Major League Baseball and the Players Association are on the verge of reaching another agreement to significantly strengthen current rules for performance-enhancing drug use by big league players.
It would be the third time since the drug policy was collectively bargained in 2002 that the owners and union reopened the agreement to toughen the existing rules.
The Associated Press reported that the new agreement could be reached as early as Sunday to coincide with the opening of the new Nationals Park in Washington and the first game of the season on U.S. soil, between the Braves and the Nationals.
It could also wipe out the 15-day suspensions given to Jay Gibbons and Jose Guillen, who were punished in December for admitting that they purchased performance-enhancing drugs via a pharmacy doing business on the Internet. Guillen's suspension has been grieved by the union, but a hearing on the matter in front of baseball's independent arbitrator has yet to be set.
Both sides have been talking for months since former Sen. George Mitchell released his report on Dec. 13 analyzing the use of those drugs in MLB. The talks began to heat up in Arizona this week, The AP reported, and a conclusion is awaiting the return of high-ranking union and MLB officials from Japan, where the A's and the Red Sox split a season-opening two-game series.
Mitchell made a bevy of recommendations to strengthen the current program, about a half-dozen of which couldn't be adopted unless the changes were collectively bargained.
Mitchell said that the current penalties -- 50 games for the first positive test, 100 for the second and a lifetime ban for the third, with the right to apply for reinstatement after two years -- were adequate. But he advised that the program should be independently administrated, be more transparent, that year-round testing should be increased, and that new and the best practices are able to be implemented without having to re-open the program on each occasion.
The program currently has an independent physician in partial charge of its administration, but he shares that role with a lawyer from MLB and another from the union. Since Mitchell issued his report, Commissioner Bud Selig has said publicly that he's in favor of strengthening the power of the independent administrator without giving him total power and that is expected to be one element of the enhanced program.
Mitchell also advised Selig in the Report not to suspend any of the active players who were named within its pages. Selig said he would take that recommendation into consideration and that each player would be judged on a case-by-case basis.
The policy was adopted in August 2002 and re-opened in January 2005, when penalties were inserted for any first-time offenders. Before the end of that calendar year, the policy was adjusted again from 10 days for a first positive test to the current penalty schedule, plus year-round testing was formally instituted. Both times, more drugs were added to the list of those banned, including human growth hormone and amphetamines in November 2005.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.