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Players' union again will be on Capitol Hill hot seat

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

Going on three years since a wrung-out Bud Selig sat before a panel of heated congressmen and was told the game would be better off without him, the same house oversight committee has invited him back.

Don Fehr, weakened by hunger during those 11-hour proceedings, bore his share of criticism as well and practically staggered from the hearing. He's been asked back too.

Accompanied by former Sen. George Mitchell – this should be friendly, familiar territory for him – the chief attendants of the game and its players return Jan. 15 to the same Rayburn House Office Building, the same high-ceilinged hall.

It was here where a stammering Mark McGwire famously talked himself out of the Hall of Fame, here where a finger-waving Rafael Palmeiro set himself up for a humiliating summer, here where a cagey Sammy Sosa feigned ignorance of the English language, here where Curt Schilling would foreshadow his now-familiar pomposity, here where a tanned and sculpted Jose Canseco was cited for courage in combating the very culture he helped to create.

A faction within the committee doesn't want players to testify this time, yet the chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman, is reserving the right to call select players, including a certain 45-year-old power pitcher with 354 victories. Roger Clemens' battle to repair his image and salvage his Hall-of-Fame credentials might lead him to the same chair Fehr and Selig are certain to find themselves in.

When that Tuesday morning arrives, those summoned will face a committee that takes some pride in having pushed baseball into its current drug program. In the 34 months since the initial hearing, the commissioner's office and the players' union have adopted suspensions of 50 games for a first-time offense, 100 for a second offense and a lifetime ban for a third. Also, committee members believe, the Mitchell Report was born here, through the prodding and threatening on March 17, 2005, and the directive for Selig to get a grip on his game and a more thorough understanding of its steroid infestation.

The room has changed some; Waxman (D-CA) has replaced Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) in the chair, while Davis serves in Waxman's former role as ranking minority member.

And the tone, perhaps, will have softened.

Reasonably satisfied that baseball has become more diligent in its fight against performance-enhancing drugs, the committee now has an interest in the recommendations set forth by Mitchell, some of which would require a third reopening of the sacred collective-bargaining agreement in a mere three years.

The commissioner's office and the players' union have exchanged letters regarding a meeting to discuss possible changes to the current Joint Drug Agreement.

Among the changes that would – or probably would – require owner and player agreement:

• Creating an independent body to oversee the testing program or, less likely, turning it over to the United States Anti-Doping Agency.

• Furthering the program's transparency through outside audits and periodic reports that would be made public.

• An increase in year-round testing. The current program allows for up to 60 tests in baseball's offseason.

• Establishing greater flexibility in the agreement, which Mitchell believes would allow the game to keep pace with the ever-advancing attempts to create and mask illegal drugs.

• Drug testing of the top 100 draft-eligible prospects.

Already, Selig has said he would adopt all of the recommendations that fall under his authority, including the establishment of an investigations department within the commissioner's office, random drug testing of clubhouse personnel, a system of logging packages that arrive in clubhouses, and a broader education program.

"As far as I'm concerned, if it makes the program stronger, even from a perception standpoint, I have no problem with that," Selig said in the hours after the Mitchell Report was released.

The commissioner's office and players' union have not scheduled a meeting, however, and might not come together until after Jan. 1. That won't leave much time for the sides to sort through the recommendations, particularly because Fehr must first consult with the players, many of whom presumably are scattered for the holidays.

"It’s too soon for me to say much of anything about that," Fehr said. "Hopefully, we'll have been in a position to get some work done by then."

Realistically, it is unlikely the agreement could be reworked, ratified and drafted – assuming the union agrees to the changes – in time to present a finished product to Waxman and Davis.

In lieu of that, MLB executive vice president Rob Manfred said, "Our message to Congress will be that we have been consistently responsive to both the public and Congress about these issues."

Selig and Fehr still could show a united front, which seemingly would go a long way toward keeping the committee from immediately jumping into the fray.

Judging from past lines of questioning, a handful of Mitchell's observations might be latched onto by Congress.

Such as:

"The Players Association was largely uncooperative."

And:

"[M]y request for an interview with its chief operating officer, Gene Orza, was refused."

And:

"[The MLBPA] rejected totally my requests for relevant documents."

And:

"The response [to steroids] by baseball was slow to develop …"

In the hours after Mitchell released his report, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL) called for Selig's resignation, bringing to mind the contentiousness of previous hearings. Waxman offered the same sentiment nearly three years ago, six months before Sen. George Allen (R-VA) looked down upon Fehr at a Senate commerce committee hearing and, referencing the more amenable NFL players' union chief, requested of Fehr, "Why can’t you be more like Gene Upshaw?"

This time, the committee would seem more interested in the game's future, rather than its sticky past. According to committee sources, the focus likely will be on the Mitchell recommendations, continued vigilance in the areas of steroids and HGH, the striving to promote steroid awareness among the nation's youth and a commitment to mutual cooperation from baseball and the union, all familiar themes.

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