Under increasing pressure from Congress to eliminate the use of performance-enhancing drugs, Major League Baseball and its players' union announced tougher penalties against steroid use yesterday that include a lifetime ban for players who repeatedly test positive.
Under the new rules, which still must be ratified by both sides, players will be suspended for 50 games after one positive test, 100 games for a second offense and banned for life if they test positive a third time.
"This was a much deeper issue and that was an integrity issue," Commissioner of Baseball Allan H. "Bud" Selig said yesterday in a conference call. "It sends the right message."
Baseball has been under fire for more than a year since some of the game's most prominent sluggers were linked to steroid use as part of the federal investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, or BALCO. The Burlingame, Calif.-based lab distributed so-called designer steroids, which were undetectable in testing at the time.
In March, current and former players were called to testify before the House Government Reform Committee about steroid use in the game. One of the players who testified that he had never used steroids, Rafael Palmeiro of the Baltimore Orioles, tested positive a few months later and was suspended.
Although the committee said it did not have enough evidence to pursue perjury charges against Palmeiro, Congress is considering legislation that would strip professional sports leagues of the power to police themselves in drug matters and instead institute a national standard modeled on the Olympics.
"Looking at it from my perspective I think it's unfair to get a 50-game suspension when it's not an intentional act," Palmeiro said in an interview last week. "This was not intentionally done by myself."
Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants, who is pursuing Hank Aaron's all-time home run record of 755, was called to testify but declined. According to grand jury testimony leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle last year, Bonds admitted he used substances provided by BALCO but said he didn't know what they contained. His personal trainer reached a plea agreement in the BALCO case. Bonds, 41, has never failed a drug test.
A month after the hearings, Selig proposed a 50-100-lifetime ban penalty structure. But as the summer wore on, several congressmen and senators introduced steroid bills increasing pressure on players and owners to take action. In September, the union's executive director, Donald Fehr, countered with a proposal of 20 games for a first offense, 75 for a second. The penalty for the third offense would have been decided at the discretion of the commissioner.
"I don't think of this as being that at all," Selig said yesterday when asked if baseball had broken the union's negotiators on the issue. "It was a matter of integrity in the sport."
Union officials were not available to comment, but Fehr issued a statement while traveling in the Caribbean.
"This reaffirms that Major League players are committed to the elimination of performance-enhancing substances and that the system of collective bargaining is responsive and effective in dealing with issues of this type," the statement read.