WASHINGTON - Major League Baseball challenged the authority yesterday of a House committee that issued subpoenas ordering seven current and former baseball stars, including two Orioles, to appear at a hearing next week on steroid use.
Baseball's challenge raised the specter of a showdown in Congress or the courts.
The House Government Reform Committee said in a prepared statement that it had "no alternative" but to issue subpoenas because six of the players "made it clear - either by flatly rejecting the invitation to testify or by ignoring our repeated attempts to contact them - they had no intention of appearing."
The six are Orioles Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, Jason Giambi of the New York Yankees, retired former home run king Mark McGwire, Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox and Curt Schilling of the Boston Red Sox.
The only subpoenaed player who agreed in advance to testify was retired slugger Jose Canseco.
Sosa, Palmeiro, Giambi and McGwire were named in a recent "tell-all" book by Canseco as possible steroid users.
A central purpose of the hearing, a top committee aide said yesterday, is to try to determine the validity of Canseco's widely publicized allegations.
"The committee is trying to do something very simple and something baseball should have done on its own: find out what happened," said Phillip Schiliro, chief of staff for Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, the panel's top-ranking Democrat.
"You had Canseco making new allegations, and they are serious. But what the committee doesn't know, and what the American people don't know, is whether they are true."
Schiliro said players didn't seem to be taking the hearing seriously, using as an example Palmeiro's statement that he might not attend because the March 17 hearing falls on his wife's birthday.
"I've worked on hearings for 20 years, and we've never had a witness say, 'It's my wife's birthday,'" Schiliro said.
Palmeiro, interviewed at spring training in Florida, said he felt victimized: "I don't know what my link is. I shouldn't have been in the book in the first place." Palmeiro has denied taking steroids.
Sosa declined to comment.
Sosa's agent, Adam Katz, told CNN that the slugger had "respectfully" declined the committee's invitation but will now have to "take a second look and make the right choice."
Canseco alleges in the book that Palmeiro, formerly of the Texas Rangers, and two Texas teammates "would bring their steroids to the ballpark and I would inject them there, the same way I used to inject McGwire back at the Oakland Coliseum."
Palmeiro said yesterday: "There are 100 names in the book. What are they going to do, bring in 100 people? I feel like a victim now. I get put in a book I don't belong in, and now I may have to go testify before Congress."
But Major League Baseball said the committee was overstepping its powers by trying to compel testimony that could violate players' privacy and interfere with a federal investigation.
The investigation is looking into BALCO, a California laboratory at the center of a scandal involving baseball and football players and track and field stars.
At least one of the players subpoenaed yesterday - Giambi - has appeared before a BALCO grand jury and could be called to testify at a trial.
Washington attorney Stanley M. Brand, who is representing baseball, said during a conference call yesterday that the hearing represented a "misuse of congressional power."
"The audacity, the legal audacity of subpoenaing someone who's been a grand jury witness before there's been a trial in the case in California is just an absolutely excessive and unprecedented misuse of congressional power," Brand said.
Brand - who wrote a five-page letter to the committee and its chairman, Virginia Republican Thomas M. Davis III - also argued that the panel lacks jurisdiction because neither Major League Baseball nor the players association are government entities.
Congress claims much of its powers over baseball under the Constitution's interstate commerce clause.
The standoff raised the possibility that the subpoenas could be defied. If that happened, the committee could vote on contempt citations that would need approval of the full House. From there, the dispute could end up in federal court.
"If you are found guilty of contempt, that usually results in jail time," said Schiliro, a lawyer.
Rob Manfred, a Major League Baseball executive vice president, said it will be left to the summoned players to decide whether they want to testify - even as baseball challenges the committee's authority as an organization.
Manfred also received a subpoena, as did players union head Donald Fehr, baseball executive vice president Sandy Alderson and San Diego Padres general manager Kevin Towers. Manfred and Fehr told the committee they would appear.
But baseball resisted a committee subpoena calling for it to turn over documents, including results of drug testing. Brand called the request "overly expansive."
Under pressure from the public and the Senate, baseball recently began a tougher anti-steroid program containing year-round testing and harsher penalties than before. Last week, Commissioner Bud Selig said the percentage of players who tested positive in 2004 was down to 1 percent to 2 percent.
Given that progress, baseball suggested it was the wrong time to convene a hearing.
But the committee, in a statement, promised to conduct "a thorough, fair and responsible investigation" and said it was important to educate America's youth about steroid risks.
Sun staff writer Roch Kubatko contributed to this article.