Back on Capitol Hill for another round of tough questioning on baseball's steroid policy, this time Commissioner Bud Selig brought protection. With five Hall of Famers, including all-time home run king Henry Aaron, at his side to tout his current proposal, Selig succeeded in deflecting much of the Senate Commerce Committee's scrutiny toward players' union chief Donald Fehr, with the commissioners and union leaders of three other sports leagues largely reduced to spectators.
Hall of Famers Aaron, Lou Brock, Ryne Sandberg, Phil Niekro and Robin Roberts were not on the witness list for yesterday's hearing in Room 216 of the Hart Building, but Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who chaired the hearing, invited them to speak.
"I want to applaud the commissioner," Aaron said, "and I also just want to make sure that whatever we do, we make sure that we clean up baseball."
Committee members, who are considering two bills that would mandate federal steroid-testing standards for all professional sports, spent much of the two-hour hearing pummeling Fehr for what they perceived as his unwillingness to accept tougher penalties for steroid users.
"Don't you get it?" McCain repeatedly asked Fehr, prefacing the tongue-lashing by pointing out they are longtime acquaintances. "Don't you get that you should have acted months ago?"
"The perception," said Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), himself a baseball Hall of Famer, "is that baseball's players' union is protecting players to use steroids and other illegal performance-enhancing drugs."
Selig's proposal, made five weeks after another contentious hearing before the House Government Reform Committee in March, calls for suspensions of 50 and 100 games for first and second offenses, and a lifetime ban for a third offense. Although baseball calls its proposal "three strikes and you're out," it also contains a provision whereby an arbitrator could reduce the third-offense penalty to a suspension no shorter than two years.
The union's proposal, which was released to the media two days before yesterday's hearing, calls for penalties of 20 and 75 games for first and second offenses -- which can be reduced or increased by an arbitrator -- and allows Selig to impose a lifetime ban for a third offense, though it could also be reduced by an arbitrator to as short as one year.
"The sticking point between us and the Commissioner on 'three-strikes-and-you're-out' is the minimum penalty," Fehr said in an impromptu conference with reporters following the hearing. "They're at two years. We're at one year. . . . We've known for a long time that was likely to be one of the most difficult issues to deal with. But we've made some significant progress from where we started. And the question now is trying to find a way to finish it."
Fehr argued at length for the need to weigh mitigating circumstances when imposing a penalty as severe as a lifetime ban. When pressed by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) about his resistance to a strictly imposed lifetime ban, Fehr snapped, "I don't know why we're afraid to let a person tell their story and let someone [else] decide."
Under the proposed bills -- as well as three similar bills in the House -- all sports leagues would be governed by an Olympics-style policy, which includes suspensions of two years for a first offense, and a lifetime ban for a second.
Yesterday, committee members warned Selig and Fehr that they would go forward with legislation if baseball did not adopt a policy Congress views as satisfactory.
"You still speak as if this is negotiable," Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) told Fehr. "I think it's non-negotiable. You waited too long."
Pressed by McCain as to when he expects a deal to be reached between Major League Baseball and the players' association, Fehr said, "Can I give you a precise date? No. Would I expect it to be by the end of the World Series? I would certainly hope so."
The remaining witnesses -- commissioners Paul Tagliabue of the NFL, David Stern of the NBA and Gary Bettman of the NHL, and corresponding union heads Gene Upshaw, Antonio Davis and Ted Saskin -- seemed to be on hand largely in order to provide a contrasting example to baseball's leadership.
"Why can't you be more like Gene Upshaw?" Rep. George Allen (R-Va.) asked Fehr at one point.
Later, Allen used the appearance of Aaron -- whose all-time home run record of 755 is in jeopardy of being broken next season by Barry Bonds -- to question the legitimacy of baseball records that are set under a cloud of steroid suspicion.
"If a certain player breaks [Aaron's] record," Allen said, clearly referring to Bonds, "it's not a question of an asterisk. There probably ought to be an 'Rx' next to it."