Congress scolded baseball for its steroid policy Wednesday and requested that negotiations for a stricter program be completed by the end of next month’s World Series.
At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing that included testimony from the commissioners of North America’s four major professional sports, their union leaders and five Hall of Fame baseball players, the committee threatened legislation if baseball failed to enact harsher discipline that mandates a lifetime ban for third-time offenders.
Commissioner Bud Selig said that if the players did not consent to his 5-month-old proposal -- suspensions of 50 games for first-time offenders, 100 games for second-time offenders and the lifetime ban for a third violation -- he would endorse legislative proposals that sought to impose a two-year suspension for a first violation and permanent expulsion for a second.
As commissioners David Stern of the NBA, Paul Tagliabue of the NFL and Gary Bettman of the NHL and union officials looked on, senators during a two-hour hearing repeatedly admonished Don Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players’ Assn., for his reluctance to accept Selig’s terms.
The five Hall of Famers -- Hank Aaron, Lou Brock, Ryne Sandberg, Phil Niekro and Robin Roberts -- testified on behalf of Selig’s proposed program. A sixth -- Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) -- attended as a guest of the committee and sat to the left of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who chaired the hearing and has drafted one of the anti-steroid bills.
Though the other sports’ officials read opening statements that outlined their policies and then answered follow-up queries, baseball was subject to the sternest interrogation. By the time the hearing adjourned, it was apparent the committee believed Fehr -- and not Selig -- was to blame for baseball’s inability to adopt an acceptable policy.
“Are you and the players living in such a rarefied atmosphere that you do not see this as a transcendent issue?” McCain asked. “Don’t you get it? Don’t you get it?”
McCain made a reference to Baltimore Oriole slugger Rafael Palmeiro, who strongly denied using steroids before a House committee in March and was suspended for 10 days under the current steroid policy in August, and said, “The patience of this body, reflective of its constituents, has reached an end.”
Asked for a reasonable deadline to conclude negotiations, Fehr said, “Would I expect it by the end of the World Series? I would certainly hope so.”
Game 7, if necessary, is scheduled for Oct. 30. After the hearing, Fehr said he believed the deadline to be soft.
“What it was, essentially, I would love to get something done,” he said. “My goal is to stick at it until we figure out a way to do it. I hope that we’ll be able to get it done by then. If we don’t, then you go into the next day. You keep doing it.”
Rob Manfred, an executive vice president for baseball and its chief negotiator, gestured to the then-empty committee chairs and said, “It’s pretty clear they’re serious about it as a hard deadline. We’ll have to make some progress.”
Selig and Fehr have been severely criticized in previous congressional hearings, most recently before the House Government Reform Committee in March. But on Wednesday, surrounded by Hall of Fame players and armed with a proposal that would significantly increase penalties, Selig separated himself from Fehr. What previously had been viewed as baseball’s reluctance to recognize its steroid problem had become Fehr’s reluctance to bargain away player rights.
Selig called Aaron, who hit a record 755 home runs, Sandberg, Brock, Niekro and Roberts “the moral authority of our sport.”
“They have very strong views,” Selig said. “They articulated those views. They have a right to do that. After all, they represented this sport in a most profound way for years.
“It’s the integrity issue. That is the issue that transcends everything else. That’s why we need a tougher program. That’s why we need independent testing. The fact that program is working is frankly irrelevant at this point. What is relevant is, if you look around at these five people that stand behind me, the integrity of the sport transcends everything.”
Aaron, in supporting Selig and stricter drug testing, spoke of the impact the proposed policy would have on children, particularly young athletes. “If we don’t protect them, how are we going to protect this country?” he said.
Roberts then told the committee, “Don [Fehr] is the one who can straighten this out immediately.”
Fehr said he welcomed the former players’ views.
“I do not discuss comments of current or former players,” he said. “I worked with them. I still negotiate their pensions. They can say whatever they believe and they should say whatever they believe. It’s not my job to indicate that I disagree.”
Congressional curiosity stemmed from an era of increased home runs and its fallout.
The federal investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative linked several of baseball’s best-known power hitters to common and designer steroids and, in a tell-all book, admitted steroid user Jose Canseco accused more than a dozen players, including Mark McGwire, Jason Giambi and Palmeiro, of using performance-enhancing drugs.
A new steroid policy would be baseball’s third in less than a year; last winter, the union took the unprecedented step of reopening the collective bargaining agreement to include the existing agreement. As it stands, players who test positive for performance-enhancing drugs are suspended for 10 days. A second positive results in a 30-day suspension, a third in a 60-day suspension.
The union has countered Selig’s proposal, seeking penalties of 20 games for a first offense and 75 games for a second offense. The penalty for a third offense, as submitted by the union, would be determined by the commissioner, who could impose a lifetime ban, and reviewed by a arbitrator.
“If you look at the issues, we’ve narrowed them very substantially,” Fehr said. “You’re looking at the three-strikes-and-you’re-out [clause]. There is some difference in our proposals, but it’s much less than people think it is. And I think that when that’s examined, that becomes apparent.”