The Humiliation Hearing is a venerable congressional institution, like throwing rotten fruit at a villain in a public pillory.
Many enjoyed seeing ex-Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura embarrass Bud Selig when the commissioner tried to contract the Minnesota Twins out of existence three years ago. The sight of the ex-pro wrestler glowering at Selig was a classic photo opportunity that Ventura played to the hilt. Also, Sen. John McCain got high grades last year for orchestrating the mortification of Don Fehr on the subject of baseball's laughably lame steroid policy. The union boss's facade was permanently damaged.
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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.
However, we may be on the verge of going a bridge too far in these sports show trials. In the last two days, a manageable rhubarb has turned into a full-scale beanball war between baseball and the House Government Reform Committee. On Wednesday, the committee issued subpoenas to force seven active and former stars, including Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, to testify under oath before Congress. Baseball immediately charged that the subpoenas had been issued to satisfy prurient interest and that they constituted an absolutely excessive and unprecedented misuse of congressional power.
Naturally, yesterday, the committee swelled up and defended its position, saying, "your legal analysis is flawed and any failure to comply with the Committee's subpoenas would be unwise and irresponsible." In fact, the committee claimed in a five-page single-spaced letter to baseball that "under the rules of the House, 'the Committee on Government Reform may at any time conduct investigations of any matter.' "
After we find out if McGwire took steroids, can we hold some "Government Reform" hearings on Big Foot and Area 51?
"We'll fight it. It's not even close," said Stanley Brand, the attorney representing the unlikely pairing of MLB and its players' union, after reading the letter. "The committee is claiming that they have 'boundless jurisdiction.' That's an untenable legal position. . . . The courts will not smile on that [position]. You can't ask someone to testify if they can't understand what the questions are pertinent to or what the next question might be."
If the Government Reform Committee got the majority backing of the House of Representatives, then took the case to a U.S. attorney, would baseball fight the subpoena issue all the way to the Supreme Court?
"Yes, we would," Brand said.
How long would it take to reach an ultimate decision?
"Probably after the season," said Brand. When interest in the steroid issue might be much lower, if it still existed at all.
Will Brand and baseball still feel so strongly in coming days? Saying that you will defy congressional subpoenas and actually doing it are two different things. Stay tuned. Tough talk can be a bargaining ploy. If the public buys the committee's line-'em-up-and-make-'em-talk stance, baseball may not want to absorb the collateral public relations damage.
Sometimes, contempt toward Congress is the proper response to grandstanding politicians. But, if baseball ultimately chooses this stance, it will be a potentially dangerous and calculated risk. People don't forget when you tell a congressional committee to take its fistful of subpoenas and chuck them in the Reflecting Pool.
Ultimately, this steroid hearing may play as farce rather than drama. Neither side has distinguished itself so far.
For its part, baseball is proud that, after many years, it has finally agreed with its players on a steroid-testing program that at least has baby teeth. The game feels it should be congratulated, not roasted anew.
Even if the game is suspicious of the politicians' motives, it has antagonized them with its arrogance. "Telephone calls made by the Committee to the League from March 2 until the present were ignored," the Committee wrote to Brand on Thursday. "It was our hope that [the Committee's letter of March 7] would encourage the League to return the Committee's telephone calls."
Answering a couple of those phone calls probably would have been smart.
The Government Reform Committee, however, looks even more foolish than baseball. How can you ask Jason Giambi to testify when he is still involved in the grand jury investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative? However, if you do subpoena Giambi, how can you possibly exclude Barry Bonds, who is the focal point of the entire BALCO controversy? Why are Jose Canseco's accusations given so much weight in light of the fact that he lied about his own steroid use for 17 years? And why is a Latin star like Sosa called when Roger Clemens, who was also tarred by Canseco's gossip rather than evidence, left off the congressional guest list?
The House committee should rethink its St. Patrick's Day event. At this point, the best advice may be the simplest. Cancel the circus that's scheduled for next Thursday. At first, it looked like a lot of fun. But now, nobody's laughing. Work on rescheduling the testimony after this season is over when baseball has had a year to test its steroid program and the feeding frenzy over Canseco's book has calmed down. Wait until BALCO is finished legal history, rather than a fresh wound.
Some of us were making a fuss about baseball's steroid problems more than 15 years ago. Where were the pious politicians then when they could have helped a whole generation of players? Now that baseball finally has a steroid policy, there's suddenly a stampede for retroactive justice. And for credit. What's the rush? Baseball needs to focus on its steroid problem for years, not fix it by next week.
For those who are truly interested in the health of athletes and the integrity of the game, rather than a soapbox, there is no hurry. Take a deep breath, put the subpoenas back in your pocket and stop pretending that there is.