NEW YORK -- Major League Baseball announced a new collective bargaining agreement Tuesday, and there will be considerable talk in coming days and weeks about the game's revamped economic and competitive landscape. The changes range from expanded playoffs and divisional realignment to alterations in revenue sharing, the first-year player draft and compensation for free agents.
Amid the feel-good vibe of announcement day, there was also room for some symbolism -- a collective effort to further distance the sport from Barry Bonds' portrayal in "Game of Shadows,'' Rafael Palmeiro's finger-pointing display before Congress and Mark McGwire tearfully baring his soul about PED use in a studio interview with Bob Costas.
Baseball took both a practical and symbolic step with its new labor deal, becoming the first professional sports league in North America to test for human growth hormone. For the first time, major leaguers will be subject to blood tests for HGH in spring training. In addition, players have agreed to HGH testing for "reasonable cause'' throughout the season, and random, unannounced testing in the offseason.
A first offense will result in a 50-game suspension, followed by a 100-game suspension for a second failed test, and a lifetime ban for a third.
All the players were in agreement that we want to clean up the game. We want to be ahead of the curve and ahead of the other sports in our testing.
”-- A's reliever Andrew Bailey
Commissioner Bud Selig called the initiative a subject that's "near and dear to my heart.'' No amount of rhetoric can undo the perception that baseball should have done more a decade ago. But after so much damage to the game and so many ruined legacies, Selig and the players are still keenly aware of public perception. And they acknowledge the need to do more to continue to inspire faith in the product on the field.
"Through the cooperation of both parties, this is the strongest [drug testing] program today in American sports, and we've now strengthened it,'' Selig said. "Both parties realize this was the right thing to do, and certainly right for the sport. I know how fans feel about this subject. But in the end, the only way you can prove it is by doing something about it. And we did something about it.''
Even in the absence of testing, HGH has been banned under the game's joint drug agreement since 2005. The following year, Arizona pitcher Jason Grimsley admitted to authorities that he had used HGH and subsequently had his house raided by federal agents. When Grimsley received a 50-game suspension even though he had retired, Detroit pitcher Todd Jones quipped, "It's kind of like giving a speeding ticket to a guy that got killed in a car wreck.''
In baseball's minor leagues, players have been tested for HGH since 2010. Former big league first baseman Mike Jacobs earned his small niche in history this season when he became the first player to test positive under the plan. He received a 50-game suspension in August.
For years, baseball players were skeptical of HGH testing because they weren't convinced there was a reliable test for the substance. But things changed after British rugby player Terry Newton received a two-year ban for a positive test in February 2010. According to Michael Weiner, executive director of the players association, the union approached MLB shortly after that development and asked to put HGH testing on the table.
A total of 236 MLB players participated in talks en route to the labor deal, and the same theme kept resonating: Players talked about an "even playing field,'' amid signs that a ban on steroids and amphetamines was already having an impact on the field. In 2011, the home run rate dipped to its lowest level since 1993, and run production was at its lowest since 1992. Meanwhile, the game managed to maintain its popularity without a constant assault of 12-8 slugfests.
Several years ago, stories circulated that some players were upset about rampant PED use in the game, but were hesitant to speak their mind at union meetings. During these negotiations, in bargaining sessions and conference calls, everyone was willing to speak. Maybe it was the result of a more educated constituency, or a reflection on the leadership of Weiner, a Harvard-trained attorney with a regular-guy demeanor.
"It's an issue we want to get out ahead of,'' said free-agent pitcher David Bush. "We were accused of being way behind before -- rightfully so -- and I think the union as a whole recognizes we need to be in front of this issue. Playing catch-up and holding Congressional hearings is not the way to go about it. That doesn't end up with a positive result for anybody.''
Both players and management agree that baseball poses some unique challenges when it comes to invasive testing. MLB clubs play almost daily for six months, and big leaguers are concerned about the impact that giving blood before or after games might have on performance. They'll dip their toe in the water by submitting to tests in spring training, and see where that might lead.
"Is it possible there will be in-season testing during [the course of the] agreement?'' Weiner said. "Yes.''
Before signing off on the new HGH provisions, the players also had to be sold on advances in testing, given the ramifications of an error or a false positive.
It's an issue we want to get out ahead of. We were accused of being way behind before -- rightfully so -- and I think the union as a whole recognizes we need to be in front of this issue.
”-- Free-agent pitcher David Bush
"All the players were in agreement that we want to clean up the game,'' said Oakland reliever Andrew Bailey. "We want to be ahead of the curve and ahead of the other sports in our testing. We just want to make sure the science is behind it to back it up. If you have one bad test it could ruin a guy's career, so that was really important to us -- to make sure the science behind this is 100 percent iron-clad.''
Despite this latest step, steroid use is destined to remain a hot-button issue in coming years, as Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and other former stars with PED-related baggage appear on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time. But the players still in uniform seem resolved to putting a more conciliatory face on the issue.
During Tuesday's news conference, Bailey and Bush were joined at the head table by pitchers Carlos Villanueva and Andrew Miller. To their left sat former big leaguer Tony Clark. He hit 251 home runs in 15 seasons before retiring in 2009, and now works as the union's director of player relations. Clark has always been a respected voice among his peers. So if any player has his ear to the ground, he's the guy. And his ear tells him that major leaguers want to do all they can to bury the past.
"A lot has happened in the last eight or 10 years,'' Clark said. "The testing itself has improved, and the understanding of exactly what we're dealing with has improved. Eight or 10 years ago, I didn't know half what I know now with respect to performance-enhancing drugs and which ones are out there.
"I think a lot of our group is in the same boat. We want a level playing field, but we don't want to jeopardize the dynamic of our sport. As players we're always concerned about our schedule being adjusted or changed, let alone having someone taking blood from us the day of a game and having to go out and compete. So you have to be very diligent in appreciating the process and protocol that need to be put into place.''
MLB has a new labor deal, and the process and protocol are accompanied by a shared sense of purpose. The players and owners took another step Tuesday in their quest to put a long, sordid piece of the game's history more deeply in the past.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.