MLB officials believe they have the framework in place for a new, tougher steroid-testing program, and the sport's union took a step yesterday toward accepting such a policy when its executive board voted to authorize its top officials to finalize an agreement with the league.
However, it appears unlikely the union will agree to every concession being sought by Commissioner Bud Selig, raising the question of whether the new policy will be tough enough to ward off congressional intervention in the sport's ongoing debate over performance-enhancing substances.
A source familiar with MLB's internal discussions said an agreement has been reached on the "framework" for a new policy, which could be finalized in the next few weeks and operational by spring training. However, a union source disputed that characterization, calling it part of the league's ongoing "pressure tactics."
"They're trying to exert pressure through the media," the union source said, "like they always do."
Still, the union's executive board, during its annual meeting in Phoenix, voted yesterday to authorize top officials Donald Fehr and Gene Orza to conclude negotiations with the league that have been ongoing for several months regarding a tougher testing program.
Fehr, in a news conference yesterday afternoon, acknowledged the growing outcry that followed last week's leaks of the grand jury testimonies of sluggers Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds and said:"The public and fans are always among the players' highest concerns. But we have to negotiate an appropriate agreement. I think we will. I don't think it will take an extended period of time."
Meantime, in the fallout of the ongoing steroid scandal, baseball's hopes of reaching a deal with MasterCard International to sponsor Bonds's pursuit of Hank Aaron's all-time home run record were put on hold, according to the Associated Press, when MasterCard canceled a meeting on the project.
"It's another reason," MLB Chief Operating Officer Bob DuPuy told the AP, "why we need to restore the confidence of not only our fans, but of our partners."
Selig was recuperating yesterday from surgery to remove a melanoma from his forehead and was unavailable to comment.
He has said he hopes to have a testing policy in place by spring training that would closely mirror the one that governs minor league baseball -- in which players are tested four times in and out of season (as opposed to once in season in the MLB program) and are faced with suspension after one positive result (as opposed to two positives).
Additionally, the minor league program bans human growth hormone (hGH), while the big-league program does not.
A report on ESPN.com said the proposed new program would include penalties for a first positive test, as many as three random tests per year, including during the offseason, and additional substances on the banned list.
Baseball's current testing program was negotiated with the union in August 2002 as part of collective bargaining and remains in effect until the end of the 2006 season. It requires the union's consent to change it -- something the union historically has opposed.
If Selig is unable to gain every concession he is seeking from the union, there remains the threat of congressional intervention.