By David Nielsen
Scripps Howard News Service
Washington - Thursday's congressional hearing on baseball and steroids didn't elicit any earth-shattering confession or dramatic bombshell. But it did showcase several hours of emotional testimony and spirited exchanges between witnesses and members of the House Government Reform committee before overflow crowds spilling down the hallway of the Rayburn Building.
Nattily attired in suits and ties, current players Sammy Sosa, Curt Schilling, Rafael Palmeiro and retired players Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire appeared together and swore under oath that they would tell the truth.
Canseco admitted that he had taken steroids. No one else did.
In Canseco's recent book, he alleged that he injected McGwire and Palmeiro with steroids, a charge that was categorically denied by Palmeiro and dismissed by McGwire.
"It should be enough that you consider the source of the statements in the book and the many inconsistencies and contradictions that have already been raised," McGwire said.
McGwire's voice wavered and his eyes watered when he expressed his support for families who had lost loved ones to steroid abuse and when he vowed to use his foundation to speak out against steroid use. But later during persistent questioning from several congressmen, McGwire firmly refused to answer whether he had taken steroids.
"I'm not going to talk about the past," he said repeatedly, often after leaning back and first conferring with his attorney.
At another point, McGwire refused to call steroid users cheaters.
"That's not for me to determine," he said.
Sosa, who with McGwire captivated America when they chased and surpassed Roger Maris' single season home run record in 1998, said he had never taken illegal performance enhancing drugs.
"Everything I have heard about steroids and human growth hormones is that they are very bad for you, even lethal," Sosa said in a written statement read aloud by his attorney. "I would never put anything dangerous like that in my body."
Schilling, a vocal opponent of steroids, said he thought baseball's drug-testing program was working to eradicate drug cheats. But several congressmen weren't so sure, pointing to several loopholes in the testing program.
Dr. Elliot Pellman, medical advisor to Major League Baseball's commissioner, defended the program, saying it was better than the programs for most other professional sports. But Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) was unconvinced.
"I found your testimony pathetically unpersuasive," Lantos said.
Many congressmen expressed disgust at the program's progressive discipline penalties, which suspend first-time offenders 10 games and allow a player to fail five steroid tests before being kicked out of the league. In Olympic sports, if an athlete fails a steroid test, they are banned for two years. Upon a second positive test, the athlete is kicked out for life.
"I don't know how you can break the law five times and then you're out," said Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.)."The bottom line is that you are telling kids you can break the law four times and still play."
Added Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind): "It doesn't matter if we're conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat. We're upset. We don't give young kids on the street who we pick up with drugs five chances.
Commissioner Bud Selig said that he wanted harsher penalties, but that was the best that baseball could do because they had to collectively bargain with the player's union.
But Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.) wasn't buying it.
"You have to get off from this idea that you are a special category of citizens that aren't subject to the law," he said.
Earlier testimony from Denise and Raymond Garibaldi and Donald Hooton expressed similar frustrations with baseball management and players. The Garibaldis and Hooton both had sons who had used illegal steroids to try and bulk up for baseball and later committed suicide.
"If the federal government has designated steroids as illegal unless prescribed by a physician, why did Major League Baseball have to ban their use before ball players could be sanctioned for using them?" asked Denise Garibaldi.
Hooton took aim at the players.
"Players that are guilty of taking steroids are not only cheaters, you are cowards," said Hooton, his voice rising. "You are afraid to step onto the field, compete for your positions, and play the game without the aid of substances that are a felony to possess without a legitimate prescription."
Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, expressed his condolences to the families, and stated that the union's position is clear.
"The Major League Baseball Players Association does not condone or support the use by players of any unlawful substance," he said.
But with a drug policy that many congressmen feel has too many loopholes and too few penalties, committee chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) hinted that baseball better strengthen their plan or Congress may have to get involved.
"The end result really falls short," said Davis. "Baseball is not just a business. It's been decreed by the courts as the national pastime."