VIERA, Fla., March 10 -- The House committee investigating steroid use in Major League Baseball threatened Thursday to prosecute players and officials who ignore subpoenas to appear at a March 17 hearing, while baseball's management and union interests continued to mount a rare show of unity in challenging what some in the sport are calling a politically motivated witch-hunt.
A day after MLB lawyers vowed to fight the committee's subpoenas to seven active and former players, Reps. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman and ranking minority member of the House Government Reform Committee, respectively, fired back in a letter, saying, "[A]ny failure to comply with the Committee's subpoenas would be unwise and irresponsible."
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The House committee is taking a hard line with baseball.
Thomas Boswell: A manageable rhubarb has turned into a full-scale beanball war.
"In this case," the letter stated, "the Committee is clearly acting within its jurisdiction on a matter of important federal policy. The Committee has properly issued subpoenas. Any American citizen under these circumstances would be required to comply with the Committee's request. Major League Baseball and baseball players are no different."
The committee issued subpoenas on Wednesday to 11 people: Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro of the Baltimore Orioles, Curt Schilling of the Boston Red Sox, Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox and Jason Giambi of the New York Yankees; former sluggers Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco; MLB executives Rob Manfred and Sandy Alderson; union chief Donald Fehr; and San Diego Padres General Manager Kevin Towers.
Schilling and Thomas appear to have been included because of their outspoken public comments against steroids. The other players have all been tied, fairly or not, to steroid use, through the federal grand jury investigation of an alleged California steroid ring, Canseco's highly publicized tell-all book, or both.
If the subpoenaed witnesses fail to appear at the hearing, the committee has threatened to hold them in contempt of Congress, an offense that carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
"If they think Congress won't do it, that's a real bad idea," said Rep. John E. Sweeney (R-N.Y.), who sponsored legislation leading to the banning of steroid precursors such as androstenedione. "Hopefully, we can avert that kind of thing. . . . Baseball is going to have to recognize this isn't going to go away. They have refused [to comply]. They've balked. What that signals and tells the rest of us is that they're either in denial or don't understand the damage they have already caused."
Most of the players involved have declined to comment since the subpoenas were issued. However, Thomas told reporters: "I have nothing to hide. I have my reputation on the line. I don't care. If they want me up there, I'll go up there. What questions do you want to ask me? I'm going to tell you the truth."
In uniting to fight the subpoenas with a jointly retained lawyer, Stanley M. Brand, the union and the league have put aside nearly four decades of labor strife to mount a common defense of the steroid-testing program the sides agreed to in 2002 and modified with stricter guidelines and stronger penalties this winter.
Baseball's legal challenge, outlined in a letter to the committee on Wednesday, has focused on the committee's jurisdiction limits, workplace privacy issues and possible interference with the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative grand jury investigation. Brand also has blasted the committee for being motivated by a "prurient interest" to reveal users publicly.
"It's definitely chemical McCarthyism," Philadelphia Phillies union representative Randy Wolf told reporters at the team's spring training camp in Clearwater, Fla. "It's politicians soapboxing. [Steroids are] a popular subject right now. It's a good way [for politicians] to put themselves out there on a subject that has a lot of public awareness. They want to look like they're fighting this."
Canseco agreed to testify before the committee before the subpoenas were issued. The other players either have indicated an unwillingness to testify or remained noncommittal. Although MLB cannot bar individual players from testifying, league officials were trying to maintain a unified front.
According to a congressional source, baseball's only option in resisting the subpoenas would be to not show up for the hearing. At that point, the committee likely would vote to find them in contempt of Congress, and if so, that finding would go to a vote of the full House. If that vote is approved, the matter would go to the appropriate U.S. attorney for enforcement.
One baseball official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, called the committee's actions "the political equivalent of Canseco's book -- trying to get the biggest bang by going after the biggest names."
Other players seized on the committee's inclusion of Palmeiro, whose name was never mentioned in regard to steroids until Canseco's book accused him of using them, as proof the committee is letting Canseco's salacious book guide their process.
"Since the union decided to start the testing and clean the game up and get [steroids] out of the game -- which has been working [judging] from the numbers, at least that I've seen -- the only difference is that Canseco has written a book," said Orioles outfielder David Newhan. "Everyone is giving merit to [the book], whether it's true or false. . . . It's one guy writing a book and trying to sell some stuff."
Staff writers Mike Allen in Washington, Jorge Arangure Jr. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Amy Shipley in Miami contributed to this report.