DETROIT - Baseball commissioner Bud Selig would love to use the sweeping powers of his office to rid the sport of performance-enhancing drugs ... if only his powers were as sweeping as some people would like to believe.
Selig has asked the Major League Baseball Players Association to join him in adopting a much tougher steroid-testing program than the one that currently appears to be working just fine, because the fact that it seems to be working is only half the battle.
"I believe this is an integrity issue," Selig said yesterday. "It transcends whether the program is working or not."
The word integrity came up a lot during the commish's annual afternoon news conference with members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, as it did during a television interview the night before. It is starting to sound like a code word - a warning that he might just try to use his "best interests" powers to unilaterally impose a program that would require a 50-day suspension for a first positive steroid test.
Alas, Selig is not Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He does not possess the power to impose a new steroid policy without the consent of the players, even if he deems that to be in the best interests of the game.
There was a time, of course, when the baseball commissioner could do whatever he deemed necessary to protect the integrity of the sport. Landis used that power to ban the Chicago White Sox players connected to the infamous plot to throw the 1919 World Series, even though a jury found them not guilty of conspiring with gamblers.
There was no union to file a grievance in those days. There was no collective bargaining agreement governing the power of management to discipline players. Forgive Selig for getting a little nostalgic after years of legal one-upsmanship by Donald Fehr and the players union.
"I get letters that start with "If Kenesaw Mountain Landis were alive today. ... ' " Selig said. "Things have changed. I understand that. The players have a right to [collective bargaining]. I'd rather do something with them."
Not that he hasn't thought about it. Baseball lawyers investigated the possibility of invoking the "best interests" clause of the Major League Agreement to intensify the sport's anti-drug efforts more than a year ago - when baseball was still reeling from the ephedra-related heatstroke death of Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler and the acronym BALCO was just starting to insinuate itself into the American sports consciousness.
It didn't come to that. Selig and the union reached an agreement on a tougher steroid policy, but baseball was thrown back on its steroid-enhanced heels again when a congressional committee found a couple of glaring loopholes in the new plan and put the sport on public trial in March.
Selig quickly found religion and became the chief proponent of far tougher penalties for steroid use, including a lifetime ban for a third offense. He sent a letter to Fehr asking the players to sign onto the plan, but the union has agreed only to further discussions on the subject.
Could the commissioner eventually force the issue by invoking his power to protect the integrity of the game? Maybe, but only because it would force the union into the uncomfortable public position of resisting tougher sanctions on steroid cheats. The union almost certainly could overturn any unilateral edict that affects working conditions covered under the collective bargaining agreement. Selig conceded as much yesterday.
"I spend a lot of time, on a daily basis, trying to figure out what our alternatives are," Selig said, "but times have changed. The collective bargaining agreement transcends most everything."
Going to baseball's version of the nuclear option probably would be counterproductive regardless of the outcome.
"My role is to try and keep this sport moving in the right direction," Selig said, "not to do things that would create distractions."
Selig is, after all, more of a pragmatist than a visionary, though his strong backing of the new World Baseball Classic could alter that perception. He knows that baseball is in the midst of an economic renaissance, with attendance at an all-time high and gross revenues nearly triple what they were when he became commissioner in the early 1990s.
He just needs to use his bully pulpit to convince the players that it is in their best interests to make a strong, unified stand against steroid abuse.
Contact Peter Schmuck at firstname.lastname@example.org.