Baseball's get-tough policy leaves a loophole at the top
In the age of the iPod, the commissioner of baseball just discovered vinyl records. Bud Selig announced his new and improved doping policy as a great victory for the sport, but if there was any winner on Tuesday, it had to be the next Jose Canseco and his publisher. This drug agreement should leave a lot of dirty laundry for an aspiring author to pick up.
Baseball did make progress this week. The game finally acknowledged its amphetamine problem, which had become apparent when players wore mutton chops and leisure suits.
"We all know that amphetamines have been around for a long time,'' Selig said at the beginning of his news conference.
Apparently, though, he doesn't know it well enough, because the new program fails to ban every stimulant on the Olympic list.
Baseball has wiggled away from the congressional threat to impose Olympic anti-doping standards, which are more advanced than anything Selig unveiled. The scary thing is that even the cutting-edge Olympic programs aren't all that sharp.
Recently, the most important suspensions in international sports have resulted from police investigations, not lab work. World champions in track (Kelli White) and cycling (David Millar) both admitted to using drugs that weren't detected in their urine tests. Last winter, White said drug testers had shown up at her door 17 times in a year while she was working with BALCO's recently convicted dealer, Victor Conte. None of those samples came back positive.
Under baseball's new plan, players are supposed to be tested twice in the season, including spring training, and then randomly in the offseason. Some players might not face an out-of-competition test. Rob Manfred, the head of labor relations for Major League Baseball, couldn't say whether the sport will release the total numbers of major-league tests administered in a year.
"I can't comment on that issue right now. That's one that needs to be resolved still,'' he said.
Worse, Manfred dodged a question about how the program plans to deal with players who mysteriously vanish when testers appear. He said missed tests could result in discipline.
"Beyond that, we don't feel it's in our interest to make those details public, as much as you might like to know them,'' he said.
The details might appear when the final agreement is signed. If not, Congress should haul Manfred and Selig back to Washington for another roasting. At the Olympic level, three missed tests in a row equal a positive. If a baseball player keeps missing tests, there is a reason, and it's probably the numbers on his paycheck. The bulkiest athlete in the world can turn invisible so easily when thousands of dollars are on the line.
Congress already has heard about holes in the current baseball-testing procedure. In a report on its Rafael Palmeiro investigation, Palmeiro and an unidentified Baltimore teammate describe roaming freely about the ballpark for hours, completely unsupervised, after they had been notified of a drug test that day.
"The time between notification and sample collection provides opportunities for players to cheat on their drug tests,'' the report says, "either by taking masking agents ... or by more invasive methods.''
Olympians must hear this stuff and snicker. For them, it's so 1977.
The penalties must be even more infuriating. The new baseball policy quintuples the old ban for a first offense, bringing it up to 50 games, or less than a third of a season. Compare that with track star Michelle Collins' eight-year suspension, reduced to four years after she dropped her appeal. She didn't even test positive. Congress simply forwarded evidence against her from the BALCO prosecutors to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
The difference? The easy answer is that track stars don't have a union, and baseball players have the toughest in the country. Collins' lawyer, Brian Getz, sees another distinction. The business of baseball is run by wealthy, powerful white men, the type of people who can secure tax exemptions and bond money for new stadiums.
"Track is mostly African Americans, and they don't make any money,'' Getz said.
While everyone in Congress and the commissioner's office fought the union over tougher penalties, no one thought of looking at the top of the sport's food chain and sanctioning the people who collect gate receipts for juiced performances. The union wouldn't have blocked a proposal to fine an owner for every positive drug test in his organization, say $500,000 for the first, $2 million for the second, $5 million for the third.
If 50 games' unpaid leave is supposed to deter players from using, imagine the effect of having some of the boss' money at risk. Of course, that would be pretty radical, almost like a Walkman on Selig's belt.