Baseball and players’ union must enact tough steroids penalties

A. J. Atchue

Remember back in March, when a group of current and former baseball stars appeared before a Congressional committee to discuss the use of steroids in the game? Baltimore Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro’s opening statement included these words: “Let me start by telling you this: I have never used steroids. Period. I don’t know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never.”

Five months later, Palmeiro wound up serving a 10-game suspension for nothing other than testing positive for banned steroids. He has continued to steadfastly deny ever “intentionally” ingesting steroids, and it has started to sound like Bill Clinton’s infamous wrangling over the definition of “is.”

As it stands now, Palmeiro has completely disgraced himself. He turned a bad situation into a horrible one by somehow trying to connect teammate Miguel Tejada’s vitamin-taking habits to how he wound up testing positive for steroids. Such nonsense will rarely make for a good clubhouse situation.

The Orioles suspended Palmeiro for the rest of the season earlier this month, and personally I wouldn’t want to be the general manager that signs a 40-year-old steroid user this winter. Additionally, “Raffy” still has to answer to Congress about how he tested positive after telling them, under oath, that he “never used steroids. Period.” Palmeiro joining the 3,000-hit club in July sure seems like a distant memory now.

The sad Palmeiro saga is only the most high profile story to come out of the much deeper steroids problem in baseball. Eight other lesser-known players have been suspended for steroids this season, and there are likely many others who have either not been caught yet or have stopped using out of fear of testing positive.

The March hearing only came about because baseball and its Players’ Association couldn’t agree on the issue. Last week, Commissioner Bud Selig and union head Donald Fehr were back on Capitol Hill, this time before the Senate Commerce Committee. They were rightly lambasted for being unable to come up with a penalty system that fits the high crime of cheating.

However, it has really been the Players’ Association all year long that has stood on its head in resisting stricter penalties for positive steroid users. Currently, Selig has proposed a 50-game suspension for first-time offenders, 100 games for the second offense, and a lifetime ban for those stupid enough to test positive a third time.

Fehr has countered with a proposal including a 20-game suspension for the first offense and a suspension for the third offense whose length would be determined by Selig on a case-by-case basis. The union is not in favor of a lifetime ban, and it took a good deal of twisting their collective arms to get them to agree to the 20-game first-offense suspension.

John McCain was right on the mark when he pointedly asked Fehr last week, “Don’t your get it?” I really don’t think Fehr and the rest of the union understand the message they’re sending when they effectively minimize the impact of players cheating by taking steroids. This is a serious issue that fans care about, and without doubt, the suspensions for each offense should be stiff rather than lenient.

As a sign of how out of touch the union can be, Baltimore player representative Jay Gibbons recently said, “Ten you can get away with as a team. You can do without a guy for 10 days, but 20, you’re kind of hurting your ball club, too.” That’s obvious, but baseball also hurts its image when it doesn’t come down hard on steroid users.

What is it with these unions anyway? The hockey players’ union members earlier this year made themselves look like total idiots in stubbornly holding out for the whole cake and prolonging the NHL lockout. Now, the union is saying no to a very reasonable steroid punishment proposal by baseball. Quite frankly, if a player is foolish enough to be caught with steroids three times, he has no business ever putting on a uniform again. There is nothing wrong with the three strikes and you’re out provision.

As it stands, some all-time records are in the hands, or will be in the hands, of people suspected of using steroids. The single season home record belongs to Barry Bonds and was previously held by Mark McGwire. Both are suspicious. It would be an absolute travesty if a juiced Bond someday breaks the career home run mark.

People called the time before Babe Ruth the “dead ball era” of baseball. Observers will look back on the period from about 1990-2005 as the steroids era. The sides have all but promised a steroid penalty agreement by the end of the World Series. Let’s hope everyone involved gets their heads in the game, because the stakes demand nothing less.