"Your failure to commit to addressing this issue straight on and immediately will motivate this committee to search for legislative remedies," McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, told players' union chief Donald Fehr.
"I don't know what they (the remedies) are. But I can tell you, and the players you represent, the status quo is not acceptable. And we will have to act in some way unless the major league players union acts in the affirmative and rapid fashion," the senator said.
McCain, R-Ariz., made the threat after Fehr refused to accept the senator's challenge to agree to the more comprehensive policy found in the NFL. McCain said sports such as baseball are "aiding and abetting cheaters" with a weak testing policy.
Fehr said that he couldn't commit to any changes in the 2002 collective bargaining agreement, which called for anonymous tests last year for the first time. Five to 7 percent of those survey tests came back positive for steroids, which triggered testing with penalties this year.
McCain and other senators on the panel called the policy inadequate, noting that a player doesn't face a one-year suspension until the fifth offense. The NFL, by contrast, has a year-round random testing program for players and imposes immediate suspensions on those who test positive for banned substances.
"I believe that the program that we instituted has had some effect," Fehr said.
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said he didn't disagree with McCain about the need for stronger testing. He called the current program a compromise, adding that the union's resistance prevented a tougher plan.
"I realize that we have work to do," Selig said. "We need more frequent and year-round testing of players. We need immediate penalties for those caught using illegal substances."
Selig said he hopes to make the sport's policy for players with minor league contracts apply to those with major league contracts: a year-round testing plan, with an immediate 15-game suspension for first violation.
McCain used NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and players' union chief Gene Upshaw as an example of the kind of collaboration he wants baseball to adopt.
Tagliabue and Upshaw presented a united front, saying that a strong policy is in the best interests of both the NFL and its players.
"To allow the use of steroids and banned substances would not only condone cheating, but also compel others to use them to remain competitive," Upshaw said. "We have a responsibility to protect our players from the demonstrated adverse health effects of steroids and banned substances."
Added Tagliabue: "There is complete agreement between us to enforce the program."
Fehr said that baseball players made a "concession" when they agreed to the current testing program, noting that the union still opposes, on philosophical grounds, testing players without cause. But some players, such as Atlanta Braves All-Star reliever John Smoltz, have called this year for stronger testing.
Selig said that baseball supports legislation sponsored by Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., that would ban over-the-counter sales of androstenedione, a steroid-like supplement that Mark McGwire used the year he broke the single-season home run mark, and the newly detected steroid THG.
Biden criticized the players union for resisting stronger testing for steroids.
"The union's wrong, here," Biden said.
Fehr didn't take a position on the legislation, but he said it was wrong to ban players from taking substances that are legal. If Congress doesn't think players should take substances such as androstenedione, he said, it should ban them.
The suspicion that some of the game's greats are using steroids has loomed over spring training this year.
The San Francisco Chronicle, quoting information it said was provided to federal investigators, reported last week that steroids were given to San Francisco Giants star Barry Bonds, who broke McGwire's record in 2001; New York Yankees stars Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield; three other major leaguers; and one NFL player. Bonds, Giambi and Sheffield have denied using steroids.
That report came out of a grand jury investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative. Last month, two company executives, along with Bonds' trainer and a track coach, were charged with supplying steroids to athletes.
By Frederic J. Frommer