WASHINGTON - The line started to form at 6 a.m. outside the hearing room at the Rayburn Office Building, reaffirming the drawing power of Major League Baseball, even in one of its darkest hours.

There were fans and Capitol Hill interns and visiting students, all hoping to get a glimpse of the five current and former major league players who were scheduled to testify in front of a congressional committee on the scope of the sport's steroid problem.

The high drama of Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco brought together to answer questions about baseball's dirtiest secret was too much to resist for John Wertman of Alexandria, Va., who showed up in a green Boston Red Sox cap and claimed to be a longtime Canseco fan.

"They'll probably put [Curt] Schilling between Canseco and the purported users," Wertman said. "I'd like to see McGwire and Canseco go at it across the table."

It didn't come to that, but the tension at the table - at which Schilling and the Orioles' Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa were also seated - was palpable. What else would you expect in the wake of Canseco's tell-all biography, in which he alleged that he had injected McGwire with steroids while the two were teammates on the Oakland Athletics in the early 1990s?

Schilling of the Boston Red Sox abandoned any pretense of civility regarding Canseco and his book that prompted this hearing.

"I think he's a liar," Schilling said.

In the course of an 11-hour proceeding that began at 10 a.m., Schilling's was far from the only testy remark.

More than 100 people had lined up for a chance to see the hearing, though only nine at a time were allowed to enter. What they and the media horde saw was Democrats and Republicans united in their demands for answers about baseball's steroid culture.

However, as the hearing wore on, it became clear that many of the committee members seemed as interested in making speeches as in asking questions.

Rep. Diane E. Watson, a California Democrat, held up a copy of an old Sports Illustrated featuring then-bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger with the headline "Hot Stuff." During her questions, she held up the magazine and said, "Our kids are inspired by this."

Inside the hearing room, a poster on one wall titled "Know your opposition" listed negative side effects of steroids - an unusual piece of signage in such a setting.

"I increasingly feel a theater of the absurd unfolding here," Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, said to no one in particular.

Though some of the testimony and questioning would elicit frustration, the morning session produced the high drama of parents lamenting what they view as the steroid-driven suicides of their two sons. Both boys, one from California, one from Texas, were baseball players who had been encouraged to bulk up.

Later on, the ballplayers took their place before the committee.

Canseco and the other players never spoke directly to each other. Canseco was kept in a separate waiting room; at the hearing table, he was separated from the others by Sosa's lawyer.

McGwire retired as one of the great heroes of the game after joining Sosa in the most exciting home run chase in history in 1998, while Canseco went from near-certain Hall of Famer to broken-down steroid suspect to baseball pariah with the publication of his bestseller.

Funny, they didn't look very different yesterday. Both have shrunken physically since they retired from the game, and McGwire seemed to shrink even more as committee members peppered him with questions about his possible involvement with illegal steroids.

Say it ain't so, Mark.

Well, he didn't, but he didn't explicitly admit to anything either. McGwire delivered a prepared statement to the committee in which he refused to answer questions about his past or about the activities of his teammates while he was a member of the A's and St. Louis Cardinals.

"I have been advised that my testimony here could be used to hurt friends and respected teammates," he said, "or that some ambitious prosecutor can use convicted criminals who would do and say anything to solve their own problems and create jeopardy for my friends."

If that had been the end of it, he might have looked almost noble, but he spent the rest of the hearing stubbornly refusing to answer any questions about his past - stopping short of exercising his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination only because the committee chairman, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a Virginia Republican, pulled him off the hook when he was pressed on the issue by Baltimore Democrat Elijah E. Cummings.

Davis rebuked committee members several other times for pressing McGwire on his past behavior, citing a House rule against forcing witnesses to give testimony that would "defame, degrade or incriminate."

Still, no explicit admission was necessary in the most telling exchange of the hearings, when Rep. William L. Clay, a Missouri Democrat, mentioned that there is a highway named after McGwire in St. Louis and then asked one of Missouri's adopted heroes a poignant question.

"Can we look our kids in the eye and tell them that superstars like you played the game with honesty and integrity?" Clay asked.

"I am not going to talk about the past," McGwire replied.

Sosa was nearly invisible, partly because he did an excellent job of hiding behind a supposed language barrier. He had a surrogate deliver his opening statement and gave only brief answers to most of the questions directed at him, but he was unequivocal in his denial of any steroid abuse.

Canseco celebrated steroids in his book, but he expressed surprising contrition during the hearings, claiming that his position has changed since he began writing the controversial biography.

It was great theater, but the crowd that showed up for the "public" hearing found out that there were only nine seats set aside for the public. House press gallery personnel said that they had not issued so many media credentials since the Clinton impeachment trial.

Wertman, who is something of a hearings junkie, had been to the Condoleezza Rice and Ruth Bader Ginsburg confirmation hearings.

"I've never seen a circus like this," he said."

One committee member, Rep. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent, took note of the media crowd - including more than two dozen cameramen - and wondered where everyone is when the committee handles other issues.

"Maybe we'll have to bring in great baseball players to talk about crime and poverty," Sanders said.

Sun staff writer Jonathan Pitts and the Associated Press contributed to this article.