Players get their wish

Updated: January 13, 2005, 4:57 PM ET
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

Tougher steroid testing is here. It's too bad that it took ugly BALCO testimony and Senate threats to force Don Fehr and Gene Orza, the leaders of the union, to pull their heads out of the sand. It's too bad Orza and Fehr didn't make a serious effort to learn, for themselves, that the vast majority of their union's brethren wanted to clean up the steroid mess years ago.

And now Fehr and Orza, who have worked tirelessly and mostly served the players with great care and effectiveness, should apologize to the members of the rank-and-file. They should say: We're sorry we didn't hear you. We're sorry that we ignored those of you who tried to speak, and didn't work harder to solicit your thoughts. We're sorry that we botched the steroid issue, led you in the wrong direction, and caused all of you to be smeared, by association, along the way. We're sorry, but we blew it, big-time.

Donald Fehr
Donald Fehr, right, and Bud Selig were called before Congress last spring.

On Thursday, officials from the union and Major League Baseball are expected to announce the new policy, which presumably will go into effect in the weeks -- rather than months -- to come. There will be more random testing, done year-round, and this will close down a significant loophole in the last testing agreement. There will be immediate penalties, a suspension of up to 10 games, for first-time violators. Under the old agreement, players could've tested positive as many as five times before they were subject to suspension. The list of banned substances will be longer.

The new policy will have holes. Stimulants, like amphetamines -- greenies, to use the players' lexicon -- will not be addressed. Players can fail the test four times before they are subject to a one-year ban; the enticement for players to cheat will still be there.

And it remains to be seen whether the owners and the union brethren must drag the union leadership along on this issue. Unless the leadership becomes fully invested in the idea of vigilantly pursuing a steroid-free game, more loopholes will be created. We know now that new designer steroids are constantly being invented, and if the union leaders stonewall and stall, they will create an atmosphere in which cheaters can thrive; they have to get on board, completely. And they should, because that is clearly what the rank-and-file of the players association wants.

Finally, this news flash has apparently registered with the union leaders: The players are concerned about steroids.

Orza often scoffed at high estimates of steroid use, indicating that folks like Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco didn't know what they were talking about. In fact, Orza didn't know any more than Caminiti or Canseco exactly what the level of the problem was. His turned out to be willful ignorance, while there were ample signs of the players' unrest over this issue.

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  • In the summer of 2002, months before baseball's first testing program was negotiated, USA Today conducted a poll; 556 players answered at least one question. Seventy-nine percent -- that's 79 percent -- indicated they would accept independent testing for steroids. In addition, 37 percent agreed with the statement that they felt pressure to take those substances; 7 percent strongly agreed. That means almost half of those polled personally felt the specter of steroids, whether to keep up competitively with others who might be using or because of their own desire to max out as a player.

    The numbers were startling. Did the union conduct its own poll? Did Fehr and Orza devote themselves to finding out exactly what players thought about steroids? No. Instead, some union officials denigrated the methodology of the newspaper's poll.

    And then they negotiated a testing policy with loopholes large enough to make it the dream testing system for steroid users. No penalties in the first year. A predictable testing timetable. Multiple violations before any suspensions. Jason Giambi could have injected steroids in front of 50,000 at Yankee Stadium in 2003 and would not have faced sanctions, under the terms of the program.

    Even more ridiculous, however, was the tenor of the union stance: It became clear that Orza and Fehr intended to fight the testing at every step, assuring that the entire system would fall behind the most nuanced and aggressive abusers -- despite indications that the rank-and-file in the union actually wanted testing.

    In the spring of 2003, 16 members of the Chicago White Sox attempted to boycott the testing -- and not because they were opposed to the steroid checks. Rather, they did so because they thought the system was too weak. They wanted to register enough positive tests to trigger more testing in 2004. Players with at least one other team discussed a boycott, as well.

    It was a near-revolt against union policy. Did the union leaders reassess their stance, rush out and take the pulse of the players? Did they poll them individually, so they wouldn't have to openly denigrate suspected users who might be friends, who inhabit the locker next to them? No. Instead, word was sent out, through conduits, that the dissenters were expected to step back into line, pipe down, follow union policy, and adhere to the system.

    Some players felt bullied; free speech apparently is not among the rights that Fehr and Orza have worked to protect. When asked about what happened by the Chicago Tribune, White Sox shortstop Jose Valentin said, "I don't want to make any comments and get something exploding in here."

    Despite the incredible built-in advantages of the testing system for abusers, 5 to 7 percent of the players managed to fail the tests in 2003. Some players began speaking out about the need for tougher testing, including respected veterans like John Smoltz. Did the union leaders step back and reconsider? Did they ask themselves why the 93 to 95 percent of those who did not test positive -- the silent majority -- would want to protect the cheaters?

    Ken Caminiti
    Ken Caminiti, an admitted steroid-user, estimated 50 percent of players indulged in performance-enhancing drugs.

    No. Orza simply chortled that the 5 to 7 percent turned out to be much lower than some estimates. See, with the union leaders, the steroid issue was always about winning: Winning a negotiating point, winning an argument, winning a concession.

    For the players, it has been much more personal. For some, it was about maintaining the integrity of the competition. For others, it was a financial issue, because some non-users felt at a serious disadvantage in competing for jobs against suspected users. And some players worried about the long-term ramifications to their health if they did take steroids.

    A longtime major-leaguer said last spring he thought about the pros of taking steroids. "Now," he continued, "there are the cons. Is it going to eat out my liver? Is it going to rip my heart apart? Is it going to take years off my life? Those are questions to be answered regardless of whether you have kids or you don't. Is it worth it if I make more money and die two years earlier? Not for me. It's my kids. They're why I decided not to take steroids. I have graduations I want to see, weddings to attend. It's my babies."

    Another player said in spring training, "I see where Don Fehr is coming from. I believe there are privacy concerns. But why not agree to something that's going to clean up the game? Most of the guys I talk to believe it needs to be cleaned up."

    On the other hand, Orza dismissively compared steroids to cigarettes. The union leaders always defended their stance by saying there was no rock-solid evidence that steroids were harmful. But they never bothered to add that there is much evidence that steroids, when taken in the manner as many players were apparently taking them, might be lethal.

    Stories published over the last 18 months indicated that private conversations with union members reflected overwhelming support for a tough steroid testing. Some players estimated that 75 to 90 percent of the union members felt this way.

    Did Orza and Fehr feel compelled to seek out these voices? No. Fehr was asked at a congressional hearing last spring if the union might poll the players. "We don't submit to a vote -- ideas in the abstract," he replied. Weeks later, union officials did disperse ballots -- to get the players' All-Star selections. But something as important as steroids? Can't do it.

    Many players privately hoped an agreement would be reached this spring. Smoltz said he hoped for one by the All-Star break. Instead, Fehr and Orza never got a deal done during the 2004 season, and got shoved across the finish line, finally, by the BALCO testimony and by the threats of Senator John McCain.

    In the '90s, the owners' stance on this issue was laughable. There were indications all through that decade that steroids were a growing problem and Major League Baseball made no serious attempt to clean up the mess. The owners drank at the till of the home run boom, as well, and money and performance remain at the heart of the issue: While the Yankees considered voiding the contract of Giambi, they were not doing the same with Gary Sheffield, who is still a productive player. This should tell us something.

    But now the owners do get credit for imposing a tough system in the minor leagues, however, and Commissioner Bud Selig has been the loudest proponent for steroid testing the last two years.

    All along, the great void in the testing system was due to union reluctance -- in particular, on the part of Orza and Fehr. The rank-and-file wanted the testing all along, but they listened to the union leaders who, in turn, failed to hear them.

    Now, as they move forward, probably to a tougher testing system, the union must drive the testing, instead of fighting it. The union must work to track down the cheaters, or else the system will eventually become worthless. And there's every reason to think that the players want vigilance: It only involves their health, their ability to earn a living, their families.

    And Fehr and Orza must look inward, examine how they conducted themselves, and ask how they could have so badly misrepresented the will of the union members for almost three full years.

    Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is a New York Times best seller and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.

    Buster Olney | email

    Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

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