Congress Strong-Arming Baseball? That's Foul.

By Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch
Sunday, January 20, 2008

Rep. Christopher Shays, the Yogi Berra of the latest (but alas not last) round of unintentionally comic congressional hearings on steroids, should have headed to the showers after his opening line last Tuesday: "This is almost surreal to me."

He got that much right. The whole performance-enhanced proceeding called to mind an earlier episode of mind-blowing ballpark bizarreness, when Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis hurled a no-hitter in 1970 while tripping on LSD. Few scenes could be stranger than watching the senior citizens on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform -- an invention of Newt Gingrich's revolution that was designed to prune back the federal government's reach, not stick its nose into the nation's locker rooms -- attempt to justify government intrusion into a private sporting league, let alone understand basic chemistry or baseball history.

Shays, a Connecticut Republican, thundered on about former Baltimore Oriole Rafael "Palmeiree" (a curious pronunciation of "Palmeiro"), demanded intimate information about Palmeiro's body chemistry when he "conducted" his "300th hit" (a non-milestone that the former Viagra pitchman reached back in 1989) and boasted that after the 1919 Chicago "Blackhawks" scandal, "we established a commissioner so that they would take . . . decisive action."

But Congress no more established a Major League Baseball commissioner than the Blackhawks, a professional hockey team founded in 1926, ever held a seventh-inning stretch. In fact, when baseball owners appointed the racist judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis the league's first commissioner after the Chicago Black Sox game-throwing scandal, Congress tried to forcibly remove him from the federal bench. When Shays's wild pitches were pointed out to him, his response was to shrug like Hall of Fame pitcher and self-admitted cheater Gaylord Perry caught with Vaseline on the mound: "I could care less."

When you don't recognize any limitations on the "government reform" of such non-federal corners of society as major league clubhouses, you can count on a blurry line between fair and foul. "Baseball needs to fix the problem," said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), shortly before hearing testimony from multiple witnesses that the sport's testing and penalty regimes are actually the strictest and most effective in North America, "or -- and this is a promise not a threat -- Congress will do it for you."

In 2005, the last time Congress got pumped up over steroids, Davis and others backed a bill that not only would have forced all professional U.S. sports leagues to adopt the International Olympic Committee's drug testing standards and penalties (including a two-year ban after a first offense and lifetime expulsion for a second), it also would have given the Office of National Drug Control Policy the "authority to require" that college Division II sports follow "the same stringent requirements." If committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) had had his way, women field hockey players from Kutztown University could right now be fearing that midnight knock on the door from a federally certified urine analyst.

It isn't just steroid use that's rankling the representatives this time around. Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) zeroed in on the rise in the use of Adderall and Ritalin among major leaguers. Between 2006 and 2007, the number of "therapeutic-use exemptions" for the prescription drugs that are widely used nationwide to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder rose from 28 to 103 (there are about 1,350 MLB players overall). "We shouldn't have to have hearings like this all the time to stay on top of these problems with baseball," Tierney said.

That's an excellent point, though Tierney couldn't quite find the handle on it. Congress doesn't need to have hearings like this "all the time" for two reasons as sweet, simple and powerful as Barry Bonds's home run swing.

First, Major League Baseball, along with other sports leagues and private-sector ventures, simply should not be required to submit their business plans -- much less blood and urine samples -- to Congress or any other government body. (The flip-side of this, of course, is that MLB and other sports leagues should not be allowed to extract extortionate contracts for stadiums and services from all-too-pliant state and local governments.) Tierney and other elected officials have argued that baseball's exemption from federal antitrust legislation gives Congress the right to meddle in the game's affairs. That exemption, based on a 1922 court decision that ridiculously found that pro baseball did not constitute interstate commerce, has caused more harm than good by allowing owners to collude against players and prospective competitor leagues and by allowing cartel arrangements and restraints on trade unimaginable in other industries. While it should be repealed, it hardly gives Congress a warrant to micromanage MLB the way George Steinbrenner has his New York Yankees.

Second, baseball's "problems" with steroids are as fictitious as the movie "Field of Dreams," if considerably more entertaining. In 2003, when there was much less drug testing, investigators turned up 90 violations. Last year? Three.

Surely it should count for something that the national pastime has never been more popular with fans or lucrative to owners and players alike. For the past four seasons -- right in the middle of the "Steroid Era" panic -- attendance has set all-time records, with 79.5 million fans walking through the turnstiles in 2007. Since Bud Selig became commissioner in 1992, annual revenue has grown from $1.2 billion to just over $6 billion last year.

Yet members of Congress, already among the most out-of-touch people in American society, find themselves sputtering with frustration that baseball fans don't share their pain. Maybe that's in part because Americans themselves are discovering better living through chemistry, whether for anxiety, sweaty palms or restless legs syndrome. When 84-year-old retired senator Bob Dole, born in a year during which Babe Ruth hit 41 homers, is better known as a shill for erectile-dysfunction drugs than as a statesman, you've probably lost middle America on the notion that all drugs are automatically bad.

The uncomfortable truth is that illegally obtained muscle-rebuilding treatments exist on a continuum that includes laser eye surgery, Vitamin B-12 shots and Tommy John surgery (a procedure that grafts ligaments from knees or elsewhere onto a wrecked elbow, frequently giving pitchers more velocity than they had before). Sorting out the morality and legality of self-improvement has more to do with aesthetic revulsion and moral panic than with considered science or logic.

In other words, it's not remotely a job for Congress. At a time when Capitol Hill's approval ratings are even lower than President Bush's and when every White House candidate doing better in the polls than Mike Gravel is running on a campaign of "change," it's troubling -- if as predictable as the Nationals losing 80 games -- that Congress insists on grandstanding.

Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch are editor of and editor in chief of Reason magazine, respectively.

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