Major League Baseball and its players' union agreed Tuesday to a three-strikes-and-you're-out steroid policy containing harsher penalties and more frequent testing than current rules, as well as testing for amphetamines -- apparently mollifying congressional leaders who had been critical of baseball's previous programs.
Facing federal legislation that could have instituted sterner penalties, baseball and the Players' Assn. agreed on a 50-game suspension for first-time violators, 100 games for a second offense and a lifetime ban for a third. An expelled player could seek reinstatement after two years.
The new policy, which must be ratified by owners and players, is the toughest among the major North American pro sports leagues, banning first-time violators for nearly one-third of a 162-game season. The National Football League and National Hockey League suspend first offenders for the equivalent of a quarter of a season, the National Basketball Assn. for about one-eighth. Olympic rules ban first offenders for two years, second offenders for life.
It is the second time in less than a year that the powerful union, under pressure from lawmakers and the public over steroid abuses, has agreed to alter its collective bargaining agreement with owners.
Baseball's newest program adheres closely to a plan set forth by Commissioner Bud Selig in April, a month after the House Government Reform Committee subpoenaed baseball players, officials and union leaders to a hearing on Capitol Hill.
Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire were among the players who denied under oath having used steroids; Palmeiro was suspended in August under the guidelines of the current program for 10 days. Under that program, which was ratified in March, the suspensions rise to 30 days for a second offense, and 60 days for a third offense.
The Government Reform Committee investigated Palmeiro for possible perjury but last week declined to pursue charges, citing a lack of evidence.
Several bills had been written since the March 17 hearing, all seeking uniform policies for North America's major sports leagues, and all calling for substantial increases in testing frequency and penalties along the lines of the Olympic standard. Last week, a bill co-written by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) was softened to a half-season for a first positive test and a full season for a second positive.
As congressional support for uniform testing gained momentum, and with Selig unwilling to budge on the fundamental aspects of his policy, union Executive Director Don Fehr appeared to have little alternative but to accept the less stringent of the two proposals. Selig said he expected the owners to approve the agreement during their annual meetings this week in Milwaukee. The executive board of the union is to meet Dec. 5-9 in Henderson, Nev., and could vote on the agreement then.
Hours before a Senate hearing in September, Fehr had proposed a policy in which steroid suspensions would begin at 20 games.
In a statement Tuesday, he said, "This agreement reaffirms that major league players are committed to the elimination of performance-enhancing substances and that the system of collective bargaining is responsive and effective in dealing with issues of this type."
Fehr was meeting with players in the Dominican Republic on Tuesday, according to a union spokesman, and could not be reached for comment.
In a conference call Tuesday afternoon, Selig said the agreement was "historic" and one that "I believe will eradicate steroid use in baseball."
Although Selig has expressed similar sentiments in introducing the previous two performance-enhancing drug programs, each progressively more strict, the new policy drew mostly good reviews from Capitol Hill.
The revised policy would not necessarily forestall legislative measures, said some lawmakers, in part because it falls well short of the Olympic model. In statements, Bunning called the policy "a definite improvement," however, and McCain commended baseball and the union for helping to deter steroid use in the game and among youngsters.
"I believe that the new performance-enhancing drug testing policy announced today by MLB and the MLB Players' Assn. achieves this goal," McCain said.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), the ranking minority member of the House Government Reform Committee, spoke of using baseball's program as a model for other sports and future legislation.
"I wouldn't say that it's impossible to have Congress try to work around the edges of that agreement and tweak the details," he said. "I think we're going to look at the details of the agreement further, but they've made a lot of progress. They've got strong penalties. If we were passing a law, this would not be an unreasonable penalty to put in the law."