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Hearing Is Believing

By Sally Jenkins
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; Page D01

A week ago, the emerald chessboard crowd predicted the congressional hearing into steroid use in Major League Baseball would be a pointless farce. A week later, we're still talking about them. The hearings are far from over, and here are some of the things we've already learned: Not only do steroids shrink your organs into onions and induce suicide, but they turn heroes into cowards, and baseball officials into worms.

The House Government Reform Committee has shone an unmerciful light on baseball. And things look different under the light. In fact, some things look to be the exact opposite of what they were a week ago. A week ago, the committee's inquiry looked illegitimate to some, and baseball was being persecuted. This week, under the light, it's baseball that looks illegitimate.

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A home run king basically pleaded the Fifth. Baseball officials thoroughly discredited themselves with disingenuous promises. Subpoenas showed MLB's anti-drug policy had loopholes bigger than Jose Canseco's biceps. Anyone still think the hearing was a farce? On the contrary, the hearing has been revelatory. It has revealed, among other things, character.

What the hearing has demonstrated, more than anything, is a pattern of arrogant duplicity and willful collusion that reaches throughout the game, from players to owners to commissioners to union officials, who would keep us all quiet and in the dark on steroid use. The evasive performances of some of the seven former and current major leaguers and officials before the committee last week simply begged more questions -- and that's apparently what they're going to get. On Sunday, the committee chairman, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), suggested that baseball will undergo further investigation during an interview with Bob Schieffer on CBS's "Face the Nation."

"We consider steroid abuse to still be rampant," he said. "And we're going to have a lot more to say."

If it weren't for the blast of stage lighting that was turned on baseball's drug policy last week, we might not have known about a provision that would have allowed players to be anonymously fined instead of publicly suspended for failing a drug test. By the start of this week, baseball had reversed itself and done away with that nifty little clause, out of sheer public embarrassment.

If it weren't for the blast of stage lighting, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) might still think baseball didn't need any help cleaning itself up. As recently as a week ago, he looked skeptically on inquiries by the House committee, but he has now done an about face and concluded that baseball officials won't change until they're forced to, even if that means federal legislation. "It just seems to me they can't be trusted," McCain told ABC's "This Week."

"I was a little dubious about the necessity of having hearings because I had been told that baseball had installed a weak, but legitimate, regimen," McCain added. "I now applaud my colleagues in the House because what this highlighted was the absolute insensitivity of both the owners and the players to the American people."

Similarly, a week ago Canseco was a self-aggrandizing villain, and Mark McGwire was a benign and unfairly targeted victim. Baseball's passionate defenders went to great lengths to discredit the Canseco book, and protect McGwire. This week, while the book still seems written to inflame and entertain, it's also clearly on the money in its essentials. And McGwire is the one who looks like the self-aggrandizing villain.

A week ago, steroids were a cold abstraction. We were numbed by generalities (steroids ruin the health of our young), or bogged down in technical jargon (doctors discuss vowel-laden substances that end in zols), or lost in the intricate police procedurals of the star-chamber-like U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (with its false negatives and non-analytical positives).

But the House Government Reform Committee has changed everything. The most important single accomplishment of the hearing is that it made steroids a more vivid and important issue to us. And that is the real reason why baseball commissioner Bud Selig and player representative Donald Fehr found common cause in criticizing and opposing the hearing: because they understood that putting major leaguers and baseball officials under the light, in front of congressional microphones, would rivet us in a way no public lecture or four-part investigative series could.

The hearing isn't going to provide definitive answers. It won't force a full confession from a major leaguer. But it has provided a more subtle kind of information. The unspoken subtext throughout Thursday's hearing was that few of the baseball people who testified think there is anything really very wrong with steroids. If McGwire really thought steroids were an evil, he would have answered questions more straightforwardly. If Selig and Fehr really thought steroids were an evil, they would have fashioned a direct and effective anti-drug policy, without Congress having to force them into it with the legal equivalents of a flashlight and a whiplash.

The hearing has uncovered something important: the extent to which the people in baseball believed they are above the law and accountable to no one. Baseball's passionate defenders have accused the committee of political grandstanding, exceeding authority, and witch hunting. But if the hearing has proved one thing, it's this: we need more hearings, because baseball is as sick as it is secretive.


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