Does every good time have to end like this, with live coverage of congressional hearings, with hands cupped over microphones as scandal-tainted leaders whisper to lawyers, with Greta and Geraldo standing by to spin the spectacle? The fraudulent dealings that helped create the financial bubble of the 1990s were exposed, finally, in the halls of Congress. Now, baseball's giddy home run bubble of the same decade is the subject of House Government Reform Committee hearings determined, according to Rep. Henry Waxman, a Democrat from Los Angeles, "to find out the truth about what happened" during the steroid era.
The seven former and active players and four baseball executives subpoenaed are, some congressmen have suggested, just a start. Barry Bonds was left off the list for reasons still best known to the committee, but that doesn't mean he won't be called. Congress is under no requirement to fill out a lineup card in advance.
Baseball's position has until recently been that the steroid era was history--and irrelevant. Commissioner Bud Selig and players' association executive director Donald Fehr have insisted that the tougher new testing policy implemented this season will keep the game clean. Players have echoed that sentiment, some dismissing the hearings as grandstanding. "Let's move on," sighed Braves third baseman Chipper Jones. But last weekend the prospect of public hearings sent commissioner Bud Selig backpedaling. Selig, who has agreed to testify, suggested that baseball might be willing to look "quietly" into the issue. We shouldn't embarrass home run heroes, he says, and he assures us that history will prove him correct.
But Congress wants testimony now and threatens to hold in contempt anyone who defies its subpoenas. For refusing to testify, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and the others could serve a year in jail. For fans, open hearings--if 11th-hour negotiations between Congress and Major League Baseball result in testimony from the called players--could be the best chance to put into perspective inflated offensive stats from 1990 to 2002, the last season without steroid testing. During that stretch we witnessed 19 of the 36 greatest single-season home run performances. The peak was 1998, the Summer of Baseball Love, with Sosa and McGwire good-naturedly trading the long ball lead and high fives as they made 70 the new 60. If McGwire and Sosa do appear before Congress, committee members have said they will certainly be asked about 1998. "Incredible things happened in the late '90s," says Phil Schiliro, chief of staff for the Democrats on the committee. "If any of the players did that and were juiced, then they don't deserve that glory."
How innocent that summer of '98 now seems. (We used to wonder if the ball was juiced.) Sosa has insisted, corked bat notwithstanding, that he's never cheated. McGwire, in '98, admitted to taking androstenedione, a then legal performance enhancer, but has denied using steroids. Yet according to the Daily News, McGwire's name came up several times during Operation Equine, an FBI investigation that led to more than 70 trafficking convictions in the early '90s. The Daily News sources even specified McGwire's alleged dosages: .5 cc of testosterone cypionate every three days, 1 cc of testosterone enthanate every week.
This comes just weeks after Jose Canseco, in his book Juiced, recounted injecting McGwire--and Rafael Palmeiro, Ivan Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez--with steroids in clubhouse bathrooms, and months after leaked BALCO grand jury testimony implicated Bonds and Jason Giambi, who last month offered a nonspecific apology to fans. (Last week Jason's younger brother, former major leaguer Jeremy Giambi, admitted taking steroids and said, "If you don't know what [Jason is] apologizing for, you must have been in a coma for two years.")
The congressional committee is also troubled by anecdotal evidence that big league juicing is inspiring steroid use in young athletes. Last week five high school students in Madison, Conn., were arrested and charged with possessing steroids. "I know that children lionize these professional athletes," said Rep. Tom Lantos (D., Calif.). "I want players to explain that it is hard work and practice that are important and not drug abuse."
Baseball, it seems, has an awful lot of explaining to do. More than any other sport, it compares statistical achievements across different eras, always prorating for the opposition and epoch. How then do we assess McGwire, Sosa, Bonds and other millennial sluggers who have been linked with steroids? If, through these congressional hearings, we get some sense of how widespread steroid use really was, then we'll know what to think about baseballs that left the park years ago. ‚ñ†
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ILLUSTRATION BY JEFF WONG