WASHINGTON - The head of the baseball players' union told Congress on Wednesday that a new drug-testing agreement could be reached next month - after he heard Hank Aaron and other Hall of Famers call for tougher steroid penalties.
Commissioners and union leaders from the NFL, NBA and NHL also testified at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing about legislation that would standardize steroid testing in U.S. professional sports. But the focus was squarely on Major League Baseball - and, more precisely, on players' association chief executive Donald Fehr.
"I particularly single out baseball. And in baseball, I particularly single out the players," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., "because they have negotiated reluctantly, if at all."
Lawmakers looking at steroids in sports have focused on baseball since March 17, when Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, commissioner Bud Selig and Fehr testified before the House Government Reform Committee. Palmeiro emphatically told Congress he never used steroids; he was suspended Aug. 1 after failing a drug test.
"We're at the end of the line," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Wednesday. "How many more Rafael Palmeiros is there going to be?"
Five weeks after that March hearing, Selig proposed going from a 10-day ban to 50 games for a first violation, from 30 days to 100 games for a second, and from 60 days to a lifetime ban for a third.
Fehr this week outlined an approach that would increase the first penalty to 20 games and wouldn't mandate a lifetime ban. He stressed Wednesday the need for case-by-case examination of players who fail drug tests.
"Don't you get it?" McCain asked Fehr. "Don't you get it that this is an issue that's greater than the issue of collective bargaining? Don't you understand that this is an issue of such transcendent importance that you should have acted months ago? The patience of this body ... is at an end."
Pressed to say when there will be a new steroids agreement, Fehr said: "Can I give you a precise date? No. Do I expect to know within the reasonably near future whether that will be done? Yes. Would I expect it to be by the end of the World Series? I would certainly hope so."
The World Series is scheduled to begin Oct. 22 and end no later than Oct. 30. Asked whether that's a workable deadline, Selig said, "I don't see that we have a choice."
Selig received more criticism in past congressional appearances. But now he's advised by former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer and has received praise for proposing changes to baseball's drug policy. On Wednesday he brought along former stars Aaron, Ryne Sandberg, Phil Niekro, Robin Roberts and Lou Brock.
McCain invited them to speak, and all backed Selig.
"I want to applaud the commissioner, and I also just want to make sure that whatever we do, we make sure that we clean up baseball," said Aaron, whose lifetime record of 755 homers is being approached by San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds.
Asked by McCain what should be done about records tainted by steroid use, Aaron said: "That's going to be left up to the commissioner and the rules committee. They would probably have to go back and look at some of those things that happened."
Later, Sen. George Allen, R-Va., made a not-so-veiled reference to Bonds: "As far as Hank Aaron is concerned, if a certain player breaks his home run record, it's not a question of an asterisk. ... There probably ought to be an 'RX' next to it."
The Senate is considering two bills that call for a two-year suspension for a first positive drug test and a lifetime ban for a second. McCain sponsored the Clean Sports Act. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., a member of baseball's Hall of Fame, sponsored the Professional Sports and Integrity Act. There are three similar House measures.
NBA, NFL and NHL officials raised some complaints about the bills, saying a "one size fits all" proposal isn't fair; U.S. law couldn't be applied to Canadian teams; and the two-year ban for a first offense is too harsh.
McCain and Bunning said they'd prefer not to legislate but warned that Congress is prepared to.
"For whatever reason, you just can't get it done, and you can't get your act together," Bunning said. "I and millions of fans think that's pathetic."