SELIG’S PROPOSAL CONNECTS WITH ME

When Bud Selig was a kid growing up on the west side of Milwaukee, he didn’t use drugs. He didn’t know much about them. They were for the “bad” kids and he was a “good” kid. He didn’t drink, he didn’t take pills, and to this day, he says, he has never let a cigarette touch his lips.

I mention this because, although he grew up in the ’40s and ’50s and I in the ’60s and ’70s, I share this fact with Selig: I was pretty much the same way as a younger man. And, like the baseball commissioner, I think that’s why this whole steroids thing always has seemed to me to be stupefying, unfathomable and totally intolerable.

“I guess I’m na├»ve,” Selig told me over the phone Monday. “I was raised in an era where you believed in what you were seeing. What you saw on the sports fields was what you saw. There was no artificial help.”

I’d called Selig because he’d sent a letter to Don Fehr and the players union last week proposing a new steroids policy in baseball, and it was harsh and it was stiff and, in my view, it was just about right: 50 games for a first offense, 100 games for a second, and “bye-bye forever” for a third.

“I worked on that letter over and over,” Selig said. “I rewrote it and rewrote it. I got up in the middle of the night and changed a sentence. It is the embodiment of what I’ve gone through with this thing. And that letter is an accurate description of how I feel.”

In the letter, Selig appeals to Fehr and the players to adopt this new harsh stance to show the country — and no doubt the country’s lawmakers — that they are serious about getting rid of steroids in baseball. Not managing them. Not tolerating them. Not wagging a finger and saying, “Next time be more careful, fella.”

Getting rid of them.

Fifty games is a good start.

Bud and I haven’t always agreed

Now, I haven’t always agreed with Selig over the years. But I do on this steroids issue, precisely because he comes from a place where a lot of people come from on steroids: They are foreign to him. Not part of his world. A few years ago — and he’d been in the game for decades — he thought baseball’s problems were mostly labor issues, management issues, maybe off-field behavior issues.

But not cheating with substances.

“People don’t believe me when I tell them this,” he said, “but it was a warm July Sunday morning, when I read about Mark McGwire taking androstenedione, that was really the beginning of my education process. I walked into the pharmacy where my family has been going for years. Saw the pharmacist I’ve known for a long time. He said, ‘Commissioner, it’s right over there. Andro. It’s legal. You can buy it.’ I said to him, ‘Don’t you want to say good morning first?’ “

That was the start of his rude awakening. The problem has since mushroomed into a shadow that hovers over baseball like a stalled storm system, even as the game breaks records for attendance. BALCO. Jose Canseco. McGwire at the hearings. Congress. The “S” word has attached itself to baseball like a barnacle. It now sails where baseball sails. Another player was suspended Monday, a Minnesota relief pitcher, and for every player caught, there is a web of suspicion that clouds more.

Which is why it can’t be managed. It can’t be “sorted out.” You either condone steroids or you condemn them, and if you condemn them, I don’t understand why you would object to a 50-game first offense. At least it says you’re serious. At least it says, “Don’t even start.” The current first offense of 10 games, considering the potential benefits of steroids, is almost worth the risk.

Ball is in Fehr, union’s court

Of course, now the letter is in the players’ in-box, and it is for Fehr and others to respond. Not many expect the players union, which a blink ago acted as if this weren’t worth talking about, to suddenly agree to new major penalties.

But it had better. There is more at stake here than players’ privacy, or the weakening of a negotiating stance. When an issue damages the product, it is labor’s and management’s concern. An unlevel playing field is a damaged product.

“This should be an issue on which we find a way to work together to restore faith to our fans in the integrity of … our great institution,” Selig wrote. And for once, that is not hyperbole.

Steroids are about lives. Steroids are about safety. I have met broken-down athletes with terrible side effects from having taken them. They all regret it. “When I’m done with this job,” Selig told me, “I don’t want somebody to say, ‘Commissioner, your people knew and you didn’t do anything about it.’ Someone who lost a brother or a husband or a father.”

Call that corny. Call it old-fashioned. But concern about fairness and a player’s health didn’t used to be so old-school, and it shouldn’t be now. Fifty games for a first offense. One hundred games for a second. Third strike you’re out.

It even sounds like baseball. Or at least the way baseball used to sound when “good” kids were still justified in admiring it.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”

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