PHOENIX — Major league baseball players, facing pressure from Congress, fans and the commissioner, authorized union leaders Tuesday to seek an agreement for tougher rules against steroids, possibly in time for next year's spring training.
Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players' Assn., said the union's executive board "authorized us to attempt to conclude an agreement" with the commissioner's office, adding, "I don't think it will take an extended period of time."
Amending the current collective bargaining agreement, which is not due to expire until December 2006, would be unprecedented in the sport's labor history -- and a rare step for any union not threatened by drastic changes such as plant closures or layoffs, one labor expert said.
The union's decision to negotiate for stricter rules comes after more than a year of court testimony, news reports and baseball's own studies suggesting that players, some of them among the game's top sluggers, used steroids and other performance-enhancing substances.
The disclosures have outraged fans -- some jeered San Francisco's Barry Bonds last season with chants of "BALCO, BALCO," a reference to the ongoing criminal case involving a Bay Area nutritional supplement lab -- and spurred politicians to threaten legislative action.
"I don't think they had any choice," said Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. "With the fans' reaction and the government breathing down their neck ... it was really the only thing they could do. That horse is leaving the barn, and they need to be on it."
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has repeatedly called for the union to accept a steroid testing and punishment program in line with that used in the non-union minor leagues. The drive gained new urgency in the last week amid disclosure of secret grand jury testimony by Bonds, considered by many the game's premier player, and former American League most valuable player Jason Giambi.
Bonds, who needs 52 home runs to tie the career record, testified that he used substances provided to him by a defendant in the BALCO steroid distribution case -- his personal trainer -- and Giambi, of the New York Yankees, admitted injecting himself with steroids, according to reports in the San Francisco Chronicle.
After those reports, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) renewed warnings that baseball would face congressional action if it did not adopt stricter measures, and President Bush enlisted long-time friend Roland Betts, a New York developer and once a fellow investor in the American League's Texas Rangers, to encourage a settlement.
David Ross, a Dodger catcher and the team's player representative, called the players' authorization a "preliminary" step to amending the contract.
"Our hope is that they can come to a resolution.... We know this is more than just our game, so we're taking all these things into consideration," Ross said, acknowledging that the steroid issue affects more than just players.
Fehr, speaking to reporters at a long-scheduled meeting here with player representatives from the 30 major league ballclubs, said he expected to resume talks by next week with Rob Manfred, lead negotiator for the commissioner's office.
"We're pleased the union has decided to join us in an effort to reach an agreement on a very serious issue," Manfred said in a telephone interview. "We're optimistic we can do that in short order."
Under a policy negotiated in 2002 and not put into its penalty phase until this year, players are tested for steroids annually. Those who test positive enter counseling, and a second offense could draw a 15-game suspension. After five positive tests, a player could be banned for a year.
The current testing program has drawn criticism as weak from many quarters -- fans, international doping authorities, the commissioner and some players. Though Fehr said Tuesday that testing during the 2004 season showed fewer positive steroid results than in 2003, when baseball's "survey" testing yielded positive results in 5% to 7% of players, union leaders appeared to yield to that criticism.
"We said [in 2002] and thereafter that one of the things we would see in this agreement is we would have actual experience under it, and that would tell us some things," he said. "I think the preliminary indications are, although I can't go into details, that the testing program we had this year had some pretty significant positive effects.
"That doesn't mean, however, that given the experience we had, that there can't be amendments which can't be better than that."
Under the minor league system, backed by Selig and endorsed by McCain, players can be tested randomly up to four times, are suspended for 15 games after one offense and are banned for life after five offenses.