- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 2004

PHOENIX — Baseball players gave their lawyers the go-ahead yesterday to reach an agreement with owners on tougher testing for steroids.

After negotiations with management were outlined to the executive board of the players’ association, union head Donald Fehr said the board “authorized us to attempt to conclude an agreement consistent with those discussions.”

Commissioner Bud Selig repeatedly has called for more frequent testing and harsher penalties for steroid use, stepping up the intensity following reports of grand jury testimony in a steroid investigation that includes Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield.

Gene Orza, the union’s chief operating officer, said Monday that discussions toward a new agreement had advanced but the sides were still apart. Management expects talks to resume next week.

“We’re very pleased they’re coming to the table, and we hope we can achieve a program that works,” said Bob DuPuy, baseball’s chief operating officer.

About 40 players were present at the meeting, union spokesman Greg Bouris said. Players leaving the meeting declined comment or said they “could not” discuss what was said during the talks.

“I’m happy to see the union come together. We really need to clear up the public perception of what’s going on,” Oakland outfielder Eric Byrnes said from California in a phone interview. “It’s been tough, because we haven’t had a voice. The biggest thing is that the public knows it’s not as prominent as media and some outside sources are making it out to be.

“Do I think it’s right? No, absolutely not. In every walk of life, in every profession for hundreds of years, people have been looking to get an advantage. The kids, who are the most important part of this thing, need to know that this isn’t OK.”

Fehr defended the current program, saying it would work if “it had been given time.”

“The preliminary indications, although I cannot go into details, are that the testing program we had this year had some pretty significant, positive effects,” he said.

“That doesn’t mean, given the experience we had, that there can’t be amendments that would be even better.”

Fehr said he and Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has threatened to propose federal legislation that would override the drug-testing provisions in baseball’s collective bargaining agreement, spoke earlier in the week. Fehr expected they would talk again before the meeting ended tomorrow.

Each player was tested once in 2004 during a period between the start of spring training and the end of the regular season.

In 2003, anonymous tests were conducted as a survey, and 5 to 7 percent came back positive. Fehr thought the number of positive tests declined this year but did not provide specifics.

“What you will see is a significant reduction,” he said.

The backlash from the testimony also has caused Major League Baseball to curtail its plans for heavy marketing of Bonds’ pursuit of Henry Aaron’s major league record of 755 home runs.

The commissioner’s office and a corporate sponsor it was courting for the campaign canceled a meeting on the project. Baseball said it had hoped MasterCard International would sponsor the promotion.

“We continue to assess the ramifications that these issues will have on our business,” DuPuy said. “It’s another reason why we need to restore the confidence of not only our fans, but of our partners.”

Baseball already had sent the company detailed materials and artwork pitching the campaign. But the meeting was called off following last week’s report that Bonds testified he took substances that federal prosecutors say are steroids.

The San Francisco Giants’ slugger finished the 2004 season with 703 homers, 52 shy of Hank Aaron’s record, and at his recent pace he would reach the mark late next year or in 2006.

The program created by baseball called for a campaign in 2005 building to the game in which Bonds would break Aaron’s record. A nationally televised on-field ceremony would offer significant exposure for a corporate sponsor. Teams the Giants visit would be invited to be part of the marketing plan.

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