Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, said today that drug testing clauses would be "a nonissue by opening day" and that it could be decided as early as next week.
He said he believes that, on March 14 in Scottsdale, Ariz., the union will win its first grievance against the addition of drug-testing clauses to contracts and that the matter can be settled as quickly as that. But for the first time, Fehr said he would not rule out the union agreeing to drug tests, although he maintained that baseball's owners have never negotiated the issue in good faith.
The players association's first grievance is against the San Francisco Giants with the union contending that veteran Joel Youngblood lost his job only because he refused to sign a drug clause.
Both sides essentially agree on what happened. Youngblood was a free agent, received no offers from other teams and was going to re-sign with the Giants. When he wouldn't agree to a drug-testing clause, the Giants took back their offer. The union will contend that what the Giants did is illegal and that drug clauses can be added to contracts only through collective bargaining.
"This case is very important for us," Fehr said today, "because it's the first test . . . I think everyone would agree that Joel Youngblood is pure as the driven snow. Yet here's a man not accused of anything out of a job because he didn't want to be tested."
As he has toured training camps this week, Fehr has briefed players on the state of free agency, the redesigned pension plan and the legality of making players submit to drug tests.
Several baseball executives have said that Fehr's opposition to drug tests is not in line with what the rank-and-file membership is thinking, and that more than 350 of the 700 covered players are now in some kind of testing program.
After visiting with the Baltimore Orioles for 90 minutes today, Fehr said circumstances were less than optimum in some instances where players have agreed to testing.
"The clubs have pressed and pressed and pressed for these clauses," Fehr said. "If we win our grievance, clubs will know that such clauses are unenforceable."
The year has been rough for Fehr, and he appeared to show that at times today, sitting in front of Tippy Martinez's locker and answering questions in a soft, friendly voice.
He said there had been so much movement toward drug tests that, yes, he had considered changing his position. He didn't oppose, but he didn't support, the Orioles' voluntary plan, which has signed up 36 of 38 players. He also knows that the Oakland A's, Chicago Cubs and other clubs are developing similar programs, and he knows Commissioner Peter Ueberroth has a 42-0 lead in the public relations war.
More than a few management people have wondered why he is going to the wall over an issue that could be settled so easily by simply agreeing to the tests.
"One thing I do realize from a player's point of view is how much the union has done for the player," Orioles General Manager Hank Peters said. "I understand why you might want to follow your union leadership. But on this issue, I'm not sure the leadership reflects what the players are thinking."
Fehr said he realizes people are saying such things.
"I think people should understand what the circumstances of players signing these clauses have been," he said. "So, say you give in. Another drug problem comes up and testing three times a year becomes three times a month. But do you consider possibilities? Yes."
Fehr would not comment on the merits of Ueberroth's punishment edict against 11 players for suspected drug use, except to say again his office would review the cases on an individual basis and to object to the commissioner's news conference.
"We think that there was no cause for this kind of mass publicity," he said. "One of the purposes of the announcement apparently was to generate it. We may be giving away public relations points, but it's a private thing and so be it."
Fehr said he would not rule out agreeing to a form of drug testing in the future, but maintained that the owners have never been serious about negotiating one.
"We had one meeting in early October after Ueberroth announced he wanted a plan," Fehr said. "They asked us if we'd agree to testing, even if it was just for the sake of public relations.
"We asked a number of questions such as, 'What kind of tests?' They didn't know. We asked, 'Who would give it?' They said they didn't know. We asked what accuracy figures they could give and they couldn't know that because they didn't know what kind of tests they'd be giving.
"They said they'd let us know, and the next thing was them canceling the Joint Drug Agreement a management-union plan without mandatory testing before the third game of the World Series so they could generate the most publicity. Outside of some very sporadic talks -- nothing resembling negotiations -- there have been no meetings since then."
Fehr said the subject of drug testing took up only a small amount of his time with the Orioles today. Much more, he said, was spent in discussing the state of free agency.
After years of escalating salaries and free-agency competition, not one free-agent player got a bid from another club through most of this winter. The union, alleging owners' collusion, has a grievance pending on that issue.
Orioles Manager Earl Weaver named Scott McGregor, Mike Boddicker and Don Aase to pitch in Saturday's exhibition opener against the New York Yankees in Fort Lauderdale . . . In the first intrasquad game, coach Elrod Hendricks' team beat coach Cal Ripken's team, 10-1. Jackie Gutierrez had three hits . . . Jim Palmer and Ken Singleton will become the 13th and 14th members of the Orioles Hall of Fame in June 14 ceremonies at Memorial Stadium.