Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Players Association, said today he does not oppose the Baltimore Orioles' new drug-testing program because "it's something the players have done themselves."
However, Fehr emphasized he would not endorse the program.
"If you're asking me if it's something I'd do myself or something I'd recommend, that's something else," Fehr said. "But who am I to tell the players what they can or can't do with their doctor? It's not the Orioles' plan and it shouldn't be called that. The Orioles are involved only because it's their players."
Yet it was the Orioles who announced the program this morning at a news conference, and the Orioles who will be paying for it. If it works according to plan, they'll become the first team in major league baseball to undergo routine spot checks for drugs. The program is voluntary, but when a player signs up, he agrees to undergo from three to six random drug tests per season conducted by Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Fehr and Orioles General Manager Hank Peters said the program was confidential, and Peters said he won't even know when players are being tested. In fact, Peters said he would only know about a problem if a player had to go into the hospital, which would cause him to miss games.
Peters confirmed the idea for the program came from Baltimore agent/attorney Ron Shapiro, who represents 20 Orioles, including 16 on the major league roster. Peters said 26 of the team's 38 players have agreed to take part in the program, and that he or Shapiro will contact the remainder of the team in the next couple of weeks. Peters added that no player had yet refused to join the program.
The Orioles said the plan is voluntary -- and Fehr said that's important to him, but the team left little doubt there would be pressure on all players to take part.
"I'm going to go to our players and tell them this is something that'll help them," Orioles player representative Scott McGregor said. "If that's peer pressure, so be it. I know some people aren't going to like it."
Fehr apparently is among those people, according to sources. Although he refused to publicly criticize the program today, Fehr did say he's skeptical of how it's going to work.
"To me, it's an idea this individual (Shapiro) had," Fehr said. "We've never said players can't take a drug test. Right now, I want to see what effect the program has and how it's going to work. If a player wants to take part, fine. But as I understand it, there's going to be no pressure on players to take part."
McGregor appeared at the news conference with Shapiro, Peters and a team of doctors from Johns Hopkins Hospital. His public embracing of the program comes only five months after he criticized his union for calling a player strike last summer.
"I don't imagine the union is too happy about this," McGregor said. "They've made it clear they'd like me to resign and give the job to someone else. But I told them that whatever I do, I'm doing because it's good for baseball. I want there to be baseball in 20 years. I also wanted the Orioles to be trend-setters."
Shapiro said he came up with the idea when he began negotiating contracts this winter, contracts that the Orioles insisted include clauses for drug testing. He said he wasn't comfortable adding the clauses to the contract -- the Players Association has filed a grievance against them -- and was looking for an alternative.
"The Orioles didn't come to me at any time and ask for this," Shapiro said. "We don't believe there is a problem but we wanted to stay one step ahead of any problems. This isn't an easy thing because civil liberties are near and dear to me. We had to go to people and ask them to give some of their privacy up.
"Not everyone is going along with this happily. It's still going to be a rocky road, and not everyone is going to go along with it. Somebody is going to say no. That's the realities of life."
Peters said players wouldn't be punished if they chose not to participate in the program, although he said: "We hope peer pressure creates 100 percent participation."
Peters also said if a player signed up for the program, then refused to take a test, "that wouldn't be any of my business. That would be up to the doctors."
The Orioles have tested their minor league players for several years, and in last season's tests, Peters said of 500 done, only five came up positive. All five players immediately were set up in treatment programs.
"Not one of the people who tested positive came forward," Peters said. "We tell them: 'If you have a problem, come see us.' But they never do. Because of the program they were able to get help."