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Monday, May 2, 2016

Is baseball bent on its own destruction?

Monday, March 15, 2004

Major League Baseball may be the only pro sport in America bent on destroying itself.

The game was said to have turned the tide toward more competitive balance after the 2002 collective bargaining agreement. Revenue sharing was enhanced as a first step toward a number that might restore parity to a sport where many teams start the season with little hope, and little fan support.

So much for that agreement changing anything. This offseason, the Yankees just kept on spending as if the so-called luxury tax was a minor detail. Ditto for the Red Sox.

The Yankees first acquired two of the highest-priced free agents in Dodgers pitcher Kevin Brown and Braves' outfielder Gary Sheffield. Topping that, the Bronx Bombers picked up Alex Rodriguez from Texas and his mammoth, $25 million per year salary.

The Red Sox acquired Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling and added several other big names. So much for the American League playoffs holding much drama in October. Everyone else in the American League will be playing for third place.

Baseball was back in the news in its familiar negative light this week, when a U.S. Senate committee came down hard on the sport for not having a stronger testing policy for steroids and other drugs.

Currently, there is testing for steroids in the Big Leagues, but players don't face any real penalties until their fifth offense.

That's in direct opposition to the NFL, which has year-round, random testing and imposes immediate suspensions for those who test positive.

At the center of the firestorm was Donald Fehr, the Wisconsin lawyer who heads the Major League Baseball Players Union.

While baseball commissioner Bud Selig said he desired stronger testing for the steroids that Mark McGwire used in breaking Roger Maris' single-season homerun record (61) in 1999, Fehr said more stringent testing violates players' individual privacy rights.

That drew the ire of Arizona Republican John McCain. The no-nonsense Senator blasted baseball, and particularly Fehr for his position on testing.

McCain made a not-so veiled threat that Congress would intervene if baseball's lack of integrity and inability to police it itself continues.

"I can tell you, and the players you represent that the status quo is not acceptable," he told Fehr. "And we will have to act in some way unless the baseball players union acts in an affirmative and rapid fashion."

The drama of the hearings reached its height when McCain asked Fehr if he would be willing to submit to such action.

Fehr, in typical lawyerly fashion, said, "let me start by ...."

But he was interrupted by McCain, who said, "why don't you first start with a simple yes or no."

Fehr was unbowed, and went on with his self-serving view that stringent testing, or "suspicionless" testing violates the privacy rights of the players.

Meanwhile, the players Fehr seems bent on protecting are starting to question their own sport's drug testing policies.

Braves pitcher John Smoltz and others have called for stronger, mandatory and year-round random testing with stricter penalties for those who use steroids.

But the difference is, they have a sense of history about what baseball is, what it could be, and most of all, what it has meant in past years as America's so-called pastime.

Fehr's only interest is his own, and it seems, the players who take performance-enhancing substances.

Thanks to Fehr, with a little help from greedy, shortsighted owners and their leader Selig, baseball is close becoming the laughingstock of American sport.

A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, quoting information from a federal investigation, reported last week that Barry Bonds, Yankee first baseman Jason Giambi and Sheffield all have used steroids at times during their playing careers.

Bonds stands on the cusp of breaking Babe Ruth's all-time career homerun record of 714, a total that was helped by a sudden output of a record 73 homers two years ago.

It would seem logical that anyone now witnessing a Bonds homerun would simply pass it off as a joke.

In short, baseball, once known for shooting itself in the foot off the field with it's labor problems, is now threatening it's credibility on the field.

Once that's gone, there isn't much left.

In any case, the ball is in Fehr's and the players union's court. If it fails to act in baseball's best interests, then Congress should act decisively.

The sad truth is, it may be too late. Baseball, over the past 20 years, has been mismanaged with such great skill that it's damaged image among fans may never recover.

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