On the eve of a widely anticipated congressional hearing on steroid use in baseball, House committee leaders criticized previously undisclosed aspects of the sport's new testing agreement, igniting a new round of accusations and condemnations that put baseball on the defensive as it sends six star players and several officials to testify this morning.
Among those players will be former slugger Mark McGwire, who rounded out the witness list by signaling his intention to attend. At least three other players submitted their opening statements to the House Committee on Government Reform. But the afternoon was dominated by the committee's attack on baseball's testing program -- which it examined as part of 400 pages of subpoenaed documents relating to baseball's past and present drug policies.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had pushed baseball to rewrite its testing program and had praised the resulting agreement, blasted league and union leaders for misrepresenting the finished product, which remains unratified pending approval by the union's membership.
"I can reach no conclusion but that the league and the players' union have misrepresented to me and to the American public the substance of MLB's new steroid policy," McCain said in a letter to Commissioner Bud Selig and union chief Donald Fehr.
"I expect the league and the players' union to modify the new policy to comply with at least what was announced by MLB in January. To do anything less than that would constitute a violation of the public's trust, a blow to the integrity of Major League Baseball, and an invitation to further scrutiny of the league's steroid policy."
Selig has held up baseball's program as an example of "zero tolerance" and has predicted it would "eradicate" steroids from the game. But in a letter sent to Selig and Fehr yesterday, the committee chairman, Rep. Thomas Davis III (R-Va.), and ranking minority member, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), criticized its effectiveness.
"Despite the public assurances of [MLB] officials, we have questions about the effectiveness of its new drug policy," the letter states. "There appear to be major differences between [baseball's] new policy and the independent, widely respected testing program of the Olympics. The Olympic policy appears comprehensive, strict, independent and transparent. [Baseball's] program appears to raise questions on all four counts."
The letter questioned why the policy gives Selig discretion to impose a $10,000 fine for first offenses in lieu of a 10-game suspension, why amphetamines and certain specific steroids are not banned, and why the policy contains a provision allowing for the suspension of the testing program in the event of a government investigation.
"We have serious questions about this provision," Davis and Waxman wrote of the suspension provision. "By requiring the indefinite suspension of the testing program when government officials, including elected representatives, ask basic questions about drug use in baseball, this provision appears designed to discourage responsible independent oversight."
In a telephone interview, MLB Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Rob Manfred responded point-by-point to the committee's letter, saying the provision suspending testing in the event of a government investigation was done to ensure the privacy and confidentiality of the test results. He also said players who test positive for steroids "unequivocally will be suspended without pay and their names announced."
"This is a great example," Manfred said, "of why Congress should not be reviewing private agreements."
Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.), an invited guest of the committee who has authored anti-steroid legislation, called baseball's drug-testing agreement "a paper tiger, not worth the paper it's written on."
"I guess I understand now," Sweeney said, "why they were resistant in turning it over."
Baseball and its union negotiated the sport's first steroid-testing program in 2002 and -- under pressure from President Bush, McCain and other lawmakers -- strengthened it this winter.