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BASEBALL : Random Drug Testing Is Urged for Major Leagues

Peter Ueberroth declared a victory in baseball’s war on drugs when he left office as commissioner in 1988.

The Otis Nixon incident--along with others since Ueberroth left--seems to indicate that the war continues, though confined apparently to occasional fire fights.

Deputy Commissioner Steve Greenberg, in a phone interview the other day, said that random testing can be credited with virtually eliminating drug usage in the minor leagues but added: “I would not be so sanguine as to say that it’s not an issue in baseball, as it is in society. I’d be foolish to think otherwise.

“Until we have a random testing program that would provide tangible data (in the major leagues), I have to assume there is drug use.

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“Empirically, I think it’s way down from 10 years ago, when rumors were flying about almost everyone in the game. I was representing players then and I know what they told me about the usage. None of them were involved, but they were chagrined about the extent of that usage.”

Education has heightened awareness of the danger, Greenberg said, but random testing, he maintains, is the best way to eliminate it.

There have been periodic discussions between the commissioner’s office and players’ union regarding random testing for five years, but the union continues to see it as a Constitutional issue, an invasion of privacy.

“I understand the union’s position, but I don’t agree with it,” Greenberg said. “With every Constitutional issue, you have to balance the pluses and minuses.

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“I think it’s a definite plus in the public’s view to know their airline pilots are flying sober. I think that outweighs whatever demeaning imposition, if that’s what it is, testing puts on a pilot’s private life.

“When we began testing minor leaguers five years ago, 10% of the tests were positive. Now it’s 1%.

“That’s a dramatic decline, and the only way to explain it is that the players realize that by playing Russian roulette, there’s the possibility of a bullet in the chamber, and there’s too much at stake to run the risk of being caught.

“Testing has virtually eliminated drug use in the minors, where the players are at an age most susceptible to it, and we have to believe it would do the same in the majors.”

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In an attempt to measure the use in the major leagues, Greenberg said, the commissioner has asked the union to agree to a one-time, anonymous, non-punitive test of every player.

“We’ve said, ‘Let’s see if it’s 20%, 10% or 1%,’ ” Greenberg said. “If the union is right and it’s a negligible problem, then we would have no reason to be concerned, but so far the union won’t agree (to the one-time test).”

The union, besides perceiving testing as a privacy issue, also sees it as punitive, which Greenberg insists it is not.

“We’re not looking to run anyone out of the game,” he said. “The program isn’t based on discipline. We’re tying to help, to put people back in uniform, and to tell the public that the product on the field isn’t affected by drugs.”

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That philosophy of assistance has been seen in the Nixon case. Greenberg and others in the commissioner’s office have urged the Atlanta outfielder to pursue rehabilitation for a second time, then resume his career when his 60-day suspension ends next season.

Greenberg, who conducted an Aug. 1 hearing after Nixon tested positive for cocaine in July, decided against a suspension at that time, he said, because Nixon tested negative for four years, was a model citizen--active in church and community work--and argued persuasively that he was not using cocaine again, although he had no explanation for the positive test.

“We’ve been accused of being too lenient (for failing to discipline Nixon then), but being lenient would have been to believe he took drugs but waived the penalty. We believed his account, that he didn’t take drugs at that time, but we believed it with the knowledge that he would continue to be tested.”

Nixon tested negatively throughout August, but when a Sept. 7 test came back positive, he was suspended without a hearing.

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Greenberg said he was shocked by the results, considering Nixon’s record over the previous four years, and suggested that the relapse spoke to the insidious nature of the drug.

And the likelihood, he might have added, that the war will never totally end.

BORDER PATROL

Jose Canseco expressed a desire to be traded the other day because of the way he and wife, Esther, are mistreated by Oakland fans. He added that he really doesn’t want to leave, that it’s up to the fans.

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Time will determine the seriousness of Canseco’s desire, but it seemed more than coincidence that Canseco talked about leaving Oakland on the day he completed another smashing series in the Toronto SkyDome.

Is it really the demeanor of the Oakland fans or the dimensions of the Oakland Coliseum that have Canseco most disturbed?

“The more you go around the league, the more you experience things, the older you get, you’re looking for the advantages, like where the ball carries more,” Canseco said. “I lose too many home runs in Oakland.”

Though still battling Cecil Fielder for the American League home run title, Canseco privately believes he never will have that 50- or 60-homer season in Oakland, never will wipe out Roger Maris’ non-asterisk record there.

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In 15 regular-season and playoff games at the SkyDome, he has 10 home runs, 29 runs batted in and a .377 batting average.

“I would rather hit there than any other place,” he said. “The background is great, the ball carries well and their pitching staff challenges me. I get pitches to hit.”

And if he seriously wants to leave, A’s Manager Tony La Russa implied that he would not try to prevent it and did not consider Canseco irreplaceable.

“Are we in first place?” La Russa said, ignoring the fact that his A’s finished first in each of the previous three years.

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“He is only one player, and if he doesn’t want to be here . . . ,” La Russa said. “I mean, more people still talk about wanting to come to the Oakland A’s than wanting to leave.”

DOC UPDATE

The New York Mets insist that Dwight Gooden will be 100% in spring training after having cartilage removed and a rotator tear repaired by arthroscopic surgery, but some of his teammates are skeptical.

Said shortstop Kevin Elster, who had a similar procedure last winter and has yet to regain his previous strength: “Don’t expect any miracles. Doc’s going to be out awhile next year--I mean, a long while.”

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Said third baseman Howard Johnson, who has twice had shoulder surgery: “I think we’re talking about a full year before Doc is strong again, maybe two before he’s throwing like he once did.”

Gooden signed a three-year, $15.45-million contract extension this season, and club President Frank Cashen can’t believe he succumbed.

“I’ve pointed to all the long-term contracts over the years and said, ‘Look at how stupid those clubs are,’ ” Cashen said. “Well, I’m as guilty as everyone else. I’m just as stupid.”

What it probably adds up to is that Frank Viola, 12-15 with seven consecutive defeats and 10 in his last 11 starts, will have to go elsewhere for a long-term contract when he becomes a free agent at the end of the season.

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QUESTION OF RELIEF

The sudden battle between the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox in the American League East might be settled in the bullpen--or by Cito Gaston’s ailing back.

The Toronto manager is expected to rejoin his team when it returns from a three-game series in Anaheim Thursday. Interim manager Gene Tenace has caused an undercurrent of unrest by overworking the bullpen, as some see it.

Tenace used five or more pitchers four times in a seven-game span before the weekend series in Oakland.

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David Wells was in four consecutive games and Duane Ward in four of five. Both Mike Timlin and relief ace Tom Henke had tired arms, Henke with a touch of tendinitis.

In losing two of three to the Seattle Mariners before heading to Oakland, the Blue Jays twice blew leads in each of the losses.

Boston, meanwhile, has closed from 11 1/2 games out to one-half game by going 31-10 since Aug. 9. Relief ace Jeff Reardon was 15 for 16 in saves chances during that span, and Tony Fossas and Greg Harris were brilliant in the set-up role.

Left-hander Fossas has stranded 47 of 49 inherited runners and restricted left-handed hitters to a .151 average. Right-hander Harris beat Toronto with a four-hitter Aug. 10, moved to the bullpen the next day to replace Jeff Gray, who suffered a stroke, and has since given up only four earned runs in 24 1/3 innings.

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The steady relief has helped restore stability to a rebuilt rotation. Since Aug. 6, unsung Mark Gardner and Kevin Morton are a combined 10-2.

Sparky Anderson, with his Detroit Tigers virtually eliminated in the East, reflected on the Blue Jays’ recent struggle in the context of their previous fall collapses and said: “I’m not saying Toronto won’t win it, but if they do it will be by default. People don’t believe me when I say you’ve got to lock the door. Us and Toronto, we can’t lock the door.”

A NEW GAME

Sounding a lot like Bo Schembechler, who resigned as Michigan football coach to become president of the Detroit Tigers, Rick Bay, who resigned as the athletic director at Minnesota to become president of the Cleveland Indians, said initially he will be involved only in the business end.

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“I’ll eventually get involved in the player end, too, but nobody has to be threatened by that because I don’t know that much now,” said Bay, who accepted the job as successor to the retiring Hank Peters with the understanding that the Cleveland owners wanted John Hart to remain as general manager and were extending his contract to assure it.

Mike Aldrete, one of 53 players the Indians have employed this year, said of Bay’s hiring: “What’s another new face?”


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