Thursday, Jun 20, 2002 7:21 PM UTC

Marvin Miller: Don’t trust baseball’s drug-testing proposal

The former head of the Baseball Players Association says that the owners have no reason to crack down on steroid use -- so the commissioner's random-test proposal may just be moral grandstanding.

Marvin Miller, in the words of Red Barber, ranks with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson as “one of the three most important men in baseball history.” Miller left his position as chief economist for the United Steelworkers in 1965 and shortly afterwards came out of retirement to become the first executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. After 10 years of winning concessions from the baseball owners on issues such as pension and arbitration of grievances, Miller was finally able, in 1976, to succeed in overthrowing the “reserve clause,” which bound a player to one team for his entire career. Despite dire predictions that free agency would be the end of baseball, the game has continued to expand in terms of new franchises, attendance and profitability.

Miller retired in 1982 and came back for a brief stint in 1983. Throughout the years, he has continued to be active in baseball affairs as an advisor to the Players Association. One issue that has managed to go unresolved through the tenures of Miller and two subsequent players union heads, as well as the reigns of the last five baseball commissioners, is the absence of a workable drug policy. Drug use in baseball, in particular anabolic steroids, has become a hot topic after a recent Sports Illustrated article asserted that steroid use is more widespread in the sport than previously believed. I spoke to Miller at his New York apartment on the subject of why baseball has never been able to deal with one of its most controversial problems.

If I’m not mistaken, the Players Association and Major League Baseball spent a lot of time trying to work out a drug policy some time in the mid-’80s. What happened?

Well, we did work out a drug policy in 1984, or at least I thought we had one worked out. Peter Ueberroth, the commissioner of baseball at the time, obviously changed his mind after the fact. We agreed on a neutral panel of three doctors who were experts on the subjects of drugs and drug testing, and agreed on a policy of revolving examination. In the spring, everyone would be tested; that part was fairly uniform, and in fact it was standard to have spring checks of athletes before drugs even became an issue. Beyond that, players would be tested only if there was reason to believe that there was drug use. Things were to be handled pretty much in the way that legal matters regarding drugs were handled in the outside world. In the outside world, if police have reason to suspect lawbreaking, they go before a judge and ask for a right to search.

But who would be the “judge” in a question of drug use for ballplayers?

Our three doctors. Once both sides agreed on who the doctors would be, they had the authority to order testing.

Under what circumstances were they empowered to impose such a test?

If a player collapsed or was seemingly ill from drug use, if his behavior fit the symptoms, management could ask the panel to test and they would quickly decide if the evidence merited examination. If the player was arrested for drug use, or, of course, if he confessed to drug use, then there was no problem with testing.

We’re talking, of course, about what’s generally referred to as “recreational” drugs — cocaine, amphetamines, marijuana. There were some publicized cases at the time involving some well-known players. Everyone remembers Keith Hernandez, Dave Parker and Dale Berra. But there was also a case which involved four players on the Kansas City Royals.

And both the union and the owners agreed that this was a workable procedure?

Yes. When Ueberroth came into office the next year, he started talking about how his priorities would be to wipe out drugs. When he was asked how he was going to do it, what his program was based on, he was vague. He said something like “It’s built on trust and players helping players” — which sounds suspiciously like it was based on getting players to snitch on other players. Anyway, we had what both sides seemed to regard as a humane and largely successful program, one that did not include mandatory and random drug testing. And then, one day in 1985 Ueberroth astonished both Don Fehr [who succeeded Miller as head of the players union] and myself by going on television during a national telecast and announced that he was voiding the existing drug program because it didn’t have mandatory testing. Don Fehr told him, in essence, to go to hell.

Ueberroth was so arrogant he didn’t seem to understand that he was undermining any possibility of instigating a drug program by tossing out the window what we had achieved through collective bargaining. Incredibly, in 1986, he tried again. Without even bothering to consult the union, he sent a letter to every major league player urging them to submit to voluntary drug tests. The test results, he said, would be “totally confidential” — and free of penalties — which made us wonder what he hoped to gain. Don suggested to the players that they simply toss the commissioner’s letter in the garbage. When they finally got together, Ueberroth asked Fehr if the union would agree to testing “even if it was just for the sake of public relations.” Don told me his jaw dropped; when he told me, mine dropped.

Was there ever any follow-up on the issue from Ueberroth?

No, but Ueberroth did impose the plan on minor league players who have no union and therefore no defense against arbitrary exercises of power.

Have you seen the 11-page proposal that Major League Baseball made to the union in February on the subject of drugs and drug testing?

No, I haven’t seen it. I’ve been told about it, but I haven’t read it yet.

The program includes specific tests for anabolic steroids, which is new and, in addition to the mandatory spring tests, testing is required at random times during the season. What would you think of such a proposal?

I don’t want to say because, again, I haven’t read the proposal and, second, there might be other clauses in the proposal which might run counter to that. Let me say that from what I know about anabolic steroids, and I’m certainly no expert, it wouldn’t do much good to have two random tests during the season because some athletes have been known to use them during the off-season. I’m also told that depending on the drug, the effects can be undetectable in the body after just a [few] days, and I’ve heard of other types that can be undetectable after only two days. If such a proposal as the one that’s being talked about really was made by Major League Baseball, it makes me wonder if the commissioner’s office isn’t simply moral-grandstanding again.

How do you mean?

Well, I wonder if they really do have a commitment to end steroid-drug use, or whether they simply want to make it seem as if the union is blocking their proposals. The owners have every reason to want to end the use of “recreational” drugs. After all, no matter what anyone says, these drugs inhibit performance. There used to be guys who’d swear that “I play better after I’ve done this or that drug.” But it was all bunk. You could show them the record of how they’d performed when they said they were on drugs and point out that their performance was sub-par, and often they’d deny it was true. Well, we had evidence that such drugs do not enhance a player’s performance. But think about steroids for a moment. Ask yourself with the records being set and the tickets being sold, what incentive do the owners have for really wanting to end the use of anabolic steroids? Is it simply because they care what happens to the players after they retire? Let’s just say I’m skeptical. I have to question whether the majority of owners really want to institute a system which might cause them to lose their star slugger just as, let’s say, the playoffs begin.

Allow me to play devil’s advocate and direct some skepticism back: Why would the players want to end the use of anabolic steroids if it can help them to get bigger contracts?

There are several reasons why. For one thing, no one knows how many players are using anabolic steroids, but it appears that the clear majority are not. So the majority of players would be in favor, it seems to me, of seeing drugs banned that gave others an unfair advantage.

Another reason, of course, would be for health reasons, but here we get into a very tricky area. I’m hearing all kinds of wild statements in the press about the health hazards of the steroids being used. Well, what exactly are we referring to? And what is the scientific evidence to back up these claims? And are we including what are called “supplements” in this judgment? A good start towards a workable drug proposal might be for both sides to agree on a joint committee to study all of these substances and give us some clear concrete answers. Once we had hard evidence, it would be easier to proceed.

But such a study could take a while to complete.

All the more reason to get started.

But when you say a committee, what do you mean? Who is to choose this committee? Do you mean the medical equivalent of the so-called “Blue Ribbon” panel that studied the game’s economics?

No, I most certainly do not. The Blue Ribbon Panel’s members were chosen by the baseball owners. What I’m talking about is a team of neutral medical experts of the kind that were agreed upon by management and labor in 1984.

OK, but then why hasn’t the players union put together a proposal of their own and submitted it to the owners?

Anyone who thinks that’s the way agreements are reached in labor issues is simply ignorant of the process. It simply doesn’t work for the players to sit down and try to think of all the things that management would want from them in a drug policy. Clearly, the players have to respond to what the owners propose, and, frankly, I’ve never seen a serous effort on the part of the owners to deal with this problem.

But isn’t the biggest issue random drug testing? Let me be devil’s advocate again: If the players have nothing to hide, why would they be against random drug tests?

I have to say that it constantly amazes me how willing members of the press sometimes are to agree with the baseball owners that players should no longer be treated as citizens. I have to say I’m appalled when I pick up the New York Times and read a statement like “the rampant use of steroids will continue because the Players Association opposes mandatory testing.” How exactly was that conclusion reached and on what historical evidence is it based? I’m amazed at how willing some columnists are to simply waive a player’s civil rights because he happens to be a professional athlete. Has anyone really thought this matter through? Have you given some serious thought to what random drug testing, if applied, might be?

I assume random would mean at the owners’ discretion.

It seems to me that it would mean that or nothing at all, or how would it be random? What that means is that no player could, for instance, plan to go on vacation or out of the country or even out of his house overnight without the approval of Major League Baseball, because how would the player know that the random test wasn’t scheduled to occur while he was away? And if you didn’t limit random testing in some way, it could be used to harass any player who management chose to single out. If you had a big-salaried player who you felt wasn’t producing, you could harass him into wanting to leave through constant random drug testing. Not to mention how a player’s reputation might be sullied by this kind of practice.

But surely such possible abuses might be anticipated in advance and counterproposals made to curtail such abuse.

I’m certainly not saying that there couldn’t be. But you can’t know what such safeguards are until you’ve seen what management proposes.

But what about the International Olympic Committee’s program of random testing where select athletes from all over the world are subject to examination when and where the IOC chooses? Many people might say, well, if it’s good enough for the Olympics, why isn’t it good enough for professional baseball players?

I’m not familiar with all the details of the IOC’s plan, but if it works in fact the way you described it, I would have to say that it’s an absolutely outrageous violation of a person’s individual rights and should be absolutely unacceptable under any circumstances. I’m also highly skeptical that such a system actually is in place. I mean, for instance, is someone really going to tell me that when NBA players like Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal played on the Olympic team that they were subject to this kind of random year-round arbitrary testing? Or are we merely talking about athletes who were not represented by a union and whom the IOC can therefore bully?

In any event, what kind of chaos would ensue if the IOC’s program was instituted in baseball? How many agents would Major League Baseball need to keep track of the whereabouts of several hundred major league players during the off-season? Such a program, if seriously attempted, would be nothing more than a blueprint for chaos.

Note: Mr. Miller has agreed to another interview at a later date to answer questions from Salon readers. Give us your thoughts at abarra@nac.net.