A Washington threat triggered major league drug action

Nov 29, 2005 3:49 AM

It would be nice to think that major league baseball took its recent action on adopting meaningful drug penalties out of its own beneficent motives.

It would be nice to think that, but it would be fanciful.

Baseball — both management and the players’ union — acted not nobly, but because of the hot breath of Washington. The feds finally convinced them that if they did not act soon, the government would, and federal action would have been even more draconian than what baseball invoked on its own.

So before ordaining sainthood for baseball commissioner Bud Selig and players’ union executive director Donald Fehr, it might be appropriate to look back less than a year at what led to the tough new rules on steroid abuse.

Last January, in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the meeting of major league owners, Selig and Fehr announced "an historic agreement" between the leagues and the players’ association. Those were the words of Selig, who said at the time, "We have agreed on a new, much tougher drug-testing program that is designed to rid our game of performance-enhancing drugs ”¦ We are acting today to help restore the confidence of our fans in our great game."

Two months later, the scene shifted to the House of Representatives in Washington, where one congressman, Rep. John Sweeney of New York, called the "historic" Scottsdale agreement "outrageous," and said that it was "not worth the paper it’s written on." House Government Reform Committee Chairman Thomas Davis, a Virginia Republican, and Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, sent a 10-page bipartisan letter denouncing baseball’s document for providing management or labor with the ability to block expansion of testing, and blasting it for its provision that it would be suspended immediately if the government launched an investigation into it. Davis and Waxman then said that "despite the public assurances of major league baseball officials, we have questions about the effectiveness of its new drug policy."

Sweeney went farther, saying the agreement showed that "the establishment in baseball is living in a dream world."

If it was, the dream turned to a nightmare with the hapless testimony of some baseball greats, notably Rafael Palmeiro and his now famous finger-pointing at congressmen, indignantly stating that he had never used drugs.

Another five months and there was Palmiero again, suspended for 10 days for testing positive, announcing that the 10 days would be "incredibly difficult for me, my wife and my two boys," saying he "felt terrible that this has happened," and making an ass of himself by telling the press, "I am sure you will ask how I tested positive for a banned substance. As I look back, I don’t have a specific answer to give. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to explain to the arbitrator how the banned substance entered my body."

And then, earlier this month, the major league cave-in. Instead of a 10-day suspension for a first drug offense, a 50-day suspension; instead of 30 days for the second offense, a 100-game suspension; instead of 60 days for the third; lifetime suspension.

Selig and players’ union executive director Don Fehr stepped front and center, of course, when the announcement of this grand event was made. Selig, once again, called it "an historic day in baseball."

How many "historic days" can you squeeze into one year?

The true heroes of all this are not Selig and Fehr. They are Senators John McCain of Arizona and Jim Bunning of Kentucky. They said "boo" and baseball shivered. They told the major leagues that if baseball didn’t act, they would, and introduce federal legislation calling for a half-season suspension for a first violation, a full season for a second, and a lifetime ban for a third.

I never thought I would live long enough to see major league baseball as a poster boy for meaningful penalties for drug infractions. I’m obviously happy that I have. As the very old saying goes, if I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.

Rafael Palmiero and his major league friends should take the hint and do the same.