WASHINGTON - Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, acknowledging that steroid use threatens "the integrity of the game," has proposed toughening penalties more than fivefold for a first offense and imposing a lifetime ban for a third violation.
In a memorandum to baseball's 30 teams, Selig - criticized by Congress for being too lax - said the sport needs "prompt, decisive and dramatic action" to end the use of illegal performance boosters that he says cheat non-users and set "a terrible example" for the nation's youth.
Attached to the memo was a letter Selig sent last week to players union chief Donald Fehr in which he recommends a new "three strikes and you're out" approach to steroid use, more random testing, an independent drug-testing administrator, stricter minor league penalties and a ban on amphetamines. Amphetamines, known long ago in the sport as "greenies," have been a part of baseball longer than the designated hitter but aren't included in its drug testing regimen - a loophole criticized by medical experts.
The perception of steroid use has damaged the game by causing fans to question the validity of some players' home run marks. The reputation of retired slugger Mark McGwire suffered when he told members of Congress last month that he would not answer questions about whether he had used steroids.
Under Selig's plan, first offenders would get 50-game suspensions, second offenders would get 100 games and third offenders would be banned permanently.
Selig won't be able to enact the proposed reforms without the backing of the players union, which has not responded to his recommendations.
Some players said yesterday that while they favor accountability, the policy needs fairness, too. They worried that players could lose nearly a third of a season for a positive test from a supplement that could contain ingredients on the banned substances list.
"It's kind of a shame if a guy makes a mistake with a supplement and tests positive, for him to get 50 games," said Orioles player representative Jay Gibbons. "But I definitely agree that the five steps, what we have now, is a little too lenient."
Members of Congress - growing frustrated at baseball's relative inaction - gave the new proposals favorable reviews but said it was premature to say whether legislation will be needed to fill in any remaining drug-policy gaps.
In tenor and substance, the Selig documents, released yesterday, represent a drastic departure from his appearance before a U.S. House committee March 17 in which he called baseball's policy "as good as any in professional sports."
He told the House Government Reform Committee then that baseball "has made tremendous progress in dealing with the issue of performance enhancing substances," and accused some critics of "not being well informed about baseball's multifaceted campaign."
But Congress was not mollified and has continued to apply pressure on baseball to get tougher. When NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue appeared before the committee Wednesday, he was praised for his relative candor and responsiveness to trying to rid his sport of steroids.
The drugs have been linked to mood swings and depression, as well as damage to the liver, kidney, heart and sexual organs.
"I want to thank you for knowing what the hell's going on, with all due respect," committee member Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, told Tagliabue. "The commissioner of baseball hadn't even read the document [on steroid penalties] that he had given us."
Shays also criticized baseball for allowing a "fifth bite at the apple," alluding to the sport's policy of not considering lifetime bans until a fifth positive steroid test.
It's time for that policy to change, Selig said in his letter to Fehr. "Third offenders should be banned permanently. I recognize the need for progressive discipline, but a third-time offender has no place in the game," Selig wrote. "Steroid users cheat the game. After three offenses, they have no place in it."
Baseball's penalties were toughened before this season began. A first offense draws a 10-day suspension, followed by 30 days for a second positive test, 60 days for a third and one year for a fourth. The punishment for a fifth positive is at the commissioner's discretion.
The Major League Baseball Players Association was studying Selig's proposals and said it was not prepared to comment. Fehr told the House panel last month that baseball's current program "will eliminate steroid abuse in baseball with due regard for the right of the players."
Changes to the drug policy require the union's approval because the major leagues operate under a collective bargaining agreement with players.
Congress, however, may act unilaterally in imposing new drug-policy requirements - and has threatened to do so.