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Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Updated: November 18, 11:18 AM ET
Baseball should be better off

By Jim Caple
Page 2

The best thing about baseball's new drug policy? Now Congress can finally move onto more pressing national issues, such as investigating the infield fly rule.

With the war in Iraq, devastating hurricanes, record gas prices, soaring health insurance costs and long-term Social Security concerns, you would think Congress would have had more important issues to deal with than baseball's steroid policy. But evidently this was the one issue deemed politically safe enough to pursue wholeheartedly. During this past spring's hearings I kept waiting for Mark McGwire or one of the other players called to testify to answer a question by saying, "I'm sorry, Senator McCarthy, but this is none of your business. No, on second thought, I would be happy to talk about this subject … provided, of course, that you first tell me all about the drug-testing policy for U.S. Senators."

Still, few are going to complain about tougher standards against performance-enhancing drugs, regardless of how they came about. Many see a 50-game suspension for a first offense, a 100-game suspension for a second offense, and a lifetime ban for a third as a harsh but sound policy. It seems a bit extreme to me, but I'm just relieved they stopped short of executing players in Texas for a fourth offense.

I'm eagerly waiting for baseball's legions of critics to attack the new program as too lax, too late or otherwise inadequate. These people (hello, Dick Pound) have been beating up on baseball for so long over its steroid policy that I doubt they'll be able to suddenly stop themselves now that the game will have the toughest steroid penalties in team sports.

Yes, but when is baseball finally going to crack down on sniffing glue?

Was baseball slow to react to steroids? Certainly. But remember, this is a sport that is slow to react to everything. Shoot, the Cubs didn't acknowledge the existence of electric lights until 1988, and a lot of teams still play organ music.

Jim Bunning
Jim Bunning and the rest of Congress did have an effect in the end.
Compared to the way the sport normally crawls up on an issue, baseball took on steroids rather swiftly. Hey, you try to get the union to go along with any proposal that limits player rights.

Before anyone criticizes baseball for not testing for human growth hormone, please bear in mind that the NFL does not test for that substance, either. Which might also help explain why its players have grown to the size of SUVs in the past decade.

In fact, until recently, the NFL's oh-so-strict steroid policy allowed its players to test for up to six times the normal amount of testosterone before being flagged. Perhaps this is why the league's tests somehow missed three Carolina Panthers even though they reportedly had steroid prescriptions filled less than two weeks before playing in Super Bowl XXXVIII. And why the tests also apparently missed Bill Romanowski's steroid use for more than a year before he was finally caught in 2003.

Yet Congress gave the NFL a virtual free pass this spring, calling on no active players to testify and only two former players, neither of whom had played in more than two decades. Senator McCain, I assure you, the only thing I'm on now is prune juice.

Now baseball, however, will have the harshest penalties -- heck, they're even going after greenies -- so maybe people will finally stop whining about this issue. After all, everyone seems more interested in simply whether a league has a strict program than in its actual effectiveness.

So if the end result for baseball is a cleaner, fairer sport and far less criticism, maybe it's worth having had Congress stick its nose into someone else's business. It sure beats giving another $8 billion in tax breaks to the oil companies.

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," is on sale at bookstores nationwide. It also can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com.