by David Lassen
Scripps Howard News Service
March 18, 2005
The best reason for this hearing wasn't seeing various baseball figures squirm, entertaining though that may have been. It wasn't the anger and emotion of Mark McGwire, clearly not happy about sharing the witness table with Jose Canseco, lasting as that image may prove to be. And it certainly wasn't the offer from The Juicemeister, Canseco, to work with steroid education efforts, even though that may rank among the least credible and most transparently self-serving ploys ever made in the halls of Congress. (Yes, that does cover a lot of ground.)
No, the reason these hearings mattered, the most valuable information they offered, came hours before the big names entered the hearing room. It came when three parents - Rob and Denise Garibaldi, and Donald Hooton - sat before the assembled representatives and told their stories.
The Garibaldis' son, Rob, a former USC baseball player, committed suicide at age 24. Hooton's son Taylor did the same at age 17.
Both athletes used steroids, and both families strongly believe that drug use is responsible for the suicide - as does the family of Efrain Marrero, which was in attendance at the hearing but did not testify. Marrero committed suicide at 19.
Their belief was bolstered by the comments of medical experts who also testified. Severe depression is common during steroid withdrawal, said one of the testifying experts, and it brings "increased suicide risk to an age group already at risk." (Suicide is the No. 3 cause of death in the 16-to-24 age group.)
In the wake of Canseco's recent book depicting steroids as the greatest boon to medical science since penicillin, the opportunity to give these families a national forum was in itself a vital service. And their tragedies frame in the strongest possible terms the reason the issue belongs before Congress: Steroids in baseball are a matter of much, much more than escalating home run numbers.
For the critics who felt these hearings were a waste of time at best, or simply an exercise in congressional grandstanding - an idea some committee members certainly reinforced - the testimony of Hooton and the Garibaldis should have been an eye opener.
So should statistics offered by the ranking committee member, Henry Waxman of Los Angeles. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 1993, one high school student in 45 had used steroids. In 2003, the figure was one in 16 - or roughly 500,000 students.
So should the long list of medical risks - the potential for heart, liver and kidney damage, altered sexual characteristics, and potentially fatal psychological problems.
So should the information that steroids are easily available in Mexico - one expert noted there are more pharmacies in Tijuana than the rest of Mexico, and that minors can cross the border and return with steroids in about an hour.
It remains to be seen if those messages get past the footage of Rafael Palmeiro forcefully denying steroid use, or the questions McGwire declined to answer. But those are the important messages, the ones that should resonate in every home with a young athlete.
Hooton and the Garibaldis both talked about the pressure their sons felt to get bigger and stronger, be it coaches, teammates, scouts or simply the observation of the world around them. According to a New York Times article, Marrero told his mother he was using steroids shortly before his death, and in explaining why, pointed to Barry Bonds as an example of its benefits.
And so it was understandable when Donald Hooton told the hearing "the poor example set by athletes is a major catalyst" for steroid use, and angrily denounced athletes who decline to be viewed as role models.
Laudably, he has channeled his anger and hurt into a forum to address the steroids issue. Hooton has formed, and the other families at the hearing are involved with, the Taylor Hooton Foundation, to inform the public of the dangers of steroid use. Its Web site, http://www.taylorhooton.org, includes their individual stories and various resources on the effects of steroids - important warning signs of a problem the Hooton and Garibaldi families didn't recognize until it was too late.
Highlighting the risk of steroids was clearly not the primary consideration of Thursday's hearing. But in the long run, it may be the one it performed most effectively, and the one that mattered most.
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