Pick up pace, baseball told

Senate panel demands that MLB stop steroid `cheaters' and get it done now

September 29, 2005|By JEFF BARKER | JEFF BARKER,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain told baseball's union chief yesterday that the players have moved far too slowly to rid the sport of steroid-using "cheaters," and he again threatened to force the union's hand with legislation.

"How many Rafael Palmeiros are there going to be?" asked an indignant McCain, referring to the Orioles first baseman who last month became baseball's biggest star to test positive for a steroid and be suspended for 10 days - a punishment McCain and others have criticized as too lenient.

"Are you and the players living in such a rarefied atmosphere that you do not appreciate that this is a transcendent issue?" the Arizona Republican asked Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, during a two-hour Senate Commerce Committee hearing on steroids in pro sports.

"Don't you get it?" the senator continued, his voice rising. "Don't you get it that this is an issue which is greater than the issue of collective bargaining? Don't you understand that this is an issue of such transcendent importance that you should have acted months ago?"

McCain said that he hoped Congress would not have to intervene and establish minimum steroids requirements, but that "we're at the end of the line."

The Palmeiro case appears to be adding momentum to the congressional push. "Senator McCain has indicated that the suspension of Rafael Palmeiro brought this issue to the forefront again," Fehr said in prepared remarks.

Fehr, one of more than a dozen witnesses summoned from four major sports, told McCain it was his duty to meet with players to gauge how far they believed it was necessary to go to curb steroid use.

In particular, Fehr has been asking the players to assess commissioner Bud Selig's 5-month-old proposal to toughen penalties more than fivefold for a first steroid offense and impose a lifetime ban for a third violation.

Selig - who also appeared at the hearing and was joined by career home run king Hank Aaron and four other Hall of Famers - endorsed McCain's call for tougher steroids penalties and said he hoped it could be accomplished without federal legislation.

Under Selig's plan, first offenders would get 50-game suspensions, second offenders would get 100 games and third offenders would be banned permanently.

Fehr told McCain he had an allegiance to the players. "I have an obligation to meet with them all, which I did. There were ongoing discussions all summer long," he said. "Can I give you a precise date [to reach an agreement with baseball]? No. Would I expect it to be by the end of the World Series? I would certainly hope so."

Fehr, who said progress is being made, remains apart from Selig on the commissioner's call to permanently ban a player caught for a third offense.

Some senators seemed to be growing impatient.

"For whatever reason, some of you just cannot strike a deal on testing and penalties for illegal drug use. And I and millions of fans think that is pathetic," said Sen. Jim Bunning, a Kentucky Republican and Hall of Fame former pitcher.

McCain suggested that a growing frustration with the players union - along with the Palmeiro case - has accelerated the anti-steroids push on Capitol Hill.

Palmeiro is one of just four major leaguers to reach 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. He was suspended Aug. 1, and the House Government Reform Committee is investigating whether he perjured himself when he testified in March that he had never used steroids.

Fehr said it was inappropriate to use Palmeiro's suspension as evidence of a flawed program.

"To an extent, I feel as if we are caught in a catch-22. Before the Palmeiro suspension, a primary criticism leveled at our program had been that it could not be working because no well-known players had been suspended," the union chief said.

"After the Palmeiro suspension, we hear that the program cannot be working because Rafael Palmeiro was found to be in violation of the program. But you can't have it both ways," Fehr said.

Congress is considering a half-dozen bills aimed at forcing big league baseball, football, basketball and hockey players to submit to federally mandated steroid rules. A bill sponsored by McCain would place Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA and NHL under the disciplinary schedule faced by Olympians who use performance-boosting drugs: a two-year suspension for a first violation and a lifetime ban for a second.

The commissioners of the NFL, NBA and NHL all said yesterday that they hoped federal legislation wouldn't be necessary.

Selig might have gotten a public relations boost by bringing with him Aaron and fellow Hall of Famers Ryne Sandberg, Phil Niekro, Robin Roberts and Lou Brock. All testified in favor of the commissioner's anti-steroids plan.

Said Aaron: "I'm here this morning to support the commissioner."

Said Sandberg: "We do have a problem in baseball, and using steroids is not respecting the game."

In response to a question from McCain, Aaron declined to say whether he believed the records of today's "steroid-era" players should be included along with Aaron's own marks. "I think that's going to be left up to the commissioner and the rules committee," said Aaron, who holds the all-time record for homers with 755.

But several committee members were more opinionated.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, and Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, said at the hearing that, in their minds, Roger Maris still holds the single-season home run record.

Their remarks were references to drug suspicions surrounding Mark McGwire, who broke Maris' mark of 61 by hitting 70 homers in 1998, and Barry Bonds, the current record-holder with 73 in 2001.

"I'm mightily disillusioned by what has taken place," Rockefeller said. "I am impatient. I am angry."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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