Baseball players and owners have made progress toward toughening rules on steroid testing, a move that would pre-empt congressional intervention. How close they are to an agreement depends on which side you listen to.
Commissioner Bud Selig, who has called for more frequent testing and harsher penalties, told Colorado Gov. Bill Owens two weeks ago that an agreement was near, Owens said Monday.
Gene Orza, the union's chief operating officer, said that while the discussions toward a new agreement had advanced, there was more work to be done.
"We've had a series of discussions with the clubs, and in many respects they've been fruitful," he said Monday after the union opened its annual executive board meeting. "But to suggest we have a deal that either is going to be ratified by the executive board this week or is going to be put in place shortly is simply not right."
Orza said discussions will continue, and a management official said owners hoped they would resume next week. Selig wants tougher rules in place by opening day.
"I won't say we're a long ways away," Orza said of an agreement. "I don't want to say it's not possible. I just can't guarantee it."
Currently, players are tested once from the start of spring training through the end of the regular season. Selig wants additional tests, some in the offseason, and more substances added to the banned list.
Under the agreement in place, scheduled to run until December 2006, players don't face suspensions until their second positive test for steroids.
In the wake of reports that Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield told a federal grand jury they used steroids, Sen. John McCain has threatened to propose federal legislation that would override the drug-testing provisions in baseball's collective bargaining agreement.
Owens called Selig two weeks ago, telling him Colorado could enact its own steroid rules for players visiting Coors Field.
"As a big fan, I told him something needed to be done," Owens said. "He said they were close to reaching an agreement."
Owens hosts a monthly sports and highlights show on a regional network.
"It's clear some of them don't want this," he said of players. "The union has been dragging its feet for reasons that are hard to understand."
Selig had surgery Monday in New York to remove a cancerous lesion from his forehead and wasn't available for comment on Owens' remarks. Rob Manfred, baseball's executive vice president of labor relations, declined to comment on the talks.
"If we cannot resolve this issue privately, I gladly will accept whatever help is offered by Senator McCain to achieve our ultimate goal," Selig said in a statement Monday.
"I appreciate the support of Senator McCain," Selig said, adding that the "illegal use of these substances is damaging" baseball's credibility.
"Perhaps, most damaging, it encourages our young fans to use these horrible substances," Selig said. "While I would prefer to resolve this problem directly with the players' association and jointly implement a much stronger drug-testing policy in major league baseball, one modeled after our program in the minor leagues, I understand the need for swift and resolute action."
Reporters were barred from the lobby by Royal Palms Resort and Spa in Phoenix, preventing them from having access to most players at the meeting.
"We committed to them that we would provide a quiet, intimate location for their meeting, and that's what we've committed to do," Greg Miller, the hotel's general manager, said.
Union spokesman Greg Bouris said the decision was made by the hotel.
After arriving at the hotel, Rich Aurilia declined to comment. Reached on his cell phone, even the usually talkative Curt Schilling refused to discuss steroids.
Baseball didn't ban steroids until Sept. 30, 2002, and testing for steroids with penalties started only this year. Each player is tested once from the start of spring training through the end of the regular season, and a first positive test results in counseling. A player who tests positive a second time could be suspended for 15 days, and discipline rises to a one-year suspension for a fifth positive test.
Players with minor league contracts aren't covered by collective bargaining. They're tested four times per year, in and out of season, and have a wider list of banned substances, including Human Growth Hormone and amphetamines. They're subject to a 15-game suspension for a first positive steroid test, a one-year penalty for a fourth positive test and a lifetime ban from the minors for a fifth positive test.
"The minor league program has been very effective at getting us to very low positive rates in the minor leagues," Manfred said.
Chicago White Sox general manager Kenny Williams said possible steroid use had become a factor he weighed in evaluations of trades and signings.
"That's part of the equation," he said. "If you have not thought about it in recent years, you've had your head buried in the sand."