June 11, 2006
Welcome to the worst nightmare of the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Former Orioles relief pitcher Jason Grimsley might have created a portal to a new era of enforcement in baseball's battle to eradicate illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
Call it a loophole if you want. Major League Baseball recently embarked on a wide-ranging investigation to determine the true extent of the sport's steroid problem, but it appeared powerless to punish past offenders because the collectively bargained anti-steroid program requires a positive urine test to trigger specific disciplinary action.
That might have changed when Grimsley was caught with a smoking gun called human growth hormone, according to federal agents.
Since hGH is banned under the current program but is not detectable with a urine test, the door appears to be open for baseball commissioner Bud Selig to discipline Grimsley for possession and admitted use of the synthetic hormone, which is illegal unless prescribed by a physician.
The players union will have little choice but to try to prevent Selig from setting a precedent that might be applied to players who are proved to have used other substances either during the steroid inquiry by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell or the ongoing federal investigation that stung Grimsley.
It might be an unpopular fight, but union officials can see where this is headed and they will have little choice other than to try to head Selig off at another important crossroads in baseball's rocky labor relationship.
Grimsley was confronted by federal investigators after receiving a delivery of hGH at his home, according to a federal affidavit, and apparently named enough names in an ensuing interview to add a whole new dimension to the latest chemically induced scandal to tarnish the image of Major League Baseball.
Presumably, Selig would love to exercise his limited "best interests" powers to take the fight against performance-enhancing drugs to the next level - and MLB lawyers reportedly have been looking for rationales to justify punishing offenders identified in the Mitchell investigation - but even the hGH loophole in the testing plan might end up being closed by an arbitrator.
The Los Angeles Times reported Friday that baseball officials are strongly considering the possibility of levying a 50-game suspension on Grimsley. Since he has indicated through his agent that he intends to retire, the only practical reason to follow through with a suspension would be to create the test case for future disciplinary action against steroid offenders who have not tested positive under the current steroid program.
The players union almost certainly would follow with a grievance that would allow an arbitrator to decide whether baseball can substitute compelling evidence of a steroid violation for a positive drug test.
Though the case might seem slightly reminiscent of the testing grievance filed by U.S. sprinter Tim Montgomery, which was rejected by the international Court of Arbitration for Sport several months ago, baseball's collective bargaining agreement has proved tough to crack in previous drug-related cases.
Meanwhile, both the players and the owners find themselves back in the crosshairs of the House Committee on Government Reform, which held the March 2005 steroid hearings that undressed slugger Mark McGwire and left us with the famous image of Rafael Palmeiro pointing his finger at committee members as he denied ever using illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a Democrat from California, called again on baseball to toughen its drug policy by adding random blood testing or storing urine samples until an effective urine test for hGH is developed.
If the recent history of this scandal is any indication, Waxman might get his wish as public and political pressure builds on the players union to abandon its resistance to widening testing parameters and increased sanctions.
There was a time when the MLPBA routinely rebuffed such attempts to chip away at its rock-solid grip on the work rules covering the sport, but the unpopular steroid issue has helped shift the balance of power in baseball's labor relationship back toward ownership ... and union officials don't figure to wake up from this bad dream anytime soon.