utterly obsessed with protecting the privacy rights of substance abusers.

Actually, it's simpler than that. The union bosses have refused to give the appearance of losing any power to the owners instead of considering the "best interest of the game."

Instead, the union made a "concession" in the last collective bargaining agreement. It was a concession Fehr must wish he never allowed. Word is that Fehr was angry when the 5 to 7 percent threshold for dirty drug tests was met last spring, opening the Pandora's Box on random drug tests.

Now he must make further concessions, or risk picking up the mantle as the man who squandered baseball's resurgent popularity. Wasn't that Bud Selig's role? In front of McCain yesterday, Fehr refused to say whether he would agree to reopen the collective bargaining agreement and negotiate a tougher drug-testing program. Instead, he issued a very astute, legal argument, citing four points, none of them a "yes" or a "no."

"We don't bargain in public," Fehr said.

The problem is that the public sees baseball as part of its domain. This isn't as silly as Fehr makes it appear. Public money and antitrust laws enable baseball to turn whatever profits it can manage to turn.

By continuing to protect his "laborers," Fehr only further plunders their credibility and, therefore, marketability.

The players and their union bosses have picked the wrong time to fight fire with legalese and privacy claims. They can't win by letting this thing blow over, even if the blatant "damage" of baseball's credibility by steroid use is mostly done.

In a year when Janet Jackson's breast and Howard Stern's mouth are being censored, it's little wonder that Washington is willing to stick its paw into baseball's messy bed.

The question is: Why aren't the majority of players calling on their union leaders to put this problem to rest? Maybe because they can't believe it has gotten this bad.

"I have other things to worry about. ... Let the people who are involved or on trial fix this," said Rafael Palmeiro, whose Hall of Fame career was fashioned in this age of the asterisk.

"This has nothing to do with me," he said.

He's right. But that's the problem with the union bosses' stance. Why are players in this position in the first place? Good question. Let's ask Fehr. Again.

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