- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2003

Seems like just the other day Marvin Miller was ripping the NFL Players Association, saying its leaders had "failed their membership abysmally." Pro football players, the former baseball union leader told the Other Newspaper in Town, "are not even poor stepchildren." The compensation they receive is mere "crumbs."

Three days after Orioles pitching prospect Steve Bechler died of heatstroke with ample amounts of ephedrine in his system Miller looks pretty silly. There are, after all, many different ways for a union to serve its membership. One way is to fight the owners for every last penny, regardless of the impact it might have on the game. Miller and his successor, Donald Fehr, have always done a swell job of that. Another way is to try to protect the players from themselves by supporting drug testing, so they'll have a better chance of being alive to receive their paychecks and retirement checks. Baseball's union has failed its membership abysmally in that area (while the NFLPA has been well ahead of the curve).

In the '80s, after the infamous baseball drug trials in Pittsburgh, the union could have tried to deal with amphetamines and cocaine, but it didn't.

In the '90s, after Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa made a mockery of Roger Maris' home run record, the union could have addressed the issue of steroids, but it didn't.

It was only after Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti broached the subject that the union agreed to the most limited form of drug testing this year a survey, really, to see if there's any further need for testing. Gene Orza, the union's general counsel, pretty much summed up its whole head-in-the-sand attitude when he told the New York Times in 2000, "The question of whether [steroids] are performance-enhancing is debatable."

The NFL, meanwhile, started testing for steroids and recreational drugs in 1987 and the players association was wise enough not to object. Since then, random testing has been instituted and the list of banned substances has grown in an attempt to keep up with the cheaters. Two years ago, the league began screening for Ecstasy; last season it started checking for ephedrine (which resulted in the suspension of at least five players, including rookie star Julius Peppers of the Carolina Panthers).

Heck, even alcohol abuse is monitored. And while that might seem extreme to baseball types, keep in mind that Mickey Mantle needed a liver transplant at 62. Not that it did him much good.

Some say the NFL's policy is out of whack, punishing first-time ephedrine users more severely than it does coke heads. But, hey, at least the league is trying to do something about the problem. Baseball has spent the last 15 years pretending it doesn't exist while watching bulked-up sluggers smack homer after crowd-pleasing homer out of the park.

In an interview in Salon magazine last year, Miller revealed that the union first discussed drug testing with the owners way back in '84. It was only going to be token testing, though. A player basically had to show up for a game unfit to play before his blood could be drawn. But when then-Commissioner Peter Ueberroth decided it wasn't enough, the union "told him, in essence, to go to hell," Miller said.

"Ueberroth was so arrogant," he went on, "he didn't seem to understand that he was undermining any possibility of instigating a drug program by tossing out the window what we had achieved through collective bargaining."

As if the owners have a monopoly on arrogance. The union's behavior has been just as bad; it hasn't been willing to accept any responsibility for the situation. Asked why the players weren't more proactive, why they didn't submit their own drug proposal, Miller replied: "Anyone who thinks that's the way agreements are reached in labor issues is simply ignorant of the process. It simply doesn't work for the players to sit down and try to think of all the things that management would want from them in a drug policy. Clearly, the players have to respond to what the owners propose."

And just as clearly, the players were perfectly content not to have any drug testing at all.

And so a baseball team has lost a pitcher, a wife has lost a husband, an unborn child has lost a father. The sad truth is that it probably has to be this way; players must die before a sport faces up to its drug problems. It happened in the NFL in the '80s after Don Rogers and David Crudip OD'd, and hopefully it will happen in baseball before there are too many more Steve Bechlers.


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