When the going gets tough, the tough hide!

Jul 29, 2003 6:26 AM

Only the major leaguers will be saved.

Baseball’s major leaguers, with a strong union, can die at will, and want federal agencies to stay off their diamonds and let them decide whether they want to live or die.

  That’s the message from major league baseball players, who don’t want the government telling them what they can and can’t take to make big muscles and booming bats.

Never mind if some guys die from these things. That’s baseball’s business, not the government’s.

The baseball big leaguers aren’t as tall as their basketball playing cousins, or as gruff and rough as their burly football counterparts, but they’re big and tough and rough enough to scare hell out of the people who run baseball.

The players sent their associate general counsel, a lawyer named Eugene Orza, to testify at a Congressional hearing last week that was called to investigate ephedra, the drug suspected as the cause of the death of young pitcher Steve Bechler at the Baltimore Orioles training camp in February.

Orza wasn’t the only witness. The commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Mark B. McClellan, was there too, and he said flat out that major league baseball should "take action to protect its players. There is a medical basis for action on this important issue."

You would think that might be good enough.

Not for major league baseball.

Orza, dancing on the head of a pin, told Congress in effect that the Food and Drug Administration had no standing with baseball. Its major league players took their cues not from some doctor running a federal agency with a mandate to protect the public, but only from outright bans on drugs and substances that were prohibited by federal law.

Tough about Steve Bechler.

A Pennsylvania Republican, James C. Greenwood, who is chairman of one of the committees calling the meeting, asked Orza why the players’ union wasn’t "rushing in to ban this to protect your own players?"

"Privacy," Orza told him. The union didn’t want to go the players and surprise them by asking for a urine specimen at odd times when they might not be suspecting it. That wasn’t major league style.

They would agree to drug testing, he said, only for cause, not randomly.

When congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts told Orza that it seemed to him that the players’ union was disregarding the health of its players, Orza came up with this gem: "Is beer next? Because, in fact, more ballplayers have died from beer."

We’re not sure the players’ union keeps statistics on that stuff, but if they do they might want to include a category of how many major leaguers die in hotel beds with companions other than their wives. If Orza thinks beer kills more players than ephedra, perhaps groupies do too. Let’s delve into that. Oh, sorry. We forgot about privacy.

Minor league baseball has banned ephedra. So has the National Football League, Major League Soccer and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

The National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League, with all those tough guys, and Major League Baseball, have not.

During the congressional hearing, an amazing statistic came to light. Dr. McClellan told the committee members that the FDA had received more than 17,000 complaints, mostly relating to health issues and including ephedra complaints, from consumers.

According to the New York Times story on all this by Christopher Drew, auto racing ”” where NASCAR has set limits on the amount of ephedra drivers can use ”” turned its head on the issue when it came to money. Rep. Jan Schakowski, a Democrat from Illinois, asked why the sport had welcomed at least one ephedra company as a sponsor of a racing team and an advertiser at tracks.

Privacy, we suppose. The right to do whatever one damn pleases. Never mind Steve Bechler and others like him. Freedom to use whatever one wants — particularly if one is a high-paid athlete — is part of the American Way. A guy has to keep those batting averages up, and a little snort of something is one way of doing it, as events in recent years have indicated clearly.