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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Quick Changes in Baseball's Drug Policy Not Very Likely

March 21, 2004|Jim Litke | Associated Press

Reports that Bud Selig stays up late rereading the "best interests of baseball" clause in the commissioner's handbook must have the lawyers at the players' union rolling on the floor.

For one thing, after almost 15 years on the job, what are the odds Selig would even recognize baseball's best interests if one walked into his office and smacked him upside the head?

For another, it's already way too late to take a swing at the joke of a drug-testing policy in the collective bargaining agreement. Bud let that pitch go by years ago.

In a side letter to the four-year agreement Selig signed and gave to union boss Donald Fehr in September 2002, he flat-out promised not to mess with any of the players' negotiated rights. Talk of a split in the membership ranks over drug testing is just that, and the union's lawyers already have a better record than Perry Mason when Selig & Co. wind up on the witness stand.

Even as you read this, those lawyers are taking turns pretending to unfold that letter in front of an arbitrator -- and falling down laughing.

Gene Orza, the No. 2 man in the players' association, said Selig wielding those "best interests" powers was not going to happen.

"It's got enormous legal and practical problems," Orza said. "I think that's just a rumor."

Just before the vague threats began emanating from the commissioner's office, Selig went before Congress and said he was already doing everything he could. Fehr told the same group he has done all he's planning to, and he challenged lawmakers to do otherwise.

Say what you want about Fehr, but his logic was nearly flawless and his timing was even better. He told lawmakers if they wanted to ban performance enhancers for ballplayers, all they had to do was ban them for everyone. Then, knowing how much money from the industry flows into political coffers in an election year, Fehr put his feet up on the desk and waited. He's still waiting.

For all the lip-quivering, hand-wringing pronouncements of the past few weeks, baseball will end up doing the same thing about its drug problem that it's done about nearly all the game's other woes: nothing.

It's not that Selig isn't well-meaning, just that it took him too long to get the courage to stick his toe into the batter's box. On one of those cool spring nights in the middle of the home-run binge four years ago, I called Selig at home and asked him if it was time to worry. He pleaded for calm.

"Of course, we have concerns," the commissioner said. "But at this stage we're just sitting back and monitoring."

Besides, the commissioner assured us his men were already on it. He'd dispatched one team of scientists on a fact-finding mission (read: junket) to the Caribbean to rummage through the factories where baseballs are made. He dispatched another team -- Harvard scientists, no less -- to study the effects of using androstenedione, the muscle-building supplement that Mark McGwire used during his record-breaking 1998 season.

The study concluded andro probably translated into bigger muscles and could be hazardous to a ballplayer's health. Selig promptly thanked the researchers for a "significant contribution to the science surrounding its use" and put the study in a drawer.

Four years later, baseballs are still made the same way and baseball players can still use andro.

On Wednesday, Red Sox outfielder Johnny Damon said what a lot of people are thinking: Everybody in the game knew what was going on, but figured that if big paid well, then bigger would pay even better.

"What boosted attendance in baseball more than home runs, guys taking steroids and hitting home runs?" Damon said. "That boosted attendance. It boosted salaries. It boosted money for owners."

Whether supersizing will turn out better for baseball over the long haul than it did for McDonald's is anybody's guess.

Plenty of fans, players and even owners have voiced concerns over the health hazards associated with it, not to mention the integrity of a decade worth of suspiciously elevated performances.

But whatever the real percentage of juiced performers is -- and was -- the percentage of people willing to live with whatever bargain was struck is still high enough to keep baseball's ATM stuffed with cash.

Selig said recently he hoped there would not be an erosion of trust in the game.

"The good news is I believe we will be able to show the largest preseason ticket sale ever," he said. "There's an enormous amount of interest."

And he insisted one more time that the question of performance enhancers "is an issue we need to deal with." But he also sent out a clear signal that the cavalry won't be arriving anytime soon.

"Make no mistake about it," he promised. "I'll review every option."

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