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Thomas Boswell

Warming Up For a Spring Classic

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, March 17, 2005; Page D01

The anticipation before Game 7 of a World Series is intense, but that's still just a ballgame. How can it compare to the St. Patrick's Day baseball brawl scheduled for a congressional hearing room today?

A World Series can only be covered by one network. A congressional steroids hearing, however, when it includes the serving of subpoenas on three players with more than 500 home runs, is a multimedia feast.

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For drama, confrontation, moral dilemmas, social relevance, instruction for the nation's youth and just pure unadulterated tackiness, you can't top this combination of slapstick circus and drug seminar. This one's got it all, from trashy scandal and personal feuds between superstar jocks to serious ethical issues and (another) public comeuppance for baseball. With a gaudy cast that old Hollywood would envy, this show has ratings, controversy and votes written all over it.

This isn't a hearing, it's a reality show. Who's going to be the "Survivor" or the "Idol?" And who's going to hear the equivalent of "You're fired?" If only H.L. Mencken were alive. It's almost as though American culture summoned one final "Fear and Loathing" bash as a send-off to honor the late Hunter S. Thompson. Pass the hallucinogens.

As a last-minute tease for this extravaganza, we've learned that Mark McGwire has finally stopped evading his subpoena and will show. Big Mac may ultimately be remembered as a genuinely nice guy who cheated so he could break the most famous record in American sports, then lost that record three years later to another suspected steroids user and, finally, was tattled on by his former Bash Brother. We've even got Jose Canseco's descriptions of injecting McGwire in the rear end. Do public spectacles and national humiliations based on mere accusations by one person get more debasing than this?

It's a lucky thing that McGwire only made the whole country feel good for an entire summer, and acted like a prince the whole time. Otherwise, we might do something bad to him.

As for Canseco, he got a little last-minute surprise, too. The Chemist, as he calls himself, thought that the final stop on his book tour would be the hallowed halls of Congress. A signing session on the Capitol steps, perhaps?

Instead, Canseco learned yesterday that he won't be granted immunity. Instead of ratting out his former buddies under oath, Canseco's lawyer says that Jose will probably just clam up and plead the Fifth. Why not? Everything else the guy has ever said has tended to incriminate him.

Finally, as one last twist, the most credible person who had withheld his support from these hearings has switched sides. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had similar Senate hearings a year ago, said he saw no constructive purpose in this exercise. That is, until the House Government Reform Committee revealed that baseball's drug-testing agreement contains a provision that testing would be "suspended immediately" if the government conducts an independent investigation into drug use in baseball.

Talk about the last straw. "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.

Now, it's unanimous. Everybody wants to hang 'em high. You couldn't conspire to ratchet public hostility any higher unless you handed out pitchforks and torches to the villagers.

To get a ticket to this hearing, you've got to pay in '52 Mantle mint-condition rookie cards. This hearing makes the Masters look like an easy ticket. If Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R.-Va.) uses a gavel to start the proceedings, it will probably fetch more in a memorabilia auction than Barry Bonds's 73rd home run ball. After all, what's that piece of junk worth now?

Every aspect of this hearing should be riveting. For example, who's in charge of seating? Just as important, who are the sergeants-at-arms? If Canseco and McGwire dissolve into 'Roid Rage and grapple with each other, do we just stun-gun 'em or use the big-game tranquilizer darts? Does Rafael Palmeiro get to cross-examine Canseco, the only person who has mentioned his name and steroids in the same sentence in 20 years? And, if he does, can Raffy use his bat?

Before this hearing is over, everybody is going to have to order another St. Patty's Day round. Or two. Because when it comes to catharsis and comedy, Congress has always seen baseball as its favorite piñata. Just beat on it until the votes fall out. You'll laugh. You'll cry. Make a sports movie of this ("Juiced: The Hearing") and it might get more Academy Awards than "Million Dollar Baby." Even poor commissioner Bud Selig will be on public display on Capitol Hill -- again.

Why doesn't Selig just keep a special crash helmet to wear every time he's invited to Washington? To complete his day, somebody should lock Bud and Peter Angelos in a closet and keep them there until the Nationals have a TV agreement.

The muscles have come home to roost. After almost 20 years of avoiding the depth and seriousness of its steroids problem, baseball finds itself on center stage -- scrutinized, mocked and magnified -- just as it thought it had begun to address its problems and bury its skeletons in semi-privacy. No such luck.

Perhaps punishments do fit the crime. For many years, baseball's ugly wish was that its steroid issue be kept in the dark. In recent years, the game haltingly made concessions to decency. Just as the sport thought it might save face, Congress big-footed into the picture. Is this any way for members of Congress to act, issuing a subpoena list based on a tell-all book? Probably not. But is this what baseball deserves for its reprehensible conduct for most of two decades? Sure, it is.

This hearing is for Hank Aaron, who hit 755 home runs with his wrists, not a syringe. It's for Babe Ruth, who didn't need the "clear," the "cream" or the "red beans." It's for Frank Robinson, who played when 586 home runs made you a legend, not a "Chemist," and for Mickey Mantle, who hit a ball 565 feet with muscles built in Oklahoma, not bought as human growth hormone.

Above all, this hearing, for all its flaws, is the day baseball has to admit the four central truths about steroids that it has tried to avoid for so long. They are illegal. They are a serious health hazard. They are cheating. And baseball has been full of them.

The game, the union and the players must be forced to realize that, from now on, the burden of proof is on baseball to devise and implement a steroids-testing policy that is second to none.

At this point, nothing less will do.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company