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Nobody Sings in This 5th Amendment Stretch

By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 18, 2005; Page A12

Seven seasons ago, Mark McGwire set the single-season record for home runs. But when McGwire appeared before a House committee probing big-league steroid use yesterday, Big Mac may well have set the single-day record for evasions.

How about that bottle of Andro, a steroid precursor, seen in his locker? "I'm not here to talk about the past."

Being sworn in on Capitol Hill, from left, are Bud Selig and Robert D. Manfred of Major League Baseball and Don Fehr of the league's players association. (Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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Does he approve of the current baseball steroid policy? "I'm a retired player."

Should there be more warnings about steroids in clubhouses? "I can't answer that."

Is using steroids cheating? "It's not for me to determine."

After a dozen such responses, the gallery broke into louder laughter with each reminder from McGwire that he was retired and would not discuss the past. The lawmakers were not amused. "If the Enron people come in here and say, 'Well, we won't want to talk about the past,' do you think Congress is going to let them get away with that?" demanded Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.). "If, when we were doing investigations on the travel office, on Whitewater; if President Nixon had said about Watergate, when Congress was investigating Watergate, 'We don't talk about the past,' how in the world are we supposed to pass legislation?"

It was no use. McGwire wouldn't play ball.

In a spectacle rarely seen on Capitol Hill, McGwire joined a panel of current and former superstars, including Sammy Sosa, Jose Canseco and Curt Schilling, who testified about performance-enhancing drugs before the House Government Reform Committee. A Capitol policeman was called in to keep order among the dozens of photographers, scores of reporters and hundreds of baseball fans who showed up -- some five hours before the hearing -- in hopes of glimpsing the all-star witnesses. Lawmakers vied to one-up each other in the recounting of baseball stories of their youth and their love of the national pastime. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) led off his questioning of Hall of Famer Jim Bunning by asking: What was that pitch that you threw to Mickey Mantle where he hit the ball to right field, the home run?"

The ballplayers were the day's headliners, but their testimony -- full of equivocations and retreats behind the Fifth Amendment -- was something of a sideshow to a suddenly fierce battle between Major League Baseball and members of Congress, who believe that baseball lied to them about its new steroids policy. Committee members accustomed to attacking each other set aside all partisanship and produced a unified show of contempt for Bud Selig, who represents the baseball owners, and Don Fehr, who represents the players association.

Baseball's "arrogance," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), "has done more to unite Republicans and Democrats in this Congress than anything else that's happened in the last 18 years."

That hardly seemed an exaggeration. The committee chairman, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), praised the ranking Democrat, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.) for his persistence in urging Davis, who admitted he was "initially reluctant," to act on the baseball problem. Waxman praised the testimony of Bunning, a baseball hall of famer, now a GOP senator from Kentucky. After Souder, the drug policy subcommittee chairman, spoke, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the subcommittee's ranking member, declared that "for the first time, I wanted to associate myself with the words of my subcommittee chairman."

When Davis and Waxman scheduled a joint appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, they raised questions about whether the hearing would be an exercise in grandstanding. But Bunning, the first witness, lent his credibility to the committee, raising the possibility of repealing baseball's antitrust exemption, enacting federal drug-testing for pro athletes -- and proposing that records achieved by steroid users be "wiped out" of the record books. "The players and Major League Baseball must be held accountable for the integrity of the game. After all, it's not their game, it's ours," the former pitcher said. In a second panel, parents of two young athletes who had killed themselves blamed the deaths on steroids -- and professional athletes for glorifying the drugs. The members, armed with that emotional testimony, vented their anger on Elliot Pellman, baseball's medical adviser, who had the misfortune of being on the same panel with the bereaved parents. Pellman tried to argue that players who test positive for steroids often have made "honest mistakes" and suggested that baseball's testing "compares favorably" with other sports. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) observed that he sounded like a tobacco industry official and called Pellman "pathetically unpersuasive."

The heart of the order -- a witness panel of McGwire, Sosa, Schilling, Canseco and Rafael Palmiero -- was something of an anticlimax. Only Canseco admitted steroid use, as he did in a new book. McGwire, who appears to have lost 30 or more pounds since his playing days, when he was suspected of steroid use, took the Fifth.

The players set a conciliatory tone in their opening statements. "My heart goes out to every parent whose son or daughter were victims of steroid use," McGwire, his voice breaking, said to the parents who testified.

But it quickly became apparent that the players intended to give away nothing. Even Schilling, who had previously described an epidemic of steroids in baseball, recanted under oath. "The issue was grossly overstated by people, including myself," he said. "I'm not sure I could have been any more grossly wrong." The sportswriters in the gallery laughed out loud.

Questioner after questioner sought to pin the players down on how many big-leaguers use steroids. The witnesses could name hardly a one. "Nineteen years in the big leagues, I've never seen a syringe," Schilling said. Similarly, questioners tried time after time to solicit the players' support for a stricter drug policy; only Canseco enthusiastically agreed. "A theater of the absurd is unfolding here," observed Lantos.

It didn't get any more sensible from there. All but Canseco said baseball was perfectly capable of solving the problem on its own. McGwire offered to do "everything I can" to stop the scourge of steroids -- a scourge that Schilling said didn't even exist. Finally, a lawmaker pressed McGwire on his support for tougher testing standards. "I'm retired," he replied, producing the inevitable laughter in the gallery, "but if it can avoid another meeting like this, I'm for it."

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