A congressional committee is expected to subpoena a passel of baseball players and executives to talk about steroids next Thursday. A meeting of America's two native criminal classes.
Commissioner Bud Selig is likely to be among those dragged into the spotlight by the House Government Reform Committee. He'll talk about the success of baseball's new drug testing program and claim that the steroid problem is all but solved. Where 5 to 7 percent tested positive in 2003, Selig announced this week that only 1 to 2 percent tested positive last year.
This is a guy who, practically in the same breath, has said that he began pushing for steroid legislation in baseball in 1991, and that he never heard the word "steroids" until 1998 or '99. When the commissioner appeared before Congress three years ago to talk about finances, he was repeatedly and pointedly reminded by Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., that he was under oath.
Selig isn't likely to volunteer that baseball's testing program ignores human growth hormone and amphetamines, or that it's highly unlikely that even the few testing procedures in place are foolproof. The truth is a valuable resource, after all, and must be economized.
Jose Canseco is the only player, or ex-player, invited by the committee -- which oversees some drug policies -- who gladly accepted. But he has a cause and a bestseller to hawk. All of the others "politely" or "respectfully" declined before subpoenas were brought up.
The Baltimore Sun reported that the subpoena list included retired slugger Mark McGwire, Jason Giambi of the Yankees, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa of the Orioles, Curt Schilling of the Red Sox and Frank Thomas of the White Sox, but not, interestingly, Barry Bonds.
Schilling and Thomas have been outspoken against steroids, though Schilling has expressed doubts about baseball's testing program. McGwire, Palmeiro and Sosa have all denied steroid allegations. Giambi admitted before a grand jury in the BALCO case that he took steroids, but while he has apologized vaguely since that testimony was leaked, he hasn't addressed the subject publicly.
Far be it from me to accuse grandstanding politicians of grandstanding, but other than C-Span face time, what exactly is the point of this hearing?
The witness list also figures to include union chief Donald Fehr and baseball executive Sandy Alderson. The suits will claim they've been fighting the good fight against steroids for a long time and they're making progress. They've been saying this for months already.
Except for Canseco and maybe Thomas, the players will either deny everything or take the Fifth. The latter would provide some aha! moments, but so what? We already know that plenty of players take steroids, including at least some of those who have vehemently denied it. We don't need Congress to show us what leaked grand jury testimony, the unreliable but believable Canseco or our lying eyes have already been telling us.
"We have a responsibility to help educate all Americans -- but especially young people who admire and emulate their heroes -- about the very real health risks associated with steroid use," committee chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., said in a statement.
Oh, yeah, the children. The committee will also hear from the parents of two aspiring baseball players who committed suicide. Both families blame steroid abuse for the deaths.
Listen, Congress: The public is educated. You say "steroids" in any group of Americans and the first words that flash through every mind are "shrunken testicles." People get it: Steroids can help you get big and strong, but they can also tear you up, kill you even. Even the children get it. But, being children, they don't care.
There are a lot of things I don't know about steroids. I don't really understand how they work, for one thing. I don't know exactly how dangerous they are, or if they can be used safely and effectively, as Canseco insists.
I don't know why there's nearly universal agreement that their use is unethical because they artificially enhance performance, but other artificial performance enhancers -- glasses, Tommy John surgery, certain nutritional supplements -- are fine with most people.
But I can accept that even though I'm ambivalent about the ethics and morals involved, the public is not. It has decided: Steroids are wrong. And so be it. The customer is always right.
There's one thing I do know: The current law enforcement approach won't solve the problem, notwithstanding Selig's ludicrous pronouncement that steroids will be a thing of baseball's past by the end of the year.
Congress need look no further than the wider, and even more laughable, War on Drugs to see that.
I agree that no problem can be solved until we really know about it, and as long as punishment hangs over the heads of the principles, we'll only ever see the slivers of light that sneak between the cracks of denial. If Congress or baseball or anybody else really wants to get to the truth about steroids, it should grant immunity and amnesty and convene a truth-telling commission.
Tell your story and you'll be free. No prosecution, no suspensions, no voided contracts. There'd be no need for the Fifth Amendment, no need for lies and ass-covering. This wouldn't guarantee a solution satisfactory to everyone. Wouldn't even make one likely. But at least we'd have a shot at knowing what we're dealing with here, at knowing the parameters of the problem. We'd be at least a little closer to the truth.
Instead, we get Congress.
I'm not above a little grandstanding myself, so I've been dropping sly references to Mark Twain into this column to show you how smart I think I am. I'll add one more, something witnesses called reluctantly into congressional hearing rooms are surely thinking even if they've never heard it uttered:
Never tell the truth to people who are not worthy of it.
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