Major League Baseball came under the spotlight at a congressional hearing yesterday in which former slugger Mark McGwire refused to say whether he had ever used performance-enhancing drugs, leaving some baseball observers wondering how much damage had been done to the integrity of the game and its biggest stars.
No one at the hearing, which heard testimony from Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa of the Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox and retired slugger Jose Canseco, challenged the legitimacy of McGwire's feats, which included his eclipse of Roger Maris's single-season home run total in 1998.
Mark McGwire has the ears of Sammy Sosa, left, interpreter Patricia Rosell, Rafael Palmeiro and Curt Schilling.
(Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
But people who follow baseball said the nationally televised hearing may cast further doubt on the achievements of McGwire and other home run hitters, including San Francisco Giants star Barry Bonds, who was not among those subpoenaed by the House Government Reform Committee.
"With McGwire, what you will wind up with will be the unwritten asterisk," said Andrew Abrams, a professor at the College of Charleston who teaches a class called Baseball, Mythology, and the Meaning of Life. "People will look at him and Barry Bonds, and what the public sees is the world's greatest home run hitters who were in all likelihood using performance-enhancing drugs. The public will have to judge."
Though he acknowledged steroids are a problem, McGwire, who ranks sixth in baseball history with 583 home runs, repeatedly avoided answering questions about whether he had used steroids, saying he wanted to look to the future and not the past.
"He basically took the Fifth [Amendment]. I think he got hurt very badly," said former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent. "McGwire's achievements are clearly tainted."
Abrams agreed, saying, "Anyone who watched the hearing and listened to McGwire three times say that he would not talk about the past but only about the future has to come away with a major concern about whether Mark McGwire was clean during the years when he set the record."
Canseco in a recent book accused Sosa, Palmeiro and McGwire of using performance-enhancing drugs. Sosa and Palmeiro denied the allegation yesterday. Schilling and Thomas, who have been outspoken critics of steroid use, said they supported efforts to eliminate all illegal drugs from the sport.
Vincent said that although members of Congress have expressed their displeasure with the efforts by baseball's leadership to rid the sport of steroids, he did not believe the sport's image has suffered much. "I don't think the harm to baseball is enormous," he said. "I don't think the public really cares. They think steroids will be dealt with."
Andrew Zimbalist, who teaches economics at Smith College and writes frequently about baseball, said its unfair to tar McGwire because steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs were neither tested for nor banned when he played.
In 1998, McGwire acknowledged using steroid precursor androstenedione after it was found in his locker.
"Baseball didn't even have a policy for testing and banning those [performance-enhancing] compounds," Zimbalist said.
While Zimbalist said the hearing cast doubt on the sport and some of its records, "it's unclear that using those compounds was illegal. Bonds and McGwire might not have been violating any laws and may have been simply doing the best they could to condition themselves."
McGwire and Sosa's dramatic home run race in 1998, in which they finished with 70 and 66 home runs, respectively, smashing Maris's mark of 61 set in 1961, captured the nation's attention and helped the sport recover from its destructive 232-day strike that prematurely ended the 1994 season and led to the cancellation of the World Series.
Roger Abrams, an expert in sports law, said he thought the damage from yesterday's hearing was limited.
"This kind of publicity does nothing good for baseball, but it's not the end of the world," he said. "What it does is remind us that baseball is not just fun and games. Baseball reflects what we are as Americans, with all our blemishes. That baseball throughout its 160 years has had wonderful people and has had awful people."
Washington Nationals outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds echoed that sentiment in the team's locker room at spring training in Florida: "The game will withstand this. Like it always has, it always weathers the test of time."
Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report from Viera, Fla.