PHOENIX - Major league baseball players, facing pressure from Congress, fans and the commissioner, authorized union leaders yesterday to seek an agreement for tougher rules against steroids, possibly in time for 2005 spring training.
Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, said the union's executive board "authorized us to attempt to conclude an agreement" with the commissioner's office, adding, "I don't think it will take an extended period of time."
Amending the current collective bargaining agreement, which is not due to expire until December 2006, would be unprecedented in the sport's labor history.
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has repeatedly called for the union to accept a steroid testing and punishment program in line with that used in the non-union minor leagues. The drive gained new urgency in the past week amid disclosure of secret grand jury testimony by slugger Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants and former American League Most Valuable Player Jason Giambi.
Bonds, who is 53 home runs short of the career record, testified that he used substances provided to him by a defendant in the BALCO steroid distribution case - his personal trainer - and Giambi, of the New York Yankees, admitted injecting himself with steroids, according to reports in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Following those reports, Sens. John McCain and Byron Dorgan renewed warnings that baseball would face congressional action if it did not adopt stricter measures, and President Bush enlisted longtime friend Roland Betts, a New York developer and once a fellow investor in the American League's Texas Rangers, to encourage a settlement.
Fehr, speaking to reporters between meetings with player representatives from the 30 major league clubs, said he expected to resume talks by next week with Rob Manfred, lead negotiator for the commissioner's office.
"We're pleased the union has decided to join us in an effort to reach an agreement on a very serious issue," Manfred said in a telephone interview. "We're optimistic we can do that in short order."
Under a policy negotiated in 2002 and not put into its penalty phase until this year, players are tested for steroids annually.
The current testing program has drawn criticism as weak from many quarters - fans, international doping authorities, the commissioner and some players. Though Fehr said yesterday that testing during the 2004 season showed fewer positive steroid results than in 2003, union leaders appeared to yield to that criticism.
Under the minor-league system, backed by Selig and endorsed by McCain, players can be tested randomly up to four times, are suspended for 15 games after one offense and are banned for life after five offenses.
The union is amenable to many of the minor-league points, according to sources close to the situation, and negotiations will continue to focus on the four previous differences in major- and minor-league testing: substances tested for, frequency of testing, offseason testing and discipline.
Meanwhile, baseball's plans to market Bonds' pursuit of the home run record have been put on hold, fallout from the release of his grand jury testimony.
The commissioner's office and a corporate sponsor it was courting for the campaign canceled a meeting on the project. Baseball said it had hoped MasterCard International would sponsor the promotion.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.