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Union signals cooperation

In a letter to Selig, Fehr says he would be willing to discuss reforms proposed in the Mitchell Report.

December 19, 2007|Bill Shaikin and Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writers

With Congress watching baseball's every move in response to the Mitchell Report, the players' union has signaled its willingness to consider the reforms proposed in the report.

In a letter to Commissioner Bud Selig, union Executive Director Donald Fehr said he would be amenable to discussing the issue, Major League Baseball spokesman Pat Courtney said Tuesday.

Although the bulk of the report documents the widespread distribution of performance-enhancing substances within baseball, the final section offers 20 recommendations to combat the problem.

In a letter to Fehr on Friday, the day after the report was released, Selig said he would unilaterally implement all the recommendations within his authority and invited the union to discuss those proposals subject to collective bargaining. If Fehr's acceptance letter leads to negotiations, the players would reopen collective bargaining for the third time in three years, each time to revise baseball's drug policy under pressure from Congress.

Congress awaits again. The same committee that summoned Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco and Sammy Sosa to Congress three years ago has summoned Selig and Fehr to Washington on Jan. 15.

That panel -- the House Government Reform Committee -- is chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills). During that 2005 hearing, Waxman told Selig and Fehr to clean up baseball or risk Congress' legislating a drug policy. Within months, baseball adopted its latest policy, which increased the suspension for a player testing positive for the first time from 10 days to 50 games.

Waxman also called former Sen. George Mitchell, the leader of baseball's investigation and author of the report, to testify. Committee spokeswoman Karen Lightfoot said no players have been invited to appear.

Mitchell also is scheduled to testify at a Jan. 23 hearing before an Energy and Commerce subcommittee chaired by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.).

In his report, Mitchell proposed six reforms subject to collective bargaining, most prominent among them that owners and players let a third party independently run the drug testing program. He also called for more frequent off-season drug testing, with no advance notice.

In 2006, according to the report, baseball administered only 68 off-season tests, or barely one test for every 18 major league players. The testing program defines major leaguers as players on 40-man rosters.

In addition, the report said, the players tested in the off-season received advance notice of 24 to 72 hours.

"While it is without question more difficult to schedule a test of a player on the off-season," Mitchell wrote, "providing up to 72 hours notice could conceivably permit a player who is using banned substances to take steps to avoid a positive test."

Mitchell's report proposed 14 other reforms, ones Selig said he would implement as soon as possible. It is uncertain whether one of those recommendations -- to test the top 100 draft prospects each year, as identified by the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau -- is subject to collective bargaining.

Selig plans to unilaterally require drug testing and random background checks of clubhouse staff, as recommended by Mitchell. Kirk Radomski, who led Mitchell to many of the players cited in the report, worked as a clubhouse attendant for the New York Mets.

And, also as recommended, Selig plans to appoint an investigative czar to work closely with government agents and prosecutors. The players linked with performance-enhancing substances -- through Radomski, through the BALCO case in San Francisco, through an Albany, N.Y., investigation into Internet drug trafficking -- apparently did not fail a drug test administered under baseball's auspices.

"One law enforcement official advised us in frustration," Mitchell wrote, "that there is no clearly designated person in the commissioner's office to call when law enforcement does have information."

Also Tuesday, Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) called on Congress to enact legislation categorizing human growth hormone as a Schedule 3 controlled substance like any other steroid, registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration and dispensed only for medical purposes.

HGH already is banned under major league rules. But amid the unavailability of a urine test and the uncertain reliability of blood tests, baseball does not test for HGH. That makes HGH the performance-enhancing substance of choice among major leaguers, Mitchell reported.

Grassley also is seeking to make it illegal to sell dehydroepiandrosterone, a naturally occurring precursor to testosterone known as DHEA that he said some athletes are using now that steroids have been banned.

"Last week's release of the Mitchell Report further illustrates the fact that athletes are still turning to these horrible drugs to gain a competitive edge," Grassley said. "And in the end, these professional athletes are showing kids that it's OK to use steroids or steroid precursors. And this is what we have to put an end to."

Shaikin reported from Los Angeles. Neuman reported from Washington.

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