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BOB RYAN

Detection a step in right direction

A lot of people are making fun of Major League Baseball's steroid policy.

"Five strikes and you're out" doesn't sound very threatening.

But this is baseball, remember. The fact that there even is a workable agreement between management and the Players Association is refreshing.

"We've made progress," says Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino. "It's not a perfect system. But we live in a unionized environment, and it takes two to tango."

Reading between the lines, we know that Lucchino would like a tougher policy, as would most baseball executives. Just keep in mind that they weren't up against a couple of first-year law students when this thing was hammered out during the last collective bargaining sessions. Sitting on the other side of the table were Donald Fehr and Gene Orza, two fierce guardians of ballplayers' interests.

Both sides are keeping close track of the Balco business out there in California. Prominent names in the worlds of track and football already have been ensnared, and subpoenas are out there seeking testimony from the likes of baseball's Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi. No one knows where all this will lead.

Some people are implying that this will be baseball's drug armageddon, resulting in the biggest scandal since the Black Sox dumped the 1919 World Series. We'll see. This is a tax case, initiated at the behest of the Internal Revenue Service, not a full-scale investigation of all Balco activities. All the talk about the so-called "designer steroid" tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG, is part of the fallout. Do not automatically assume anyone will be able to tie THG to a baseball player. They might, or they might not.

But we do know that as a result of tests conducted last summer, somewhere between 5 and 7 percent of the participants came back with positive results, and that was enough to trigger the anti-steroid policies that were written into the existing CBA. Offenders are now officially on the clock, and I think we all would agree that it is a good thing.

The popular perception is that the Players Association always reacts to any issue by being belligerently defensive. Orza, the Associate General Counsel of the union, might quarrel with the word "belligerently," but he's not about to apologize for doing his job.

"These ballplayers are not salary numbers or a set of statistics to me," he says. "They are people. People I know. I know their wives and their families. I have their phone numbers and their cell phone numbers. My job is to represent their interests. The Association is not opposed to finding guilty players. The issue to us is how you find them. We take the position that people are innocent until proven guilty."

Simply put, Orza does not believe in full-fledged, 365-days-a-year random testing, or anything of the sort. No other segment of society has to be subjected to this, so why, in his view, should ballplayers be any different? There have to be proper guidelines.

"As an example," he says, "driving under the influence of alcohol is a far bigger threat to society than ballplayers ingesting steroids. But do we ask every citizen to pee in a cup publicly each time they plan to drive a car? Of course not. No one would stand for that. The Players Association is accused of trying to protect cheaters. We think we're protecting the interests of all ballplayers."

The other side has its own critics. Many people believe one reason management has made it relatively easy for steroid abusers to avoid detection and sanction is that it doesn't want to catch the "wrong" people, i.e. major stars. As Penn State professor Dr. Charles Yesalis told the Globe's Gordon Edes last week, "The results shouldn't have been that high, when you consider how easy it is to circumvent the tests and knew that they were coming."

"That idea is nonsense," declares Lucchino. "Artificial stimulants that artificially stimulate performances artificially stimulate salaries."

So just what would happen if it were proven that certain big stars who have been hitting an inordinate amount of home runs during the past half a dozen years or so were doing so while juiced up on "artificial stimulants"?

"It would mean that the records are tainted," says Orza. "Historically, people's reputations and achievements are always subject to review."

"It would damage the game's credibility in the short term," Lucchino says. "But people would have to see that baseball is not burying its head in the sand."

The exact number of players who tested positive last summer is subject to debate because a surprising percentage of the players in question were tested twice. The number could be in the 40s, 50s, 60s, or 70s. It's either a lot or a little, depending on your point of view, but it's nowhere near the boxcar numbers offered up by Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco.

"Say the number is 43," Orza says. "That's 43 too many. That's 43 players who have violated the law. We have never said to players, `Use steroids, and we'll back you.' We want to catch people, but we want to catch them the right way."

We know it's more than 43, and what we really want to know is which household names are already on that list. No one cares much if some utility infielder has boosted himself from a three-homer guy to a seven-homer guy. Every fan would like to know whether or not some of the people who've been boosting themselves from one level to a record-book level have used something more than barbells to acquire their current physiques.

I say this: There is no issue confronting both Major League Baseball Inc. and the Players Association for which it is more necessary to present a united front to the public. It is in the best interests of both parties that the public feel comfortable with the game. All the financial talk and all the meat-and-potatoes labor issues make people's eyes glaze over. The public can ignore it all. But it cannot be a good thing if the public finds out that the game is dominated by steroid-addled freaks.

"I think your headline here should be `Clarion Call For Cooperation,' " suggests Lucchino.

Then again, not for the first time, I could be wrong. You do care, don't you?

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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