There's supposed to be no crying in baseball. But there was Mark McGwire in Washington last week, fighting back tears, his voice choked with emotion, telling a congressional committee investigating steroid use in baseball how he, well, couldn't really tell them much. "My lawyers have advised me that I cannot answer these questions without jeopardizing my friends, my family or myself," said the retired superstar, whose 70 home runs in 1998 shattered one of baseball's most hallowed records.
Through a long, uncomfortable afternoon before the House Government Reform Committee, McGwire was never forced to literally invoke his rights under the Fifth Amendment. But he did refuse to answer any questions about illegal or even legal drugs and, in the end, about almost anything at all. His sullen, resentful and at times combative style won him few friends--inside or outside the hearing room--as he repeatedly insisted, "I'm not here to talk about the past." The only other player to indicate he might not answer some questions was baseball's No. 1 pariah, Jose Canseco. McGwire's stance became even more conspicuous when three other sluggers, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and Frank Thomas, all denied--unequivocally and under oath--having used steroids. "I have never used steroids, period!" said Palmeiro.
If it was a bad day for the players--McGwire's performance could disrupt what should have been a cakewalk into the Hall of Fame--it was no less ugly for baseball's brass. During the course of the 11-hour hearing, Major League Baseball was derided like some street gang for its "code of silence" and had its testimony critiqued as "theater of the absurd." Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays said baseball's "arrogance" in resisting the inquiry had produced more bipartisanship than he had experienced in 18 years in Congress.
Though baseball's leaders were unfailingly polite and attentive, none of the outrage and distrust evidenced by committee members seemed to make much of a visible impression on them. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and the rest remained steadfast in a trifecta of views that would seem both improbable and impossible to reconcile: that they weren't aware of a steroid problem in the '90s; that the problem was never as big as some, like Canseco, have made it out to be, and that baseball's testing program has made huge progress in combating its steroid problem.
The Olympics and other major pro sports leagues long ago implemented policies that, at least, mirrored public concerns about the use of performance-enhancing drugs, but baseball has lagged far behind. Now it has implemented a new drug-testing policy that, while tougher than its predecessor, remains conspicuously weaker than that of other leagues. Committee members were not impressed, by the plan or by the men who created it. Afterward, Stephen Lynch, a Democrat from Boston, said, "I would like to see baseball clean up its own mess, but after 12 hours I was convinced that it won't. Bud Selig and that whole group need to snap out of their denial."
While baseball and Congress seemed to view most everything differently, there was genuine consensus on one matter. Everyone conveyed heartfelt sympathy for the several parents who testified about how their sons had committed suicide after steroid use. The parents, however, didn't seem to have quite as much sympathy for the predicament of the players, particularly "Big Mac." After McGwire's balky testimony, Denise Garibaldi, whose late son was a college baseball player, expressed disappointment. "I was hoping McGwire would be honest," she said. And she was dismissive of his professed willingness to help educate young athletes about the perils of steroid use. "He'll have to start with his own kids," she said.
Some criticized Congress for grandstanding at a time of far more pressing issues. But Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings said baseball required "a 'come to Jesus' meeting" so that it would finally face up to its responsibilities. And he warned that if it shirked them, bipartisan support existed for a series of reforms, including revisiting baseball's unique and valuable antitrust exemption. But for all the hardball rhetoric, Congress is likely, for now, to scrutinize the new testing program to ensure that it represents a genuine upgrade. Republican Mark Souder of Indiana warned, though, that with another conspicuous failure "all hell will be breaking loose."
For McGwire, it is already getting impossibly hot. Congressmen described his appearance before their committee as unfathomable. As a result, McGwire, once regarded as a first-ballot shoo-in for the Hall of Fame in 2007, may now face considerable resistance. Bill James, the noted baseball historian, told NEWSWEEK: "I certainly think that McGwire's Hall of Fame candidacy is damaged." So, too, may be his legacy in the town where he is most beloved. On Friday, Congressman William Lacy Clay urged the Missouri State Legislature to remove McGwire's name from a five-mile stretch of I-70 that now honors him. For McGwire, facing a host of painful choices, it may have to be his way--and not the highway. But baseball may no longer have the luxury of such defiance.