Major League Baseball still is pondering a unilateral response to the steroid scandal that has cast a pall over spring training, but the commissioner's office and the players union have reached an agreement to ban the designer steroid THG.
Baseball's executive vice president of labor relations, Rob Manfred, and Major League Baseball Players Association chief operating officer Gene Orza revealed yesterday that the game's joint health policy committee had voted unanimously last week to place THG -- tetrahydrogestrinone -- on the game's list of banned substances.
THG was exposed last summer by officials of the U.S. Anti-doping Agency, who received a used syringe containing trace amounts of the steroid from an anonymous track coach who claimed that athletes were using it to defeat conventional steroid testing. The scandal spread to baseball when a federal grand jury investigating the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative in Northern California indicted four men on drug-trafficking and money laundering charges, one of them the personal trainer of superstar Barry Bonds.
Baseball already had weathered several steroid-related revelations, including public accusations by former stars Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco that a large percentage of players had used steroids to bulk up during the game's home run explosion of the late 1990s.
The players union grudgingly agreed to a modest steroid-testing program in the latest collective bargaining agreement, but baseball commissioner Bud Selig is considering using his powers to protect the best interests of the game to institute a more comprehensive testing program with stiffer penalties for steroid use.
"Testing for THG is an important step toward reaching our goal of zero tolerance," Selig said. "I am committed to that goal and advocate a more stringent and effective drug-testing program in the major leagues, similar to our program in the minor leagues."
The day after Bonds, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield and several other athletes were tarnished by the federal investigation, a management source told The Sun that Selig had asked his legal staff to determine if he could use his "best interests" powers to deal with the growing scandal if he could not get cooperation from the players union on a stronger anti-steroid program.
The Chicago Tribune, also quoting anonymous major league sources, reported yesterday that Selig hopes to use that power to impose much harsher penalties than are called for in the labor agreement. Players testing positive for steroids would receive a 15-day suspension for a first offense and a 30-day suspension for a second violation. Three-time offenders would be suspended for a full season.
The current program calls for limited testing and no disciplinary action for a first positive test. Penalties for subsequent violations also are much lighter than similar anti-doping programs for Olympic and other international competition.
The players union would almost certainly file a grievance to block any unilateral change in the current system, since the labor agreement precludes the commissioner from using his "best interests" powers to infringe on the rights guaranteed players in the Basic Agreement.
Union lawyers have had great success at blocking management attempts to impose new work rules without collective bargaining, but there is a precedent.
Former commissioner Peter Ueberroth moved decisively to protect the game's image after the Pittsburgh drug scandal of the mid-1980s, banning a group of high-profile players that was implicated during the trial of a caterer who was accused of supplying players with cocaine.
Ueberroth gave those players the chance to earn quick reinstatement by agreeing to donate a portion of their salaries to drug abuse prevention programs, perform community service and submit to drug testing for the remainder of their playing careers.
Though his heavy-handed approach drew bitter criticism from the union, Ueberroth's solution blunted public outrage at Major League Baseball and allowed the scandal to fade into memory.
Selig told a congressional committee last week that he would like to institute a tougher steroid program than the one currently in place, but union executive director Donald Fehr -- speaking at the same hearings -- gave no indication that the union would drop its long-standing opposition to random testing without reasonable cause.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.