Forced into a corner, baseball does right thing

November 16, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

Fifty games for the first offense? Now you're talking.

One hundred games for a second offense? Now you're talking.

Baseball has finally adopted a set of penalties that should discourage some players who are tempted to use steroids.

A lifetime ban for the third offense? That ought to make a guy think before he juices.

Let's no longer debate whether Congress was right to get involved in baseball's steroid mess.

The game's new penalties, announced yesterday, never would have become a reality if lawmakers hadn't thrown what amounted to fastball after fastball at the chins of the owners and players.

The barrage started last March at the now-infamous congressional hearing where Rafael Palmeiro pointed a finger and said he had never used steroids "period," and continued unabated with months of hearings, pointed criticism and threatening legislation.

Grandstanding? Many thought so, and indeed, the obvious target was any politician's dream.

But the threat that steroids posed to the game was --- and is - real.

Johns Hopkins professor Michael Mandelbaum, author of the 2004 book The Meaning of Sports, says sports' enduring popularity rests on the fundamental belief that the games we watch are on the level. Baseball's chemically fueled power barrage of the past decade was a blatant threat to that balance, taking records to outrageous levels we might never see again.

But commissioner Bud Selig and union chief Donald Fehr were so slow in recognizing the problem and reacting to it that intervention from an outside force became a must - welcomed, in my mind.

True, baseball is a mere featherweight compared with most issues Congress takes up, but as a billion-dollar industry rife with fraud - and that's what it was - it was nothing if not legitimate political turf.

The other three major sports have been swept up in the probe and targeted, along with baseball, in a new bill sponsored by senators John McCain and Jim Bunning that would provide tough, across-the-board punishments such as a half-year for a first offense.

But the primary target all along has been baseball, which only months ago had claimed to address the issue by instituting a set of tepid, see-no-evil penalties such as 10 games for the first offense.

"Don't you get it? Don't you understand this is an issue of such transcendent importance that you should have acted months ago?" McCain exasperatedly asked Fehr in a Sept. 28 hearing.

"We tried to explain to them that we are going to act because of their failure to do so, and I don't think it's sunk in," said Bunning, a Hall of Fame pitcher, on Nov. 8, referring primarily to his beloved sport.

Yesterday, a week after that latest fastball aimed at their chins, the owners and players announced their new penalties. What a coincidence.

Selig, obviously tired of being berated in front of committees, had long ago succumbed to the pressure and admitted he favored much tougher standards than those he agreed to just 10 months ago, when he still thought he could fool the public on the issue.

Yesterday's announcement amounted to a similar capitulation on the part of Fehr (also tired of being berated) and the players, who finally realized they couldn't hammer the owners on the issue as they do in collective bargaining.

It will be interesting to see if the other sports follow baseball's lead and adopt their own, tougher penalties, or if Bunning and McCain continue to push their bill now that baseball has delivered.

But no matter what happens, baseball finally has a set of respectable penalties for those who cheat the game. It's also now the first sport to test for amphetamines as a performance-enhancing issue rather than a substance-abuse issue. (Second offense will result in a 25-game suspension.)

Imagine, baseball is actually ahead of the curve on something.

"You shouldn't be able to be caught [using steroids] the third time because after the first time, if you don't learn from that, from 50 games that you sit down without getting paid, that's pretty bad," the St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols said on a conference call yesterday.

Not that steroids are going to disappear entirely; the cynical game of chemical cops and robbers is bound to continue. Even with its draconian penalty structure, which starts with a two-year ban for first offenders, the Olympics still have plenty of juicers getting busted. Some people just can't stop.

But make no mistake, the harsher penalties announced yesterday represent a significant step in baseball's retreat from its shameful steroids era, and as one who has faithfully condemned the sport when it makes mistakes, I applaud this success.

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