Baseball takes lead on drug testing
Now the hard part: Catching cheats will require tough - and expensive - monitoring.
WASHINGTON — Even to its critics, Major League Baseball's new antidoping policy is no small thing. To be sure, there were factors outside baseball's good intentions to move the process forward - not least an international scandal that tainted Olympic sprinters and baseball sluggers alike, and Congress's not-so-subtle attentions.
Yet the fact remains that in the space of a single season, Major League Baseball has been transformed from American pro sports' most profligate flouter of performance-enhancing drug policy to their pioneer. In the process, the league has overturned the deep reservations of what has been called the country's most powerful union - the players' association - and weathered repeated allegations that some of the most accomplished players of its recent past were drug cheats.
Now, however, comes the hard part. As the Olympic movement has discovered, drug testing is an ever-evolving underworld of new substances and masking techniques. Even under the best circumstances, the testers are always a step behind.
The major leagues have now entered this arena in earnest, and the success of this week's pact - if it is ratified as expected - will depend on baseball's desire to adapt and reform after the browbeating ends.
"This is a work in progress," says Gary Wadler, who works with the World Anti-Doping Agency and has testified before Congress on the issue of performance-enhancing drugs. "It has to be monitored - both its details and the implementation of the details."
Those details are not yet clear. The plan presented by baseball officials Tuesday lays out the leagues' new guidelines in broad strokes. Yet some of these broad strokes, in and of themselves, are groundbreaking.
The penalties, though still below the Olympic standard, are now the toughest in American team sports: 50 days' suspension for a first positive test, 100 days for a second, and a lifetime ban for a third - with the possibility of backdoor reinstatement through the commissioner after two years. Perhaps more significant, baseball also took on amphetamines - stimulants known to be used widely in baseball for years.
"You have to at least condemn [these drugs]," says Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com. "Now, at least they're on the right side."
At this point, it seems that Congress is on their side, too. At a Monitor breakfast Wednesday, Rep. Tom Davis (R) of Virginia, who chaired Congress's steroid hearings in the spring, said baseball's new policies were a victory. "This is a huge sea change," he said.
But he also suggested that he and other lawmakers would keep a close eye on baseball's progress. The list of which drugs will be banned is not complete; nor is it clear what the relationship will be between baseball and the new independent investigator responsible for carrying out drug tests.
After two years of baseball being on the offensive against steroids, there are signs of improvement, at least for the moment. From 1995 to 2002 - the height of the so-called Steroid Era - at least one player hit 50 home runs each year, including four players in 1998, the year Mark McGwire hit 70 to break the single-season home-run record. The past two years, no one has hit more than 48.
But to stay on the offensive without Congress's constant threats could be difficult. In many ways, the fans are at best ambivalent about the issue; the steroid scandals of recent years have not affected sales at the gate. That means the pressure to continue to evolve baseball's drug policy - which could mean millions of dollars in research and renewed battles with the players' union - will fall on baseball itself.
Says Dr. Wadler: "The accountability must be there."