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Congress, baseball exhort Fehr

Hank Aaron, with Commissioner Bud Selig at his left, testifies before the Senate Commerce Committee. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Hank Aaron, with Commissioner Bud Selig at his left, testifies before the Senate Commerce Committee. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Howard Fendrich Associated Press

WASHINGTON – One by one, Hank Aaron and other members of the Hall of Fame told Congress they back Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s bid for tougher steroid penalties.

Then, one by one, lawmakers told players’ union chief Donald Fehr that he needs to act soon – a stance punctuated by Sen. John McCain’s admonishment, “Don’t you get it?”

Commissioners and union leaders from the NFL, NBA and NHL also testified Wednesday at a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on legislation that would standardize steroid policies in professional sports.

But the focus was squarely on baseball – and, more precisely, on Fehr, who told senators he thinks a new drug-testing agreement could be reached next month.

“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 concentrated on baseball since March 17, when Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, 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,” said McCain, R-Ariz. “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 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?” McCain said, addressing Fehr. “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 Ryne Sandberg, Phil Niekro, Robin Roberts, Lou Brock and Aaron.

“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 Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants.

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, who has denied using steroids: “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.”

Bonds wasn’t available in the clubhouse before the Giants’ game at San Diego, but his manager, Felipe Alou, defended his player.

“What is their proof?” Alou asked. “Are they testing players, too? How do you explain that? Or have they stopped testing now? We just saw him hit five in 30 at-bats. So what’s going on now? I hope that he’s judged by the real baseball people when he’s finished.”

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.

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