August 7, 2005
WHILE WE WAIT for Congress to figure out what it is going to do with Rafael Palmeiro and Major League Baseball's flawed drug policy, it might be a good time to point out something very important.
Congress isn't entirely blameless in this mess.
If you rewind the videotape and watch the questioning during the March 17 hearing of the House Committee on Government Reform, you might be surprised that there are whispers of a possible criminal charge against Palmeiro for lying to the august body that spent a lot of the hearing sputtering baseball cliches and dancing around the fundamental question that supposedly prompted the inquiry.
The whole charade reminded me of that scene in A Few Good Men when Tom Cruise shouts at Jack Nicholson that "I want the truth!" and Nicholson replied just as forcefully:
"You can't handle the truth!"
Indeed, Congress trotted out a handful of big-name baseball players and made a few of them squirm, but when it came time to press the issue, chairman Tom Davis and his committee (oops, now I'm doing it) struck out.
Several times, committee members tried to ask history-making slugger Mark McGwire if he had ever taken steroids. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore got so frustrated with Big Mac's dissembling that he asked him point-blank if he wanted to invoke the Fifth Amendment.
Each time, however, the chairman cut that line of inquiry short, all but proving Cummings' much-criticized assertion the night before the hearing that a backroom deal had been struck that prohibited committee members from asking the direct did-you-or-didn't-you question that America wanted answered.
Palmeiro is probably kicking himself for delivering the prepared statement in which he did the Clinton finger-pointing thing and insisted that he had never, ever used steroids - period. He could have just sat there and said all the right things about keeping kids off drugs, and he wouldn't have to worry about the possibility of a federal perjury charge.
He wouldn't be out of the woods, of course. His image has been trashed, his 3,000-hit ceremony has been canceled, and he's still got a lot of explaining to do if he hopes to wipe away some of the tarnish that has suddenly appeared on his impressive career. But we wouldn't have to worry about the vindictiveness of a bunch of embarrassed politicians who feel like they were duped on national television.
They almost deserved to be duped, because they treated the steroid issue as an opportunity to flash their pearly whites on C-SPAN and cast themselves as defenders of the national pastime when they weren't willing to risk the political fallout that might come from putting one of baseball's biggest heroes on the spot.
They didn't even call Barry Bonds - who appeared to be knee deep in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative scandal at the time - though that might have been because they didn't want to step on that federal investigation.
I'm not saying that the hearings didn't serve a purpose, because they certainly did. Congressional staffers divined that the upgraded steroid-testing program contained several major loopholes and put pressure on commissioner Bud Selig and union chief Donald Fehr to close them.
The heat from Congress also convinced Selig to step up with his proposal to increase the penalty for a first positive steroid test to 50 days and reduce to three the number of offenses punishable by banishment from baseball for life ... which is not a small thing.
Union officials still think that the current plan is sufficient, but there has to be something wrong with a drug policy that calls for almost the same mandatory penalty for a first steroid offense (a 10-day suspension) as baseball levies on a pitcher for having pine tar under the bill of his cap (a 10-game suspension).
Congress was right to put Selig and Fehr on the hot seat in March for baseball's halfhearted approach to the steroid issue, but the committee was a bit halfhearted itself in its kid-glove approach to the baseball stars who testified that day.
Davis supposedly called for the hearings because America needed answers after the BALCO fiasco and the release of Jose Canseco's damning tell-all best-seller. Then Congress wimped out when it came time to ask the right questions.
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