Baseball's big test

Implementing new drug policy will be tough for both players and ownership

Posted: Monday, May 02, 2005

NEW YORK — Now comes the hard part for Bud Selig, who must convince players that longer suspensions for using steroids is in their own interest and that banning amphetamines would be good for the game.

The baseball commissioner's ''three strikes'' proposal would appear to pressure players and appease members of Congress who are threatening to legislate uniform drug testing rules for pro sports.

It's unclear how much support there is in Congress for legislation, whether President Bush would support it and if any bill would run afoul of federal labor laws and the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable government searches.

Players, who just last winter agreed to reopen their labor contract to allow tougher steroid rules, are under no obligation to change the policy again until December 2008, when the current agreement expires. Since rules for 2006 won't have to be in place until next winter, it likely will be months before decisions are made.

Selig wants the penalties to increase to 50 games for a first offense, 100 games for a second and lifetime for a third. The system that started this season calls for the penalty to start at 10 days, then escalate to 30 days, 60 days and one year before the commissioner can impose a ban at his discretion.

''Do I think there should be Olympic-style testing in the major leagues? To an extent, yes,'' Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Jason Phillips said after Selig's plan became public Saturday. ''But the Olympics last two weeks, and baseball lasts eight months. So when I'm playing in Chicago in April and it's 30 degrees and my nose starts running, I can't take a Sudafed — just in case I have to take a test the next day? Come on. That's a joke. That's ridiculous.

''Everything's an amphetamine. Sudafed is an amphetamine. You going to ask me how many cups of coffee I had today? If I drink decaf or regular? If I put in two sugars or one sugar? I mean, come on. Give it a rest. It's getting to be a joke.''

Actually, caffeine and Sudafed were removed from the World Anti-Doping Agency's banned list on Jan. 1, 2004. But baseball players are worried about agreeing to a burgeoning booklet of dos and don'ts they would have to consult every time they enter a pharmacy.

Tampa Bay's Alex Sanchez, the first of four players this year who have drawn 10-day suspensions, says his positive test resulted from a substance he bought over the counter before the law changed in January.

He declined comment Sunday on Selig's proposal, saying ''I'm just now concentrating on playing baseball.''

Atlanta Braves player representative Johnny Estrada favors increasing penalties — but with a caveat.

''Pete Rose is banned for life for gambling,'' he said. ''But you take steroids and you can be back in 10 days. We need to send a message to the kids. Steroids are worse than gambling, I think.''

However, Estrada uses Creatine and multivitamins and worries about players getting tripped up.

''I don't want to be getting a positive test for taking supplements,'' he said.

Baseball currently does not ban substances that are legally obtainable without prescriptions. During a March hearing before the House Government Reform Committee, baseball officials were questioned why DHEA (dehydrohepiandrosterone) wasn't on the major league banned list when it was on WADA's schedule of prohibited substances. They responded that Congress decided in its legislation last year not to include DHEA as a controlled substance, leaving it available over the counter.

Selig's plan, by increasing the penalties, would create an dichotomy in which use of performance-enhancing drugs is punished more harshly than involvement with drugs of abuse. If a player pleads guilty to possession of cocaine or LSD, he is suspended 15 to 30 days for a first offense and 30 to 90 days for a second.

As for amphetamines, they currently are banned for players with minor league contracts as drugs of abuse. Players who test positive the first time are sent for counseling, and a second offense results in a 15-game suspension. Management has not provided any statistics on positive tests for amphetamines in the minors.

Union head Donald Fehr says he probably will respond this week to Selig, and in the past he has said in similar circumstances that he will consult with players on his executive board before deciding the next step. With players scattered around the country, it would be surprising if the union did not take a while to develop a consensus.

While several players said they were willing to make changes, some sounded intransigent.

''The punishment can be for five minutes or be for five years; the biggest thing players don't want to be is labeled as a user,'' Michael Young of the Texas Rangers said. ''There is no reason to panic and sit there and try and get a new punishment policy. It doesn't make any sense to me. The fact is the policy is in place now, it was put in for a reason, and we should give it a chance to work.''

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