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ON BASEBALL

Years after exit, Miller still has his say

Marvin Miller was born before the Red Sox won their last World Series (not this one, the last one) and has lived long enough to hear his name mentioned in baseball circles as one to be honored, instead of vilified.

"Depends on who you talk to," Miller said with a laugh yesterday afternoon. "For some, sure. But it was never unanimous, one way or the other."

The argument has been made that outside of Babe Ruth, no one has had a greater impact on baseball than Miller, the lawyer who came up the ranks fighting battles for mechanics and auto workers and steelworkers, before transforming the baseball players' union into the most powerful body in sports. And even the Babe may have to take a back seat to Miller.

The end of the reserve clause, which bound a player to one team in perpetuity. Free agency. Salary arbitration. One of the richest pension plans anywhere. The right to bargain collectively. The advent of the player agent. Multimillion-dollar contracts. All of these precedent-setting developments, which transformed the face of the industry, occurred during Miller's tenure as executive director of the Major League Players Association, which began in 1966 and ended in 1982.

He is 87 now, but Miller, whose name remains listed in the Manhattan telephone directory, remains just as ready to take on all comers as he was three decades ago, when he proved too much for a fractious group of owners who never knew what hit them.

He made that abundantly clear yesterday in a Sheraton hotel ballroom prior to the 66th Boston Baseball Writers Dinner, where he was given the Judge Emil Fuchs Award for long and meritorious service to baseball. (In an arch coincidence, the owners' man, commissioner Bud Selig, won the award last year.)

That new steroid-testing agreement for which both sides, owners and union officials, were taking bows last night? Miller has little use for it.

"If you tell me steroids help you hit major league pitching more often and farther, I see no evidence whatsoever. None," Miller said. "I think if you tell me that using steroids and bulking up like that will help the performance of a football linebacker, maybe. If you tell me it will help a professional wrestler, maybe. If you tell me it will help a beer hall bouncer, maybe. If you tell me it will help somebody become the governor of California, maybe.

"But hitting major league pitching more often and farther is a far cry. You have to have more evidence than we do. I'm not going to say I know. I don't know. I'm going to say neither does anyone in this room nor anyone else know. There never has been any kind of decent testing of the same player. For example, with and without steroids, over a stretch of time so you can judge his performance. None. And until we get some evidence of a concrete nature instead of someone's opinion, that's my view."

The contrarian's role is one Miller wears as comfortably as an old pair of shoes, maybe because you'd be hard pressed to find a pair of shoes that has been around as long as he has been a contrarian. Though he has been out of the baseball union business for 20 years, he has regularly been sought out for counsel by the current union chiefs, Don Fehr and Gene Orza. They didn't ask him for his opinion before the new agreement was struck, Miller said. Why? Because they already knew his position, that it would be a big mistake to open the collective bargaining agreement in order to change a drug-testing procedure that had been agreed upon through negotiation.

Anecdotal evidence that players are bulking up with steroids and other performance-enhancing substances?

Miller waves his hand dismissively, especially when someone mentions the evolution of a slender-framed outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates to the player with comic-book superhero dimensions today for the San Francisco Giants.

"Did you ever see a picture of Babe Ruth in his youth?" said a man who as a youth had seen Ruth firsthand. "Slender as a rail, with skinny legs, which he maintained always, and [a picture of] Babe Ruth in his prime? People get older. Athletes train differently. This is what I mean by anecdotal evidence. So Barry Bonds is heavier and has more muscle at 41 than he had at 21. OK, that's a fact. Now, link it up with his ability to hit, and I don't see the evidence."

Show him that steroids are harmful to a player's health, Miller said, and he would be on the front lines of those seeking a ban. But he remains unpersuaded. The whole controversy, he said, has been media-driven, a reaction to pressure brought upon the industry by President Bush, who invoked steroids in his State of the Union address a year ago, and John McCain, the Arizona senator who conducted hearings on Capitol Hill.

"You've got a lot of players who say, `I never used [steroids], never touched them. I don't want to be put in the same category with those who did,' " Miller said. "I understand that. What I don't understand, though, is having players come forward, like some prominent players have done, and talk about how they want the testing because they want to maintain their dignity.

"That really throws me. They think it maintains the dignity of a player to be told, on command, when to urinate into a container with witnesses? If that enhances their dignity, I don't understand the word dignity."

Miller predicts both sides will rue the day they reopened the collective bargaining agreement to address the steroid issue, even in the face of public pressure. Much of that pressure was a bluff, he said.

"To say that now you're going to reopen that agreement because there are outside pressures is about as unstabilizing as you can imagine," he said. "I say bluffing, because what is there that McCain could do, or what could George Bush do? Government cannot order random testing. Government cannot legislate that way. The Constitution forbids it."

Miller remembers when the use of another drug ran unchecked through major league clubhouses in the 1970s.

"In most locker rooms, most clubhouses, amphetamines -- red ones, green ones, etc., were lying out there in the open, in a bowl, as if they were jellybeans," he said. "They were not put there by the players, so of course there was no pressure to test. They were being distributed by ownership. I can't remember ever having a proposal from the owners, that we're going to have random testing or testing of any kind."

"Start from what is. That is something the president of the United States failed to do in his State of the Union address in 2004. It's something Sen. John McCain failed to do. Start from what is, and what is is a provision that they reached agreement on more two years ago in the settlement of 2002, which includes not just testing, but the right of any club at any time to come before an impartial committee and show cause as to why somebody should be tested at any time.

"When I say you ought to start from what is, the fact of the matter is that not one player has been tested under that provision. Of course clubs don't do it, it's such an impossible concept when you think about it. What's a club employer supposed to do, bring a player before the committee because of probable cause, and when asked what's the probable cause says, `He's hitting too many damn home runs?' That's the most illogical thing I've ever heard."

But Marvin Miller was not heard on this one. Whether it was because it was media-driven, or because the owners were compelled to act by government threats against their antitrust exemption, or because union leadership had to bow to the will of enough players who believe, rightly or wrongly, that steroids have unfairly tilted the playing field, what was viewed as a toothless testing plan has been tossed out. It has been replaced by yesterday's agreement, which calls for more tests, stiffer penalties, and year-round testing. Will it work? Was it necessary?

He has no choice but to let history render its verdict. This being Marvin Miller, don't be so sure he's wrong. 

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