Sports views: Selig's next move: plastic forks in the clubhouse

Posted: Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Just wait until the crusader in Bud Selig finds out how popular this latest ''tough love'' campaign proves to be. From that day forward, ballplayers and even the owners who promoted him from their ranks will be lucky to find a moment's peace.

Next, Selig will demand that every clubhouse be inspected for asbestos, and every dugout scanned for radon. The time-honored tradition of sneaking a smoke in the hallway? Gone forever. And any team still putting out silverware for the post-game buffet should consider itself on notice: Switch to plastic utensils or face a trillion-dollar fine.

It's all well and good that the commissioner finally tried flexing his ''best interests of the game'' powers, sending a letter to baseball union boss Don Fehr last week proposing a 50-game suspension after a first positive test for steroids, a 100-game sit-down for a second and a lifetime ban for a third. The symbolism of ''three strikes and you're out'' is inspired, and Selig's call to test for amphetamines is better than that.

Even if his letter arrived a half-dozen years late.

''You can kind of expect stuff to happen from his little meeting with Congress,'' said Michael Tucker, the San Francisco Giants' outfielder and union representative. ''I don't think it's a surprise. It definitely doesn't surprise me. You can expect stuff like that all year long.''

Tucker wasn't referring to anything specific. But you get his drift. Zealots always become the most dogged reformers and the commissioner doesn't figure to be an exception. Six weeks ago, he testified before Congress that the policy baseball already had in place was working just fine. And in a rare show of unity, Fehr backed him up, almost word for word.

''There is in the agreement now penalties from Day 1, from the first one,'' he told the same congressional committee. ''And I believe, as I have previously indicated, that the data we have suggests that it will work. We will know if it doesn't.''

That's the strange thing about it: By all indications, the already amended testing program was working.

Only five major leaguers have been suspended so far for positive tests, each for 10 days. But after two years of dress rehearsals, there probably aren't enough ballplayers left who haven't found a suitable masking agent or better yet, quit juicing altogether, to fill out a lineup card. Selig knows that as well as anyone.

That's what makes this unilateral rush to judgment troubling. It might be the right thing to do, but the reason Selig decided to take the leap now is because Congress threatened to push major league baseball if he didn't. No doubt Selig watched C-SPAN last week and saw Paul Tagliabue, his NFL counterpart, defend a not-so-dissimilar drug-testing policy, then tell the same congressional committee to butt out of the league's business. And all Tags got was respect in return.

''I kind of love you guys,'' Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican gushed at one point, ''and yet I shouldn't because you have problems.''

And now, with his letter to Fehr made public, Selig has identified the union as baseball's problem and tried to wash his hands of any responsibility for the mess. Tactically, it was a brilliant move. Practically, though, it could set labor relations back to the dark ages.

Fehr's response to the letter was predictable. He sent a letter of his own Monday to Selig, saying, ''We will look forward to discussing the points you raised.''

But chances are good that he'll take his sweet time before signing anything. When congressmen pressed Fehr about his support a tougher testing policy, he said the ballplayers would answer the question for him, in private, and ''not under the glare of TV cameras. That's first.''

Second, with his membership scattered around the country, polling won't be easy. Third, and perhaps most important, Fehr will remind them that the current policy came about only after a long and nasty round of collective bargaining, and that every concession on one side merits something in return.

Selig stuck a finger in the air, figured out which way the wind was blowing on the steroid issue and found a way to capitalize on it. He'll get the union to go along this time, maybe with some reductions on the 50- and 100-game suspensions — largely because most of the membership is clean and ballplayers figure, like the rest of us, that anybody stupid enough to take strike three is getting what he deserves.

''It doesn't bother me, but I think I'm like a lot of guys because they know it doesn't apply to them,'' Baltimore's Larry Bigbie said. ''As long as people don't think it applies to them, people aren't going to care about it.''

But the next idea Bud gets about reforming baseball won't go down that easy. He's hardly the only guy in the game with an agenda and it's worth remembering the few victories he's achieved in his tenure have been won more with carrots than sticks.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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