By the spring of 2002, Al Leiter, 36 years old and pitching for his fourth team, and Todd Zeile, also 36 and playing for his ninth, had been around a long time. Both had been union men from the start. Leiter and Zeile reached the big leagues in the late 1980s, when baseball's owners had brazenly and illegally colluded to limit free agent salaries,
eventually paying a $280 million settlement to the players association. Both were there in 1990, when the owners locked out players for 32 days, and again in 1994, when the players walked out. And both had been team reps, who knew the brethren would march in lockstep on every labor issue.
Steroids had divided the players. And with the labor deal already expired, union members had until Aug. 30, their strike date, to reach a new agreement with the owners.
Publicly, the players union had always opposed testing. But Leiter had seen opinion begin to split as early as December 2000, at a meeting of the union's executive committee in Arizona. By that time, he'd been fairly certain for years that there were hitters using steroids. So he wasn't shocked when a pitcher declared that he was tired of
giving up 500-foot homers. It did intrigue Leiter when several guys he thought of as "everyday hitters" voiced their concerns, too. Those guys were frustrated by sportswriters' questions about their loss of power, even though their slugging stats hadn't declined but just looked weaker compared with the ungodly totals some of their hulking teammates were posting.
It wasn't just pitchers vs. hitters, Leiter realized. Steroids were forcing hitters to make an uncomfortable choice: get on or miss the ride.
Over the past few years, Zeile had watched entire teams develop an outsize musculature and wondered, "What do these guys have in their back pocket?" He too had heard the player complaints about steroids, the nonusers worried about losing jobs to users. And as the 2001 season continued to ride baseball's power surge -- Barry Bonds slammed 73 homers and Sammy Sosa hit more than 60 for the third time -- Zeile was weary of hearing players and writers speculate about who was using.
Zeile thought taking steroids was cheating, plain and simple. He suspected some of the other team reps were on steroids themselves. And he wondered if Donald Fehr understood the depth of the anger of the union members who wanted their sport cleaned up.
Fehr had spent the past two years traveling from team to team, trying to forge a consensus on testing. But on the issue of what they did to their bodies, his members weren't easily led.
The men across the table were also holding different cards by the spring of 2002. Since the end of the 1998 season, Bud Selig had tried to educate himself about steroids, but rarely commented on the subject in public. Behind the scenes, the commissioner had told his deputies to "surround and predicate." Translated from Seligese, that meant collect information about steroids, and lay the groundwork that would force the players to
accept testing in the next labor deal.
The strategy was slow to develop. In February 2000, 14 months after the Harvard study was commissioned, Selig received its results: daily 300-mg doses of andro increased testosterone levels by an average of 34% within seven days. Selig declared he was "pleased to have played a part in the advancement of science" but added, "more
research is needed," and took no immediate action.
Almost a year later, in January 2001, Selig held a meeting in Milwaukee with about a dozen team doctors. He asked each one to name the most pressing issue in baseball. The same answer came back, again and again: steroids.
The doctors told Selig about the rising rate of disabled-list trips they were reporting. They
described new kinds of injuries they were seeing. They spoke of the obstinacy of the players union. They said what they had been saying for years.
And yet, Selig expressed surprise.
In March, he finally acted unilaterally and instituted in-season testing for various drugs, including steroids and andro, in the minor leagues. And in June, more than three years after the team doctors had offered their original list, MLB and the union issued a 32-page bilingual booklet called "Steroids and Nutritional Supplements," which described the effects of various substances.
The results of the 2001 minor league tests were alarming: more than 500 players, about 11% of those not on major league 40-man rosters, had tested positive for steroids. Selig didn't announce the numbers. But with some of those users headed for the majors, it was time to reach an agreement with the union.
When the owners sent their first proposal to the players in early 2002, it called for testing only during the baseball season. And it mandated counseling, not suspensions or fines, for first-time offenders. Chief negotiator Gene Orza opposed the plan on principle: as far as he was concerned, testing presumed players were guilty and violated their privacy. Later, though, he'd say he thought the proposal wasn't as bad as it could have been. The argument was shifting: the central issue was no longer whether to test, but how.
Then, suddenly, everyone was talking about steroids. In May, Jose Canseco told a Fox Sports Net interviewer that 85% of major leaguers were juicing. In the June 3 issue of Sports Illustrated, Ken Caminiti became the first prominent player to admit steroid use in a story that detailed how anabolics were saturating the major and minor leagues. "It's no secret what's going on in baseball," Caminiti claimed. "At least half the guys are using steroids. I can't say, 'Don't do it,' not when the guy next to you is as big as a house and he's going to take your job."
Reporters rushed to players, asking about steroids and testing. Zeile said, "I think there are a lot of people inside and outside the game who realize some things are going on." Then he added: "Now, do you expose everybody for it? I think the issue there is almost as evenly split as those people using it or not." In New York, Leiter told beat writers he favored testing, but thought players would vote against it.
But the divide melted that summer under the heat of public glare. For a crucial number of players who disliked steroids and mistrusted the owners, the need to take a real step to clean up baseball trumped privacy. And a July 8 USA Today poll showed there was no turning back. Of the 556 players surveyed, 79% favored steroids testing. In August, the players union announced it would accept random testing -- the first major concession the union had ever made. "It is not a watered-down type of proposal," Zeile told the press. "It is a legitimate proposal to try to do something."
The two sides spent the rest of the month arguing about parameters, not principles. They agreed to anonymous survey testing in 2003 that would trigger punitive testing the following year if 5% or more of players were found to have illegal steroids in their bodies. The owners sought four random tests a season; the players negotiated down to one. The owners wanted punishments ranging from a maximum suspension of 30 days for a second violation to a lifetime ban for a fifth; the players whittled that to 15 days and a year. The owners wanted to ban andro; the players got them to drop the idea. The players wanted to eliminate testing if fewer than 5% flunked; the owners chopped that to two straight years of 2.5%.
On Aug. 30, Zeile learned the negotiators had averted a strike. There would be no random tests right away, and no immediate penalties. Players who were using would have time to clean up. If players who wanted testing had pushed for more, there might not have been any at all. But a tougher program could someday follow.
They had, he believed, taken a first step.
[Todd] Zeile thought taking steroids was cheating, plain and simple. But he was careful when he discussed the issue, because he suspected some team reps were on steroids themselves.