On an extraordinary day of words and images, a House committee investigating steroids in baseball forced the sport to confront its past and rethink its future -- encountering resistance on both counts -- and the most extraordinary image of all was that of Mark McGwire, once the game's most celebrated slugger but now the face of the steroid scandal, reduced to a shrunken, lonely, evasive figure whose testimony brought him to the verge of tears.
During the course of an all-day, nationally televised hearing, the House Government Reform Committee fulfilled its goal of examining baseball's oft-criticized drug-testing program and its impact on steroid use among teenagers. Committee members said baseball's policy was full of holes and threatened to legislate tougher testing policies if the sport doesn't come up with them itself.
Asked repeatedly by committee members whether he had used steroids, Mark McGwire deflected each question.
(Melina Mara - The Washington Post)
In the process, however, the committee also ripped wide open the sport's most tender wound. Asked repeatedly by committee members whether he had used steroids in achieving unprecedented power numbers before his retirement in 2001, McGwire deflected each question -- his non-answers standing in stark contrast to the unabashed frankness of Jose Canseco, McGwire's former Oakland Athletics teammate and an admitted steroid user.
While McGwire acknowledged "there has been a problem with steroid use in baseball," he responded to questions about his own involvement by saying, "I'm not here to discuss the past," or, "I'm here to be positive about this subject."
The hearing came as baseball struggles to come to terms with what it admits is a steroid problem. In the past few months, leaked grand jury testimony by sluggers Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds showed them acknowledging steroid use and Canseco's book fingered some of the game's biggest stars as steroid users. Pressure from President Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), among other national figures, forced baseball to strengthen its steroid policy this winter.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), the committee chairman, opened the hearing at 10 a.m. and brought it to a close more than 11 hours later. Throughout the day, the panel threatened congressional action to bring the sport's testing program closer in line to the Olympic testing program, which includes regular testing and swift, tough sanctions.
Committee members grilled baseball's leadership -- Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig, league officials Rob Manfred and Sandy Alderson and union chief Donald Fehr -- over what they saw as flaws in the sport's drug-testing policy, which was instituted for the 2003 season and strengthened this winter to include, for the first time, penalties for first-time offenders. However, baseball's current policy calls for a 10-day suspension for first offenses, as opposed to two years under the Olympics policy.
Selig, Fehr and the other baseball officials implored committee members to understand their policy in the context of a collective-bargaining agreement in which items such as drug testing must be bargained.
By the end of the hearing, the lawmakers seemed mostly unmoved by baseball's arguments.
"I have not been reassured one bit by the testimony I have heard today," said Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.). The testing program "has so many loopholes in this, it is just unbelievable." McGwire, whose Ruthian feats on the field in the late 1990s made him a national folk hero, sat on the same panel but never made eye contact with Canseco, whose recent tell-all book gave voice to the long-rumored view that McGwire's accomplishments -- along with those of many other contemporaries -- were done with the help of steroids.
Steroids, Canseco said, were "as prevalent in. . . . the late 1980s and 1990s as a cup of coffee." Canseco's audacious claims and admissions set him apart from the other players who appeared yesterday -- McGwire, Baltimore Orioles stars Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa, and Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling. Schilling and the Chicago White Sox' Frank Thomas, who gave a statement via video conference, were invited because of outspoken views against steroid use. The others had all been connected to or accused of steroid use.
Giambi had been excused from testifying because of his involvement in the grand jury inquiry into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), a California nutritional supplements company, while Bonds was never invited to attend because, according to the committee's leaders, his presence would have overshadowed the substance of the hearing.
Palmeiro denied having used steroids, while Sosa -- or his lawyers -- crafted an opening statement in which he said he has never used "illegal performance-enhancing drugs," has never "injected myself or had anyone inject me with anything," and has not "broken the laws of the United States or the laws of the Dominican Republic."
"Let me start by telling you this," Palmeiro said in his opening statement, looking directly at Davis and pointing at the committee chairman with his index finger. "I have never used steroids, period."
McGwire's testimony, meantime, was noteworthy for what it did not say. "Asking me or any other player to answer questions about who took steroids in front of television cameras," he said, "will not solve the problem. . . . My lawyers have advised me that I cannot answer these questions without jeopardizing my friends, my family and myself. I intend to follow their advice."
McGwire, who has been estimated to be 30 to 40 pounds lighter than at the end of his career, appeared on the verge of tears at least twice as he read his opening statement. The first time came as he referred to some of the participants of an earlier panel -- the parents of two amateur baseball players whose suicides were attributed to steroid use.
The tone of the day was set by Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), whose previous career was as a Hall of Fame pitcher in the 1950s and '60s.
Apparently referring to modern sluggers like McGwire and Bonds, whose physiques expanded and whose home run totals began skyrocketing in their mid- to late-thirties, Bunning told the panel: "When I played with Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and Ted Williams, they didn't put on 40 pounds . . . and they didn't hit more home runs in their late thirties as they did in their late twenties. What's happening in baseball is not natural, and it's not right."
Bunning went a step beyond those who say the records of steroid-users should be marked by an asterisk, arguing that the records should be thrown out of the book. "If they started in 1992 or '93 illegally using steroids," Bunning said, "wipe all their records out. Take them away. They don't deserve them."