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Three strikes rule

Sports | Baseball is starting to sound serious about combating steroid use

Issue: "Senate wars over judges," May 14, 2005

Maybe baseball finally got the message. After a book release, congressional hearing, and a slow trickle of steroid suspensions culminating with the outing of an actually decent player, Minnesota reliever Juan Rincon, baseball may be willing to consider even tougher penalties for steroid users.

In a letter to baseball union boss Donald Fehr, commissioner Bud Selig called for 50-game bans for first-time violators of the sport's steroid policy. According to Mr. Selig's proposal, repeat offenders would earn a 100-game suspension and after three strikes, a player would be ousted from the game with a lifetime ban. Mr. Selig said he'd also like baseball to test for amphetamines and even turn over all testing to a professional third-party group.

Some baseball observers were surprised at what happened next. Mr. Fehr, head of the Major League Players Association, said the group would be willing to once again open up baseball's standing labor agreement and possibly adopt Mr. Selig's stringent new standards. Mr. Fehr's willingness to renegotiate a portion of baseball's standing collective-bargaining agreement was met with surprise by some players who regard the agreement as an ironclad doctrine.

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"It was a signed document that I thought was etched in stone-at least until 2006," Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Jason Phillips said. "And for us to amend it at that point in time has never been done before. So it's not a surprise that they're going to keep talking about it."

Lawmakers and members of the House Government Reform Committee met Mr. Selig's call for stricter standards with responses ranging from encouragement to suspicion. Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), the second-highest-ranking Republican on the committee, said he's hopeful of real change in baseball: "This is a major improvement, and now it's up to the players' union to step up to the plate and make this happen." The Republican chairman, Tom Davis (R-Va.), sent his kudos to Mr. Selig through a spokesman.

Indeed, while GOP officials like Mr. Shays seemed to take encouragement from Mr. Selig's new proposal, some Democrats began calling for actual legislation, indicating the first signs of a partisan split in the burgeoning baseball scandal. Committee member Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) noted, "Selig's proposal was just that-just a proposal. . . . What we'd like is a set of reasonable minimum standards that would cross sports." And Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the top-ranking Democrat on the committee, said Mr. Selig's 50-game/100-game/lifetime ban plan might not be enough to satiate representatives: "Congress is looking at a stronger standard than that."

Some Republicans are pushing legislation, too. Florida Rep. Cliff Stearns, chairman of the House Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection subcommittee, introduced a bill that would enact uniform penalties in all professional sports for steroid abuse. According to Mr. Stearns, the penalties would be based on the Olympic standard: two years for a first offense and a lifetime ban for a second offense. Mr. Selig's proposed bans don't seem so tough in comparison. But maybe that's the point.

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