White House pushes MLB to crack down on steroids

North Dakota senator says players union must put end to `stonewalling'

December 09, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Pressure mounted on baseball to toughen its steroid-testing regimen, as the White House yesterday urged "strong steps" to combat the drugs and a well-placed senator said it was time for the players union to end its history of "stonewalling."

"The president has made it very clear that he believes Major League Baseball needs to act to address the problem," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said at his daily press briefing.

"Players who use drugs undermine the efforts of parents and coaches to send the right message to our children. Drug use also poses some real risks, health risks to athletes, and it also diminishes the integrity of sports."

McClellan said the White House is encouraged by "positive discussion" recently between baseball and the union that could lay the groundwork for an agreement to test players more often.

"We hope that they will continue to move forward on that," the press spokesman said.

The progress in those talks could be enough to head off congressional intervention, said Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, who chaired the Senate's first hearing on steroids in baseball before a Commerce subcommittee in 2002.

"There are some hopeful signs," Dorgan said in an interview. "The question is do they move forward in a way that really does create a system that is believable."

There were still signs this week that baseball and the union weren't quite on the same page. After union official Gene Orza seemed to question baseball's commitment to getting a deal, Major League Baseball executive vice president Rob Manfred said in a prepared statement: "It is wholly inappropriate for the Major League Baseball Players Association's chief operating officer - who recently compared steroid use to cigarette smoking - to question the commissioner's commitment to the elimination of performance-enhancing substances."

Dorgan serves on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which oversees baseball. The panel's chairman, Arizona Republican John McCain, threatened last weekend to introduce legislation in January to guarantee that players adhere to a new minimum drug-testing standard - if no agreement is reached first.

"Our desire is to have the problem solved by the players union themselves, that's the optimum," Dorgan said.

Dorgan said he doesn't believe the Senate will hold baseball to a particular steroid-testing model - for example, the one used in the minor leagues - so long as the program eventually created is "serious."

"Realistically, legislation is slow to move, and nothing is a slam-dunk in Congress," Dorgan said. "It's hard to legislate in this area. But we're prepared to."

Dorgan said the players union has long been "stonewalling" by suggesting that steroid use and testing is a privacy issue for players. Calls for action have intensified in the wake of reports that New York Yankee Jason Giambi admitted to steroid use and Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants told a federal grand jury he unwittingly used steroids.

Earlier this year, some major league players objected when federal agents in April seized urine samples provided by players in 2003 for what they believed were anonymous drug tests. The samples were seized as part of an investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, the California lab at the center of an investigation of an alleged sports doping conspiracy.

Dorgan said privacy issues generally were outweighed by the damage that steroids are doing to baseball and potentially to children who seek to emulate their heroes by using performance-enhancing substances.

McCain, who could not be reached for comment yesterday, has been in contact with union chief Donald Fehr about progress in the negotiations with baseball, according to Fehr.

Fehr says that the current testing procedures are working, but that the union is amenable to making improvements.

In recent months, President Bush, a former managing partner of the Texas Rangers, has been monitoring the issue with the help of a liaison - Roland Betts, a friend of the president's who is also a former Rangers partner, according to McClellan.

Baseball may move to a steroid program similar to that used in the minor leagues, where players are disciplined for a first offense and are subject to tests in the offseason.

In the majors, a first offense requires only treatment and the testing does not run year-round.

All players were tested once during the past baseball season. While the results haven't been released, Fehr says the numbers will show a "significant reduction" in players testing positive. Between 5 and 7 percent tested positive the year before.

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