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MLB steroid policy outlined

First-time offenders will be penalized

Major League Baseball and the players' union came together yesterday in a rare show of compromise and solidarity, one aimed at refurbishing the game's tarnished image, safeguarding players' long-term health, and restoring credence to the offensive accomplishments of the game's sluggers.

Commissioner Bud Selig and the union's executive director, Donald Fehr, announced a new steroid-testing policy, the hallmark of which is a 10-day penalty without pay for first-time offenders. Previously, a first positive test led a player to be put on a clinical track, and nothing further.

"I just hope it's the Cadillac of all testing policies because that's what MLB needs," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, in town for last night's Boston Baseball Writers Dinner. "It's the message we need to send our fans. There's no question there was a problem and we need to do everything we can to make sure the problem disappears."

This policy is more Honda Accord than Cadillac -- an unquestionable upgrade, but not the best there could be.

"I have been saying for some time that my goal for this industry is zero tolerance regarding steroids," Selig said from the owners' winter meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz. "The agreement we will describe today is an important step toward achieving that goal."

Under the new deal, each player will be subject to at least one unannounced, in-season test on a randomly chosen day. In addition, the league is free to further test randomly chosen players. There is no set limit on the number of tests any one player may be forced to take. Furthermore, random testing will be done during the offseason for the first time.

Penalties across the board will now be more severe, and all will be without pay. A second positive test will equal a 30-day suspension (previously 15 days). A third positive test will mean 60 days (previously 25). A fourth violation will call for a one-year suspension (previously 50 days).

Under the old agreement, a player needed to test positive five times to be suspended for a full season.

Baseball began testing in 2003 and from 5-7 percent of the anonymous tests were positive for steroids, which then triggered testing for last season. No results from that testing have been disclosed, but no players were suspended.

The new agreement also expands the list of banned substances to include all currently and in the future regulated as steroids by the federal government. The list will now include substances classified as prohormones or precursors. Androstenedione (Andro, for short), norandrostenediol, Ephedra, human growth hormone, THG, designer steroids, diuretics, and masking agents all will be banned.

Whether this agreement eliminates steroids from the game will not be known for some time. But, to be certain, this is a significant improvement upon the arrangement outlined in the Basic Agreement, which the union and league went outside of in agreeing to a new policy. The Basic Agreement does not expire until December 2006, and baseball had no legal right to alter that agreement without the union's consent.

But the union, regarded as the strongest in pro sports, saw fit to work with the league on this one.

"Over the course of the last couple of years and the last year or so especially, somewhat of a different consensus perhaps is the best way to put it, among the players emerged," Fehr said. "They said that we can do this, we can move in this other direction. We can and should have penalties for first-time offenders. We do need to have a circumstance in which you don't have a guarantee that there will not be another test once the first one is given, and some other things.

"What you do, then, is you learn with experience over time and you move forward."

The pressure to address the issue came in part from Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other members of Congress, who called on baseball to toughen its policy or face government action in the wake of the federal investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO) for illegal steroid distribution.

Included in the federal grand jury testimony in that case -- reported by the San Francisco Chronicle -- Yankees slugger Jason Giambi said he had taken steroids, and the Giants' Barry Bonds admitted to taking a substance that prosecutors claim was a designer steroid. Bonds said he was told it wasn't.

Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield, who said he's "glad the union and the owners got together to get a policy in place," was asked whether the Chronicle revelations were the impetus for the new deal. "I think a little of that and a little of our health is in danger," he said. "You see what's going on with some other players. I think it's as much for our protection as for anything else. It's very important. It says a lot about the players and how a majority of them feel about the issue."

The deal still must be ratified by baseball and the union. Once it is, it will be effective through 2008.

Sox manager Terry Francona said he was "thrilled" by the news.

La Russa, who managed Mark McGwire in Oakland and St. Louis, was asked whether McGwire's accomplishments would be diminished by the new policy. It bans Andro, which McGwire used the season he hit 70 home runs, a record since broken by Bonds.

"Andro when Mark was taking it was over the counter," La Russa said. "He didn't hide it. I think Mark worked out religiously since I knew him in 1986. [With Andro] he was making his workout more efficient. The year he stopped using it he hit 65.

"The thing I was looking at was when guys were getting real quick strength gains and a bloated look. Mark got his gradually. I just think he should be judged differently because he deserves to be."

The stronger penalties in this policy bring baseball more in line with the National Football League (which suspends first-time offenders a minimum of four games) and the National Basketball Association (five games for a first offense) but is not as strong as Olympic athletes, who face a two-year ban for a first offense. "We are acting today to help restore the confidence of our fans in our great game," Selig said. 

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