WASHINGTON - A House committee refused yesterday to grant immunity to any of a half-dozen current and former baseball stars expected as mostly reluctant witnesses today for a hearing aimed at uncovering the truth about steroid use in their sport.
The House Committee on Government Reform hearing was to go on as scheduled even though most of the players initially wavered about appearing and hired lawyers either to win immunity from prosecution or get them excused. "No witnesses have been or will be offered immunity," committee spokesman David Marin said.
The witness list includes Orioles Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, who were on their way to Washington yesterday from the club's Florida spring training site.
The players' resistance only seemed to heighten interest in the proceedings, as committee members and sports commentators questioned whether ballplayers considered themselves above the law.
"This will probably be the biggest [congressional] event since the actual impeachment," said House Press Gallery spokesman Ric Andersen, referring to the 1998 House action against President Bill Clinton. More than 100 media outlets have registered to cover it.
The immunity question was one of a number of sticking points between players and the committee. The Congress-baseball relationship, already bordering on uncivil, worsened yesterday when lawmakers accused Major League Baseball of misrepresenting its new and much-ballyhooed steroid testing policy to make it seem tougher than it is.
Full of loopholes
The policy is "riddled with loopholes," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, the committee's ranking Democrat. Said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican: "I can reach no conclusion but that the league and the players union have misrepresented to me and to the American public the substance of MLB's new steroid policy."
Baseball officials replied that the steroid policy was as tough as advertised and that "all players with positive test results unequivocally will be suspended without pay and their names announced."
The hearing was announced after last month's release of a "tell-all" book by retired slugger Jose Canseco, one of the few witnesses who had been eager to testify. In his book, Canseco, who says players called him "The Chemist," not only names players who allegedly used steroids but also mounts a zealous defense of the drugs' alleged benefits.
Without immunity, Canseco might have to muzzle himself, said Robert Saunooke, his attorney: "They've really made it impossible for us to answer."
However, committee members, meeting last night, might have made things a little easier for witnesses by agreeing not to ask players to tattle on their peers. "What the members were told is that we're not going to ask players to name other players," said a committee staffer.
Panel member Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat who attended the meeting, said the committee "agreed this is not about trying to rake anybody over the coals and get anybody arrested. You may have questions like, 'How widespread do you think this is?'"
Several panelists said they want to ask how steroids in baseball are obtained. "I'm putting my prosecutorial hat on," said committee member C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, also a Maryland Democrat. "I want to know if he [Canseco] got steroids, where did he get them?"
The decision to reject immunity was made in consultation with the Justice Department. It came even after Waxman and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a Virginia Republican and the panel's chairman, had appeared willing to consider immunity. However, some committee members, including second-ranking Republican Christopher Shays of Connecticut, were opposed to immunity.
Named in book
It remained uncertain whether Sosa or Mark McGwire - who staged an epic home run showdown in 1998 that ended with McGwire's setting the season record - would be asked directly about possible steroid use. McGwire's attendance had earlier been in question, but he was expected to appear.
Canseco wrote in his book that he injected McGwire with steroids in a men's room stall when they played for the Oakland Athletics. He wrote that it was "so obvious" Sosa used steroids, but he had no proof.
Canseco now says he never intended to harm the reputations of players by naming them in the book.
Rather, Canseco says in a statement prepared for today's hearing, his intent was to place the blame on the officials who run the game and who he says have turned "a blind eye" to the steroid problem.
"I did not write my book to single out any one individual or player. I am saddened that the media and others have chosen to focus on the names in the book and not on the real culprit behind the issue," Canseco's testimony says.
He says baseball has largely ignored steroid use, leaving it to others to tell the public about the "clear evidence" that players have long used steroids illegally to bulk up.
"Unfortunately, by our presence here today, it is clear that Major League Baseball is not interested in admitting the truth. It is also clear that although others have tried to come out in support of my revelations, fear of repercussions from MLB haunts their conscience," the retired slugger's statement says.
Canseco's statement will become part of the official record at the hearing. He and other witnesses - including Curt Schilling of the Boston Red Sox and Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox - are also expected to answer questions. Thomas, nursing an ankle injury, was expected to be allowed to testify via a video conference.
Four Major League Baseball executives and players association chief Donald Fehr also have been called.
Palmeiro and Sosa headed to Washington yesterday morning, said Orioles Vice President Mike Flanagan.
"I know they are on their way," he said. "I had asked both of them if anything had changed, and they said no and that they were heading up this morning. I didn't get a sense of dread from any of it. If it had to happen, then it was going to happen."