WASHINGTON — It’s a rare thing when major league baseball players run scared. In this particular case, they’ve run scared from Congress. And the beneficiary is Bud Selig. Actually, the beneficiaries are Selig, the players themselves, and, certainly, the game.

With Congress threatening to unilaterally impose what amounted to a no-tolerance, go-to-jail now policy for steroid users, the strongest union in America completely capitulated Tuesday and accepted the commissioner’s proposal of 50 games for a first-time steroid user who tests positive, 100 games for a second-time user and a lifetime ban from baseball for anybody dumb enough to be caught a third time.

In case you’d forgotten, tough guy and union boss Donald Fehr proposed in September a 20-game suspension for a first-time offender, 75 for a second, and a penalty set by the commissioner for a third-time offender. Of course, Fehr was quick to try to save face Tuesday by issuing a statement that said, “This agreement reaffirms that major league players are committed to the elimination of performance-enhancing substances and that the system of collective bargaining is responsive and effective in dealing with issues of this type.’’

You can believe that foolishness if you want. What bargaining? Selig proposed a 50-100-lifetime ban system and Fehr, after balking, was basically threatened by Congress to take it. He could either accept Selig’s plan or let the nation’s lawmakers impose a two-year suspension for first-time offenders. There was no movement whatsoever, no compromise anybody can find. Fehr slinked out of Washington, humiliated, and is now left to spin.

Given the union’s stranglehold on the owners for the past 25 years, its cave-in is stunning news. With the backing of Congress and public opinion, the owners had no reason to cower for one of the few times when engaged in a confrontation with the union. When Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said at the Sept. 28 Senate hearing, “We’re at the end here ... I suggest that you act ... and act soon,’’ Fehr became toothless on the issue.

From the way Fehr and other union executives initially fought testing and then sanctions, you would think that players had nothing to gain from a get-tough policy against steroids, when in fact players had more to gain than anybody else. While there is still so much we don’t know about steroids and their long-term effects, no responsible physician or trainer argues steroids are good for players’ health. In fact, most studies, the overwhelming anecdotal evidence, and the testimony from the steroid hearings, offered in fairly frightening detail, spell out the damage steroids can do over time.

One would think a union would want to eradicate anything that brings that kind of health risk to its constituents. The smarter members of the union are thankful today that their fraternity brothers are going to be much less likely to take steroids because the consequences are so grave. What we’ve seen this season is that if something that will enhance performance is available, some players will indulge ... unless the penalty is an absolute deterrent.

This, we think, is a deterrent. Ten games is nothing. Fifty games is something. It’s too much money to give away, too big a chunk of playing time to forfeit, too big a stain on a players’ career to justify risking it. Competitors can always find chemists who are willing to try and beat the tests, and we’d be naive to think there won’t be a single fading star trying to hit enough home runs to get one more big contract not to give in to temptation. Somebody will cheat and get caught, and chances are somebody will cheat and not get caught. But the great, great majority of players will say to themselves, “Ain’t worth it.’’

Another stunner is that included in this new drug policy is the news that baseball will test for amphetamines and punish players who are caught using them. Greenies have been part of the clubhouse culture longer than card games. It’s been a federal crime to have them since 1970. Selig has said in interviews that he first heard about “greenies’’ more than 40 years ago and some physicians believe them to be at least as dangerous as steroids if not moreso. “I’ve been meeting with team doctors and trainers,’’ Selig said of his concern during a telephone interview with ESPN Tuesday. “Amphetamines have been around for a long, long time.’’

What’s relatively new, however, is the perception that an entire generation of baseball has been tainted by cheating, that the power numbers the sport so dearly loves have been cheapened. Every player who lost 10 pounds after the tighter sanctions went into effect this season was suspected of using steroids. It was open season for speculation and even ridicule on men considered future Hall of Famers just two years ago. The integrity of the game has perhaps never been questioned so thoroughly, not since integration anyway. Selig had to monitor report after report, even from his own sources inside clubhouses, that this famous player or that all-star was about to have a positive steroid sample confirmed. That eats away at the integrity of any contest.

Selig told ESPN Tuesday afternoon he wanted to “once and for all deal with the integrity issue. There’s no question there was an integrity issue.’’

Of course, the owners and the union should have moved in this direction two or three years ago, but Selig didn’t have the support from Congress. The argument that Congress has more important work to do and shouldn’t have to insert itself in baseball’s mess has merit, but it’s not at all practical, especially if you consider the game an institution that is as much a public trust as a sport.

Selig, who has rightfully had to take his share of the blame for so many instances of baseball mismanagement in recent years, deserves a giant share of the credit for building the necessary support to push through a policy that ought to help remove a storm cloud of suspicion from the game while improving the lives of its players.

When Selig says, as he did Tuesday night, “We now have the toughest drug-testing program in American sports,’’ he wasn’t exaggerating. Putting pro football on notice and on deck wouldn’t be a bad Act II in this latest crusade to rid big-time sports of steroid use ... or at the very least dramatically reduce it.

(Michael Wilbon is a columnist for the Washington Post and co-host of ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption.”)


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