Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, claiming that "baseball is on trial," went outside all conventional channels today by sending a personal letter directly to every major league player imploring them to submit voluntarily to drug tests in 1986.
Union leader Don Fehr reacted with "distress and sadness" to the unilateral proposal and added that it was "very possibly, if not probably, a violation of (labor) law." Fehr's advice to his players: throw Ueberroth's letter in the trash.
"There's a cloud hanging over baseball, and it's a cloud called drugs," said Ueberroth, who has asked for a response to his letter by Friday. ". . . The players can take that cloud and blow it away tomorrow . . .
"Baseball is on trial and has suffered public humiliation over the last few weeks, not to any one's surprise, at least not mine," said Ueberroth, referring to the recent cocaine conviction of Curtis Strong in a Pittsburgh trial during which seven present and past players testified.
"I've been wrestling with what to do . . . Although there has been great demand for me to do something dramatic (about the Pittsburgh Seven), I'm not going to do that today . . . From my own personal view, such action would have been appropriate, but baseball's reputation is more important."
Ueberroth's action was dramatic enough. The rookie commissioner, still a week shy of one year in office, pledged that he would "stake my own reputation" on assurances that the three voluntary urinalysis tests would be "totally confidential" and free of any penalties.
"If we fail, and most experts are predicting we will fail with the voluntary program, we will probably have started a decade of baseball being synonymous with drugs," said Ueberroth, who has consistently adopted a more emotional, risky and moralistic stance in dealing with drugs than any other issue of his tenure.
The penalties for the future, he said, would be:
*Youngsters turned off from the game.
*Baseball suffering a financial blow from lost advertising revenue.
*Damage to the families of those involved with baseball.
"This is the only way to show the public -- our fans -- that baseball is clean," said Ueberroth, who says his voluntary plan would be similar to the mandatory tests now enforced in the minor leagues in that the three tests would not come "at any predetermined time."
"I am totally convinced that this would convince the public (that the sport is clean)," said Ueberroth.
Despite that, Ueberroth pointed out just minutes later that, in the minors, baseball's drug program is mostly "informational."
If a player tests positive for illegal drugs, he sees a medical counselor who, in Ueberroth's words, "says to him, 'Here's what you think you're doing to your body and here's what you're really doing to your body.' After that, it's free choice. That's all that's done at the minor league level."
Fehr openly resented Ueberroth's high-profile, straight-to-the-public style of leadership through public relations during baseball's labor problems. He was annoyed again today, intimating that Ueberroth misled him during a morning phone conversation, and that he had no knowledge of what the commissioner was doing until the letters already had been delivered to some players. Fehr declared Ueberroth did not have the legal right to bypass the union and make his appeal directly to the players.
"If they have a proposal to make, make the proposal," Fehr said. "If there are specifics involved, tell us what they are. We are not refusing anything in a collective bargaining sense, but don't go direct to the players."
"We voted 100 percent not to vote," said Don Baylor of the New York Yankees, the American League's player representative. "We're going to leave it in the hands of the players association. Nothing is going to be done by us until then. We're not going to ratify anything." Chicago Cubs and Montreal Expos players likewise said they would not take a vote.
Cubs player representative Keith Moreland stressed that, although he didn't oppose the Ueberroth plan, he thought that such matters should proceed through "proper channels."
The New York Mets, who were in Philadelphia, voted unanimously to approve voluntary testing with the stipulation it is cleared through the union, Manager Davey Johnson said. The Phillies held off in favor of going the union route.
To add leverage to his claim that the sport needs to take immediate action to win back public confidence, Ueberroth said, "I've been contacted by members of the Senate and the House of Representatives. They plan hearings and there could be legislation. If this happens, baseball will have lost control of solving its own problems, of determining its own destiny."
Somebody else may be holding "hearings": Ueberroth.
"I'll be talking with the (Pittsburgh Seven) players, and I may hold hearings," said Ueberroth. "There are still other trials going on . . . I've decided to take one action (today's letter) and to postpone for the time being another action."
Ueberroth branded as "inexcusable" the manner in which famous players had their names and reputations dragged through the Pittsburgh trial for alleged use of amphetamines. "You can get legal prescriptions for amphetamines . . . It's not the same thing at all," said Ueberroth. "We had the reputations of great players plastered across headlines for supposedly using drugs that are not illegal . . . It was totally unfair and in some cases totally untrue, too. That's the only aspect of the Pittsburgh trial that surprised me."
At one level, Ueberroth was frank to say that one purpose of his letter was to work together with players to help solve a problem of public perception. "Everywhere I go, I can sense the freeze and the stop in people I meet. You can see what they're thinking about (i.e., illegal drugs). We have to erase that . . .
"As an individual, I come down on the very liberal side of this question (of invasion of privacy and constitutional rights)," Ueberroth said. "But it comes to the point where you're dealing with the (health of) the whole sport. Something has to be done."
Ueberroth is aware few players are likely to give up their rights to privacy and, simultaneously, oppose the wishes of a union that has helped get them a $360,000 average annual wage. "Some guesstimators tell me the response to this letter will be 'zero,' " said Ueberroth. "But, on this issue, I feel burdened by principle."