2nd at-bat in Congress?

Subcommittee might summon players for hearing on steroids

December 31, 2007|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- A congressional subcommittee might summon major league baseball players - who have been reluctant to appear in the past - to testify at its upcoming hearing on the sport's problems with performance-enhancing drugs, the panel's chairman says.

"There is a possibility we would invite some ballplayers," Illinois Rep. Bobby L. Rush, chairman of an Energy and Commerce subcommittee, said in an interview. "Of course, that's a sensitive subject."

In March 2005, another House committee investigating steroids used its subpoena power to compel the testimony of Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and several other current and former stars - most of whom had resisted appearing.

McGwire declined to answer most questions about steroids and then-Oriole Palmeiro, who tested positive for steroids five months later, famously shook his finger and denied using the drugs.

Subpoenas might be needed if ballplayers are placed on the witness list for the Jan. 23 hearing of Rush's Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell was rebuffed in his requests for cooperation from hundreds of players during his recently completed investigation that concluded the use of steroids in baseball was widespread and the response "slow to develop."

Mitchell lacked subpoena power, unlike Congress.

Asked if his committee might use subpoenas, Rush replied: "I think it's kind of early to have those kinds of discussions. It's certainly within the authority of the committee. There might be some ballplayers who are eager to get the story out."

Rush, a Democrat, had written Mitchell earlier this year, saying he was "fully prepared" to intervene if Mitchell needed help in his investigation.

Rush declined to name any players who might be called.

The subcommittee announced its hearing on Dec. 13, the same day Mitchell released his report naming two current Orioles - Jay Gibbons and Brian Roberts - and 17 former Orioles among dozens of players. It featured a detailed description of steroid use by pitching great Roger Clemens, who has denied using the drugs.

In announcing its hearing, Rush's subcommittee said only that Mitchell and baseball "representatives" would be called, without specifying whether players could be included.

The 2005 hearings were threatened with delay when several of the players challenged the subpoenas and the committee's authority. The potential for such legal maneuvering could dissuade Rush from forcing players to appear.

The Government Reform and Oversight Committee plans to invite Mitchell and baseball commissioner Bud Selig to a Jan. 15 hearing. The committee isn't currently planning to invite players to testify.

Members of both panels are likely to add their own recommendations to the ones in Mitchell's report aimed at cleaning up the sport. Among other recommendations, Mitchell proposed that baseball create a department of investigations and turn drug testing over to an independent agency.

Rush said his subcommittee might introduce legislation to make certain some of Mitchell's recommendations are implemented. "Vigorous testing by a third party - that would be at the core of any bill that would come out of our subcommittee," he said.

Even if baseball adopts Mitchell's suggestions, some House members fear the climate would still be conducive to players using certain drugs - particularly human growth hormone. According to congressional staff, some members are considering asking baseball to begin saving players' urine specimens so they can be analyzed when a test for the drug becomes available. The idea is to make sure a deterrent exists so players can't use hGH with impunity while a screening procedure is being developed.

Growth hormone has long been used by athletes to enhance their endurance and healing. Mitchell's report indicated many athletes have turned to hGH for injury recovery or as a substitute for anabolic steroids.

Selig wants to convene an expert conference on hGH, and drug researcher Don Catlin of UCLA has received grants from Major League Baseball and the NFL to work on a urine test for the substance.

But some House members worry about the continued use of hGH in the period before a testing program is implemented.

In 2006, Rep. Henry Waxman, a Californian who chairs the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, urged baseball to begin saving urine samples. Waxman, who still hopes baseball will adopt that strategy, argued that saving samples for future testing would close a significant "loophole."

Baseball has balked at saving samples in the past, expressing doubts about whether stored tests would still be reliable, and for how long.

But baseball might be more receptive today because the sport is eager to embrace the reform proposals of Mitchell and members of Congress, according to MLB officials who declined to be named because the sport is reviewing its drug policies.

Any such proposal would require the approval of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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