Yielding to intense pressure from Congress in the wake of steroid use scandals, Major League Baseball agreed Tuesday to a tough new drug testing policy. The league and its players' union agreed to much stiffer penalties for using steroids. They also agreed for the first time to test for amphetamines, the dirty little secret of pro baseball.
Major League Baseball agreed to test for steroids only ten months ago as clamor grew over repeated revelations of steroid use by stars such as Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi. Under that agreement, first-time offenders were suspended for 10 games, with a 30-game suspension for a second offense and a 60-day suspension for a third offense. It would take five repeats to earn a lifetime ban. Under the regime adopted Tuesday, a player testing positive for steroids would get a 50-game suspension, with 100 games for a second positive test, and a life-time ban for a third, according to a joint press release from the league and the union.
The move came as Congress was considering legislation co-sponsored by Senators Jim Bunning (R-KY), a famed past Major League baseball player, and John McCain (R-AZ), that would have made the drug testing policies of pro baseball, football, basketball, and hockey a matter of federal law. That bill would have mandated a half-season suspension for a first positive test, a full season for a second, and a lifetime ban for a third.
But if the new regime was designed to satisfy federal lawmakers, it only seems to have encouraged them. "I'm here to declare victory," said Bunning at a news conference. "It shows what Congress can do without always making a law." But Bunning is still threatening to do just that. He said he will not withdraw his bill until the agreement is signed by both players and management, and until the other pro sports league adopt tougher drug testing policies.
It's not just the Senate that wants to mandate drug testing in pro sports. US Reps. Tom Davis (R-VA) and Henry Waxman (D-CA), who held hearings on the issue this spring in the House Government Reform Committee, saw the agreement as a signal for further intervention in pro sports. At the news conference, they said they would now turn their attention to other sports.
Davis congratulated pro baseball on having an amphetamine policy that is "the toughest in any sport right now." That is something of a surprise given baseball's long love affair with "greenies," as the popular stimulants are known in the locker room.
"We all know amphetamines have been around for a long time," commissioner Bud Selig said. "I've been meeting with doctors and trainers for a long time. We knew we had to get something done. We wouldn't have solved the (doping) problem if we ignored amphetamines."
New York Daily News sports writer TJ Quinn elaborated in a column this week: "Players first started taking them in the 1960s, and most clubhouses have had separate coffee pots labeled 'coaches' and 'players,' with the 'players' brew offering an extra kick. Several players have said the season and its travel are too tough on the body, and that they need something to get them going every day. Others said they felt the stimulants gave them heightened energy and awareness. They were an open secret, however, and players felt free to joke about the pills with reporters when a stray one might show up on the clubhouse floor. One GM even joked with reporters after a rain delay that his players were upset that the umpires waited until they had taken their 'beans' to call out the tarps.
Major League Baseball and its players' union have caved in to threat of congressional action. It remains to be seen if their surrender lessens the congressional impulse to impose its drug-testing wishes on whole sectors of the economy.