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George Solomon

Up on the Hill, Baseball Finds a Mountain of Trouble

By George Solomon
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page E02

The unkindest cut of all for Mark McGwire appeared on the back page of Friday's New York Daily News, his face radiating the emotion of a long day on Capitol Hill, a large headline under his clenched lips that read, "Tears of a Clown."

Mark McGwire a clown?

Former Oakland and St. Louis slugger Mark McGwire, one of several stars at the congressional hearing, was widely criticized for telling the committee, "I'm not here to discuss the past." (Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

The House Government Reform Committee's hearing to examine baseball's drug-testing program and its impact on steroid use among teenagers was an 11-hour marathon of pointed and tough questions from committee members to an array of star witnesses, including retired slugger McGwire, noted author Jose Canseco, active players Rafael Palmeiro, Curt Schilling, Sammy Sosa and Frank Thomas, as well as Commissioner Bud Selig and union chief Donald Fehr.

McGwire, emotional after hearing testimony from parents who blamed their sons' suicides on steroids, was quick to advise against the use of drugs and acknowledged a "problem" with steroid use in baseball, but deflected his own involvement, saying again and again, "I'm not here to discuss the past."

If McGwire seemed timid when compared with the sheer power and dominance he showed hitting those 70 home runs in 1998, his questioners on the committee often played the role of wild-throwing minor league pitchers knowing this was their one and only day in "The Show." Between Reps. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), most members of the committee threw their questions high, hard and close.

In the end, the committee seemed unmoved by Selig's promise of closer scrutiny of drug use and immediate suspension of abusers, or McGwire keeping his bat on his shoulder during his testimony, or Palmeiro's and Sosa's declarations of innocence.

"Why should McGwire, or anyone else, acknowledge anything?" asked a Washington lawyer who watched the proceedings. "It was a celebrity hearing in which well-known people were asked to talk about other well-known people with little chance of anything coming from the day."

Still, the hearing did bring the issue to the front page and top of the television news, at least for a day, and could conceivably result in a decline of performance-enhancing drug use by pro and amateur athletes. If the Olympics have a zero-tolerance policy against illegal drug use, professional and college sports in this country ought to be as stringent.

Nevertheless, it might be nice if everyone could lower the volume a bit, including Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning, a Republican senator from Kentucky who between complaining about tighter modern ballparks and lowering the mound, called baseball's new drug policy "puny" with "baby steps" and warned the game's officials and players that "we're watching you."

Waxman added: "For 30 years, Major League Baseball has told us, 'Trust us.' That hasn't worked." Meantime, his colleagues took their turns asking tough questions, some capriciously trashing players such as Barry Bonds (who hasn't been convicted of anything) with no regard for fairness.

"Wipe all their records out. Take them away. They don't deserve them," Bunning said of the users. I liked Bunning a lot when he wore the uniform of the Phillies; I didn't like him as much Thursday in a suit, when maybe he would have been better off in the robe of a judge.

RFK Stadium Comes to Life

What a relief to escape the hearings for several hours to see an actual dirt diamond in the newly laid turf at RFK, workmen in the locker rooms, the dugouts complete, sales people in trailers taking ticket orders, the press box in flux, the outfield fence to be painted, removable pitcher's mound to accommodate D.C. United games, seats primed for the April 3 exhibition game between the Nationals and New York Mets. The first such contest in 34 years, when a team representing Washington plays a major league baseball game in Washington, 11 days before the April 14 home opener against Arizona -- maybe in front of the president and possibly Waxman and Davis, if both promise not to make a speech.

No matter that there's some chips in the facade at the entrance to RFK, or the schmaltz factor won't be so great when they open the gates to fans in two weeks, or the accoutrements for high-rollers won't match what they do at MCI Center, FedEx Field or Oriole Park. This year is for baseball fans -- not clients. Besides, at least one bathroom works.

"There's not enough hours in the day," said Joseph M. Deoudes, director of ticket sales for the Nats. RFK will seat about 45,000 for baseball, and the Nats already have sold nearly 2 million tickets two weeks before Manager Frank Robinson brings his guys north.

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