Senate connects with steroid swing

September 29, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

The congressional steroids hearing last March was an instant classic, and the one yesterday might have been even better. Encore, encore!

Ideally, of course, there won't be any more such hearings. It's safe to assume that Sen. John McCain has had enough of them, and that queasy expression on Donald Fehr's face after the questioning by his "friend" on the Senate committee panel indicated he'd just as soon not be invited back. The sooner they achieve the desired results - some coherency in baseball's steroids policy - the sooner the hearings go away.

But there needs to be more, for a couple of reasons. For one, they're entertaining. They're also star-making vehicles; if not for those March hearings in front of a House panel, would we have ever subsequently discovered the comic genius of Rafael Palmeiro?

More important, though, the hearings work.

McCain said it at least once yesterday that the only time baseball does anything is when Congress twists its arm. History proves him right. The game's apologists chafe at the idea of the government intervening in baseball's business. Multibillion-dollar businesses, of course, have always chafed at governmental intervention - but way more often than not, government jumps in for a good reason.

This is one of those times. Baseball continues to embarrass itself by its tentative crawl toward a logical solution to what it's now obvious is a serious problem.

It didn't do itself much of a favor yesterday, either. And, true to form, the relentless yet efficient browbeating of our elected officials extracted another statement on the public record that the principals now have to live up to.

"By the end of the World Series." Fehr, the players' union head, had better hope that comment won't haunt him for as long as "I'm not here to talk about the past" is going to follow Mark McGwire. Or for as long as the image of the finger jab will chase Palmeiro.

That deadline, the end of October, was Fehr's kind-of, sort-of commitment to bridging the gap between the union's latest steroid proposal and Bud Selig's plan. And Fehr would not have been pinned down even to a deadline that soft had McCain not verbally reduced him to a naughty 10-year-old boy with his "Don't you get it?" speech.

One would hope that the parade of Hall of Famers testifying - clean ones, rather than March's lineup of suspect candidates - shook Fehr up, too. Phil Niekro and Robin Roberts surely left a mark when they agreed with former colleague and current senator Jim Bunning's assertion that the players union they helped create was not created to protect cheaters.

And the presence of Hank Aaron especially, as well as Lou Brock, should have provided a massive dose of perspective. Yes, Aaron let one go by right in his wheelhouse when McCain asked him, point-blank, about his records being broken by suspected steroid users. Very gracious of Aaron, and typical.

But with what Aaron and Brock had to endure just to play baseball back in the 1950s and '60s, the initial phase of integration when they were dehumanized and degraded on an hourly, not daily, basis, how can they stomach players today cutting corners by using illegal substances? They got in trouble just for wanting to stay in the same hotels as their teammates; imagine what might have happened if they'd been caught cheating.

Palmeiro this season joined that tiny 500-homer, 3,000-hit club with Aaron, which ought to sicken the home run king. Barry Bonds - still only reported to have admitted to using - is chasing down Aaron's career mark. The backgrounds of both men (Palmeiro's father escaped poverty in Cuba, and Bonds' godfather is Willie Mays, who suffered the same indignities as his contemporaries) tell you that they both should have known better than to insult their forebears this way.

Frank Robinson is on the record as being insulted. Too bad he wasn't on Capitol Hill yesterday. That would have been a show.

All of this, again, justified the continued congressional hearings. Call it grandstanding if you like. Complain about Congress having more important things to focus on if you like - although even that evasive tactic got holes punched in it yesterday when the hearing wrapped up in barely two hours, freeing up the Senate to go rescue its constituents from drowning, or from the people who were letting them drown.

Nevertheless, if Congress is interested in having this country's most profitable businesses be credible and accountable, nationally televised hearings help get the job done.

They seem to work in this case. Baseball keeps on getting scared straight. Some day, it might actually get straight.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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