Facing the prospect of another public scolding this week at yet another congressional hearing over steroids, baseball's union yesterday proposed a stricter testing policy that would include a 20-game suspension for first-time offenders -- roughly double the current penalty, but still far less than the 50-game suspension proposed by Commissioner Bud Selig in April.
"We think the purpose of the penalty provision is to deter the use" of steroids, union chief Donald Fehr said in a telephone interview yesterday. "We think we have pretty good empirical evidence that you don't need a 50-game penalty to accomplish that."
The union's long-awaited counterproposal came two days before Selig and Fehr are to appear, along with commissioners and union leaders from the other three major sports, at a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee. The Senate is considering two bills that would mandate federal drug-testing standards for all major professional sports leagues.
The timing of the union's proposal, Fehr acknowledged yesterday, was "not entirely coincidental." However, he added, he also needed time to visit each team to discuss the negotiations with the union membership.
Selig did not return a message left at his Milwaukee office yesterday, but MLB spokesman Pat Courtney criticized the union's proposal as still being too soft.
"Twenty games are not enough," Courtney said in an e-mail. "Also, the union's proposal is not three strikes and you're out. It is three strikes and maybe you're out."
A representative for the Senate Commerce Committee last night said committee members were reviewing the union's proposal and were not prepared to comment.
Selig's April proposal, which came five weeks after a contentious hearing before the House Government Reform Committee, called for a 50-game suspension for first-time offenders, 100 games for a second offense and a lifetime ban for a third offense.
The union's new proposal calls for suspensions of 20 and 75 games for first and second offenses, and gives the commissioner the discretion to impose a penalty of his choice, including a lifetime ban, for a third offense. In certain cases, an arbitrator could increase or reduce suspensions for mitigating circumstances.
Under baseball's current policy, penalties climb from 10 days to 30 days to 60 days to one year for first, second, third and fourth offenses. Nine players have been suspended this season for steroids offenses, including Baltimore Orioles slugger Rafael Palmeiro.
"Obviously, it's a step in the right direction," said Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons, the team's union representative. "Ten [days] is a little light [as a penalty.] But 20 [games], you're hurting your ballclub -- not just with public scrutiny, but you're hurting your team on the field."
The union also has agreed to many of Selig's other proposed changes, including turning the testing program over to an independent administrator, increasing the overall number of tests and initiating random testing and penalties for amphetamine use.
Staff writer Jorge Arangure Jr., in Baltimore, contributed to this report.