LET'S CEASE with the debate over whether yesterday's congressional hearing on steroids in baseball should have taken place.
The hearing was interminable, but also useful, dramatic, vital and at times unforgettable.
If it hadn't taken place, the weakness and outright fraudulence of the sport's fledgling anti-steroid program never would have come to light.
If it hadn't taken place, we wouldn't have witnessed a desperate Mark McGwire tearfully ducking question after question with the lame excuse of "not wanting to talk about the past," his sad reluctance offering the day's most powerful commentary on the shame of steroids.
If the House Committee on Government Reform hadn't put baseball through one of its longest, toughest, saddest days yesterday, we would have missed numerous touchstone moments in what is sure to be a similarly long, tough fight to rid the sport of juiced-up performances.
This was a day when Jose Canseco was exposed as two-faced and baseball's top medical adviser was shredded; a day when committee chairman Tom Davis said simply that the new policy "falls short of what we think baseball should be doing."
Most poignantly, it was a day when the parents of two high school stars who took steroids and committed suicide pleaded for Major League Baseball to start doing the right thing - exposing the true horror of the pitiful, selfish, see-no-evil mentality that has prevailed in the majors.
The Orioles' Rafael Palmeiro survived; he denied using steroids and came across as forthright. Sammy Sosa also issued a denial.
But for the most part, the sport was shamed, as well it should have been.
If we ever wake up to the day when steroids are gone from baseball, this will be recalled as one of the critical turns in the right direction.
No, there wasn't a Perry Mason moment - no dramatic admissions or sweeping revelations. Superstars didn't fall on their chemically enhanced swords (although McGwire came close). Baseball didn't unilaterally decide to tear up its steroids policy and draft a new one.
But such drama only happens in the movies and on television. This was real life, sort of, the kind of boilerplate political inquiry that usually just helps define an issue and move it in one direction or another - in this case, hopefully toward a more intolerant public response to steroids.
The committee, accused beforehand (not without reason) of using the topic to score political points, probed deeply and scornfully at times. Stephen Lynch, a Democrat from Massachusetts, was especially tough, seemingly doubting everything said on baseball's behalf. He chided pitcher Curt Schilling for believing baseball could solve the problem internally after years of ignoring it.
"I'm surprised you still believe in self-regulation," Lynch said.
But Lynch also caught Canseco cold: After the former slugger pledged his opposition to steroids in front of the committee, Lynch read aloud a passage from Canseco's book in which he wrote that steroids were here to stay and that was fine.
Canseco conferred with an attorney, turned and blamed the disparity on a two-year time lag between the writing and publication of his book. "We'll wait for the sequel," Lynch said.
For all the heat, however, chairman Davis generally set an understanding tone, and the hearing was imminently fair. It was almost enough to restore your faith in Congress. Donald Fehr, president of the baseball players union and usually sparing with praise, went out of his way to compliment the committee on how the day had proceeded.
But did the hearing also restore your faith in baseball? Hardly. The testimony of virtually every witness damaged the sport's credibility.
McGwire, who repeatedly refused to say whether he had used steroids, said plainly that "there has been a problem with steroid use in baseball. It is a problem." Nice to hear it put so plainly, especially since baseball commissioner Bud Selig has continually downplayed the severity of the problem.
Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning, now a senator from Kentucky, lambasted the new testing policy, adopted during the past offseason, as embarrassingly weak.
Gary Wadler, a testing expert, was similarly dubious, saying the policy "was designed just to satisfy critics, not rid the sport" of steroids.
A day earlier, the committee had declared that the new policy was "riddled with loopholes" and not nearly as tough as baseball had made it out to be, making the charges after reviewing documents baseball had grudgingly handed over.
Fehr, Selig and his top lawyer, Rob Manfred, defended themselves and their policy yesterday - at times deftly - in testimony that stretched well into the evening.
But then Davis, a Republican from Virginia, put it all in context.
He said the policy, as a rare agreement between the players and owners, might have been an important step in their minds - "inside the bubble" of baseball, he called it - but outside the bubble "the public expects more moral clarity."