Cummings presses his baseball heroes to measure up as role models for kids

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- He has become known for challenging baseball's mightiest players and officials about steroids, the man who memorably told superstar Roger Clemens on Wednesday: "It's hard to believe you, sir. I hate to say that. You're one of my heroes."

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings said it pains him each time he sees another baseball superstar accused of using illegal performance-enhancing drugs. That's because Cummings, 57, a Baltimore Democrat, is a devout baseball fan.

In some ways, he's still a kid - these days a heartbroken one - when it comes to the sport he played as a boy, wearing a jersey donated by a local business and using a broomstick because he couldn't afford a bat.

A 12-year congressional veteran and trial attorney before that, Cummings sounded more like a fan than a House member when he spoke Friday about his encounter with Clemens. "I was not trying to hurt Roger Clemens," Cummings said. "Never did I think my first meeting with my hero would be over something like this."

But Cummings said he understands from his experience growing up in South Baltimore how much power sports figures hold over youths, and he worries that many stars are failing as role models.

"I looked up to guys like [ballplayers] Whitey Herzog and Jim Gentile," he said. "I'm getting emotional just talking about it. If 48 years later I can still feel the emotion, then what does that say about the impact that star players have on kids?"

For those who wonder why he devotes so much time to baseball hearings, Cummings said his passion for the cause might be rooted partly in his baseball-adoring past, but the issue is really about kids and their futures.

"I take it seriously to support and defend the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic," he said, reciting from the oath administered to members at the start of each new Congress. "Well, sadly some of our players have become enemies of our kids."

He paused, took a breath, then said, "I feel as strongly about that as I do about finding bin Laden."

Drug education

Cummings recently called Orioles star Brian Roberts and recruited him to volunteer with Powered by ME, a program that educates middle school and high school students, coaches and teachers about the dangers of steroids.

"Most people think the issue is only done in professional athletics and it's not something an inner-city congressman should be concerned about," said Michael Gimbel, a Powered by ME consultant. "But what I'm finding is the kids most vulnerable are high school kids who want to use steroids to get out of the ghetto."

Roberts, who admitted that he took steroids once in 2003, has agreed to appear at a daylong conference April 18 in Timonium to educate 500 student-athletes and coaches from the city and Baltimore County about the health risks of steroids, said Cummings and Gimbel.

Cummings said he admires Roberts for acknowledging his steroids mistake.

The congressman said he wasn't athletic enough to play baseball competitively for very long, although he was reluctant to stop playing recreationally.

"I remember when we were in law school [at the University of Maryland], we'd sometimes take a break in the afternoon and step outside and play catch," said longtime friend Mike Christianson, a member of Cummings' staff.

Cummings has a history of reaching out to athletes. On the walls of his Rayburn Building office hang photographs of the congressman with former President Bill Clinton and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu - but also with boxer Muhammad Ali and other athletes.

Three years ago, Cummings met with and counseled NBA star Carmelo Anthony, who is from Baltimore and had appeared in the Stop Snitching DVD, which warned people not to cooperate with police.

Cummings said he has to resist placing players on a higher plane than other people. "Maybe it's unfair to them that you see them as bigger than life without human frailties," he said.

As a kid, baseball is what allowed him to dream, he said. The son of a former South Carolina sharecropper, he said his father used to take him to the airport and say: "You are not going to fly today, but someday you will fly."

He said he had a similar experience with baseball, once getting tickets for a game at Memorial Stadium and fantasizing about playing in the big leagues.

Tough on stars

Today, Cummings is known for challenging Clemens and other baseball luminaries.

At a January hearing, Cummings told baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and players association chief Donald Fehr: "This [steroids] scandal happened under your watch. I want that to sink in."

In 2005, Cummings went after Mark McGwire when the retired slugger declined to address whether he used steroids.

Cummings asked McGwire: "You don't want to comment? Are you taking the Fifth?"

"I'm not here to discuss the past," McGwire responded.

Cummings' performance Wednesday won him plaudits from legal observers for his directness and analysis.

"Cummings seemed particularly good," said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor.

Cummings said he had been influenced by two couples who testified at the 2005 hearing and blamed steroids for their sons' suicides.

The Hootons of Texas and the Garibaldis of California said their sons were advised by coaches to get bigger. Each family blamed steroids for the young men's deaths and said baseball stars set a bad example. "You are cowards when it comes to facing your fans and the kids," Donald Hooton said.

Cummings said he's still haunted by that testimony.

"I thought to myself, 'These are parents who did everything we know how to do,'" he said. "They went to the Friday night games, they looked at whether there was peer pressure. But somewhere there was a crack."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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