Baseball beefs up steroid policy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - In an effort to restore fans' confidence in the game, Major League Baseball announced yesterday a tougher policy on steroids and performance-enhancing drugs that calls for every player to be tested at least once a year and for punishment of first-time offenders.

"I've been saying for some time that my goal for this industry is zero tolerance regarding steroids," said baseball commissioner Bud Selig. "The agreement [with the players union] ... is an important step toward achieving that goal.

"I regarded this as not only a health issue, but certainly you could say it was an integrity issue in this sport."

Baseball and its players have been under pressure for some time to come up with a drug policy that has more teeth than the one in place since 2002. Under that agreement, for example, a player testing positive for the first time would be forced only to undergo treatment, and the positive test was not made public. Under the new policy, the player would be suspended for 10 games without pay and fans would be told of the result.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who has urged baseball's leaders to improve the game's testing program - or have Congress do it for them - said in a news conference in Washington that the new policy appeared strong enough to eliminate the need for legislation.

"It appears to be a significant step in the right direction," said McCain, although he added that he is "unhappy" with the length of the first-offense penalty.

Areas of changes

The new policy, which would run through the 2008 season, has four "significant areas of change," from the old agreement, said Rob Manfred, the MLB vice president in charge of labor relations, who negotiated the deal with the Major League Baseball Players Association.

Each player will undergo at least one urine test on a randomly selected date from the beginning of spring training until the end of the regular season. In addition, players will be subject to an unlimited number of follow-up tests. The players picked for those tests will be randomly selected.

Random follow-up tests will be extended throughout the off-season. In addition, tests will be performed on players who live outside the United States.

The list of banned substances has been broadened beyond steroids to include steroid precursors and designer steroids, such as THG. Also banned are ephedra, human growth hormone, masking agents and diuretics. In addition, any new substances that are regulated as steroids will be automatically banned.

Penalties are harsher for all offenders. A second positive test will bring a 30-day suspension, a third a 60-day suspension and a fourth a one-year ban.

Manfred said the new policy should be judged against those of other professional sports. In the National Football League, a first positive steroid test results in a four-game suspension. In the National Basketball Association, the ban is five games.

The World Anti-Doping Agency's code, which has been adopted by most Olympic sports, says the "norm" is a two-year ban for a first positive test and a lifetime ban for a second, unless there are mitigating circumstances.

'Good as any policy'

"This is as good as any policy in any professional sport," Manfred said.

Baseball's old drug policy is part of the current labor agreement with the players association, which runs through 2006.

"We had no obligation, legally, to address this subject," said players association head Donald Fehr, who interrupted a family vacation to participate in the commissioner's news conference by phone. "We had an agreement in place that we thought would prove effective. But you learn over time ... and you gain experience with it."

Fehr said he was confident the players would ratify the agreement, as the owners did yesterday, and that it would be in place for this season.

Orioles player representative Jay Gibbons said players "had discussed this thoroughly at the winter meetings and decided it would be a good gesture on our part to make a change, even though what we had last year worked fine."

"This is a lot stricter than in the past. There's no more first-time slap on the wrist. The first time, you lose some serious money and get public exposure that you don't want," he said.

Other players hailed the new policy as something that the game needed.

"All the stuff that went on with Jason Giambi, Barry Bonds and the other guys put kind of a bitter taste in people's mouths," said Casey Blake of the Cleveland Indians. "Something had to be done to ease the fans' and players' minds. I think everybody wanted something stricter."

Said Vinny Castilla of the Washington Nationals: "I think it's great, man. It'll keep everybody clean."

Negotiations since May

The negotiations for a new drug policy have been going on since May, after President Bush appealed to athletes and pro sports leagues to wipe out the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in his State of the Union speech last year.

But the talks lagged until December when the San Francisco Chronicle published leaked grand jury testimony in which two of baseball's biggest stars - Bonds and Giambi - admitted that they had used steroids.

Selig declined to say if baseball would take any action against players found to be using steroids in the past. "I have consistently said we're not going to engage in any conjecture," Selig said. "There has been a lot of conjecture, but there have been no players that have been convicted of anything."

The commissioner said he expects the new policy to act as a deterrent to players who were thinking about using performance-enhancing substances.

"This agreement captures everything that everybody always said should be in an agreement," he said.

Yet, there were naysayers on both sides.

World Anti-Doping Agency chairman Dick Pound, a member of the International Olympic Committee since 1978, saw it as too weak. "Basically, instead of having to hold up the liquor store five times before you get a one-year suspension, you only have to hold it up four times," he said. "But at least there's some penalty incurred the first time that you're tested, and that's a step forward."

Former players union head Marvin Miller said yesterday that there is not enough evidence of the drugs' dangers to support the new intrusion into the athletes' lives. "I disapprove of all kinds of testing unless there is probable cause to believe that the person being tested has done something wrong," he said.

Sun staff writers Jeff Barker and Roch Kubatko and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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