Major League Baseball and Rafael Palmeiro continued to snipe at each other over privacy issues in his steroid case yesterday, making it hard to believe it has been only three weeks since baseball bought a congratulatory newspaper ad to mark the Oriole's 3,000th hit.

Baseball seems embarrassed not only that Palmeiro failed a steroid test, but that his abbreviated explanation - that the drug use was accidental - has quickly become a national punch line.

And it has.

"You can't watch a standup comedian without hearing about it," said popular culture expert Robert J. Thompson of Syracuse University. "In the court of public culture, it's automatically assumed guilt."

The baseball commissioner's office, which has been distancing itself from Palmeiro and his defense, yesterday issued a statement saying the recent steroid-related suspensions of Palmeiro and others show that the sport's drug program needs more teeth.

"While I believe the suspensions show that the current program is working, they underscore the need for an even tougher policy," commissioner Bud Selig said. "There is a deeper issue confronting baseball. It is the integrity of the game, and that transcends the viability of the current program."

Selig has been pushing the Major League Baseball Players Association - so far unsuccessfully - to agree to a new steroids regimen that would include a suspension of 50 games for a first violation, 100 for a second and a lifetime ban for a third offense.

Under the current system, Palmeiro received a suspension of 10 days for an initial violation.

The baseball players union has issues of its own. The union is concerned that baseball, as part of its anti-steroids push, might have violated Palmeiro's privacy rights by leaking information to the media about when Palmeiro failed his drug test and which steroid - it was stanozolol - was uncovered.

Palmeiro's agent, Arn Tellem, has expressed a similar concern, accusing baseball of breaking confidentiality rules and undermining "the integrity" of the drug testing program.

Yesterday, baseball denied breaking any rules.

"No information about this test became public until after Mr. Palmeiro's grievance was fully litigated and decided," Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball executive vice president, said in an e-mailed response to a Sun inquiry. "After the decision, Baseball put out its standard news release and said nothing more. Only the player has been talking about the underlying facts publicly," Manfred said.

Tellem offered no immediate reply. But his office e-mailed a copy of a New York Times article from Wednesday identifying the banned substance found in Palmeiro's system. The newspaper attributed the information to "a person in baseball."

The clear suggestion from Tellem's office was that baseball was behind the leak.

Baseball spokesman Richard Levin has said he doesn't know where the disclosures originated.

Among those interested in the leaks is Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, which is examining Palmeiro's case.

Waxman said yesterday he hoped to learn more about the release of Palmeiro's information as the committee gathered facts broadly in the case.

Palmeiro knew about his failed drug test as he chased his 3,000th hit last month. Baseball took out a full-page ad in USA Today to congratulate him.

On March 17, Palmeiro told the congressional committee he never used steroids. He also asked to join the Zero Tolerance Roundtable, an advisory group comprising steroid experts and representatives from various sports.

"You have to realize he asked us to go on it [the roundtable]. He sent in a request," Waxman said. "I guess his idea of zero tolerance is a little more tolerant than we expected it to be."

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