Just to get a sense of proportion concerning what happened in a hearing room on Capitol Hill yesterday, imagine that we could turn back time 70 years. Concoct a scene in the 1930s in which Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Mel Ott are subpoenaed to testify before Congress because all of them are suspected of or had admitted to massive cheating throughout their careers, which would call all their records and heroics into question.
To add diabolical spice, imagine that Ruth had confessed his sins and was accusing Gehrig of doing the fraud -- with the Babe as a witness. Or vice versa, that the Iron Horse was calling all the Babe's achievements a sham. After all, they were the Bash Brothers of the Roaring Twenties, winning pennants, greeting each other at home plate but barely maintaining civil relations.
Why, if such a thing had happened, especially if one of the four men had almost broken down, taken the equivalent of the Fifth Amendment more than a dozen times and left the hearing room with his reputation in tatters, we'd still be discussing it, churning out books and, probably, revising the history -- recasting the villains and heroes and scapegoats -- to this day.
When the indelible days and torturous portraits from baseball history are described and retold, the saga of Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and the man who accused them all, Jose Canseco, will grow in significance, depth, sadness and moral complexity. Our first impressions will almost certainly be revised by time. It is even possible that, within a few years, depending upon how many revelations from the Steroid Age finally become public, we could even see one of these men charged with perjury or contempt of Congress.
The first image of this day will always be McGwire, the popular Big Mac who carried himself with perfect grace and generosity when he hit 70 home runs in '98, as he stammered, composed himself, then plowed forward, through a brief but tortuous prepared testimony. How could anyone avoid the thought that, perhaps, he behaved so deferentially toward Roger Maris's family because he knew that a darker truth lay behind his ability to erase Maris from the record book.
"Like any sport where there is pressure to perform at the highest level and there has been no testing to control performance-enhancing drugs, problems develop," McGwire said.
Let's deconstruct. Did McGwire feel pressure to perform at the highest level in a sport that did not test for steroids, virtually winked at the practice and, in particular, longed for McGwire to hit more than 61 home runs? After all, in the late 1990s baseball desperately hoped the long ball would reclaim fans alienated by the strike that erased the 1994 World Series.
"I will use whatever influence and popularity I have," said McGwire, his words slowing, "to discourage young athletes from taking any drug that is not recommended by a doctor. What I will not do, however, is participate in naming names and implicating my friends and teammates. . . . Nor do I intend to dignify Mr. Canseco's book. It should be enough to consider the source . . .
"Asking me, or any other player, to answer questions about who took steroids in front of television cameras will not solve this problem," said McGwire, the committee's thumbscrews all but showing. "If a player answers, 'No,' he simply will not be believed. If he answers, 'Yes,' he risks public scorn and endless government investigations."
If, somehow, McGwire's testimony is narrowly and literally true, then he is one of the most wronged men in the history of American sport and the House Government Reform Committee has indeed hunted for an innocent witch and burned her. The far more likely case is that the verdict in the bleachers from coast to coast will be the correct one: that McGwire gave a veiled confession in the tradition of Jason Giambi's endless apologies for doing something he never named.
While McGwire's day was pure theater, the drama between Canseco and Palmeiro lay just below the surface but will remain a debate for many a long night. Canseco wrote in his tell-all book that he had introduced Palmeiro to steroids, and during a "60 Minutes" interview Canseco said that he had injected Palmeiro when they were with the Rangers. No accusation can be more direct. And no denial could be more categorical than Palmeiro's repeated assertions that he had never taken steroids in any form anywhere at any time. "Period."
Either Canseco is the most vicious and deliberate slanderer in baseball history (name anything that would even come close) or Palmeiro has lied under oath to a congressional committee. There's no third choice. One is a villain. That's why it helps to have an excellent reputation and hurts to have an atrocious one. The committee, by its tone, clearly accepted Palmeiro's word and treated him as though he had conclusively cleared his name when, in fact, he'd merely pleaded innocence.
For the next two or three years, at the least, we can expect that the cockroaches of these steroid days will continue to scurry around baseball's kitchen, just as the criminal misdeeds of Wall Street and corporate America still fill our headlines years after the bankruptcies of Enron and WorldCom.
And what of Sosa? He spoke in a soft voice. He brought an interpreter and a lawyer who read his statement for him despite the fact that those of us who know him from the baseball beat realize that he is perfectly fluent in English. That Sosa statement was a 99.9 percent total denial of any use of steroids. However, cynics may parse his words in search of legal loopholes.
"To be clear, I have never taken illegal performance-enhancing drugs. I have never injected myself or had anyone inject me with anything. I've not broken the laws of the Unites States or the laws of the Dominican Republic," Sosa's statement read. "I have been tested as recently as 2004 and I am clean."
It is an awful world we live in. Within minutes of the statement's dissemination a veteran baseball writer said, "So, I guess that doesn't quite cover taking steroids orally if they were prescribed legally by a Dominican doctor."
Thanks to the devious tales from the world of BALCO, we've all learned to look for the weasel word, the phrase that doesn't quite mean what it says. Endemic bad behavior has this contaminating effect on the whole culture that it infects. Trust dies. Doubt flourishes. Lies grow strong legs.
And someone as discredited as Canseco can completely change his views on steroids in a blink. In his book, he champions steroids for 200 pages, even saying that they could help people live to be 120. Before Congress, he denounced them. Grilled on this preposterous flip-flop, Canseco meekly said, "I'm completely turned around." How convenient.
This day and all its twist of plot and character will not be forgotten in baseball for decades.
In fact, the cautionary scene of four of the game's greatest sluggers, all sitting at the same table with their legacy and their honor laid out before them, has barely begun to be digested.