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The Liars Club
S.L. Price
December 26, 2005
The congressional hearings on steroids in baseball, the bigger-than-sports story of the year, turned into a three-ring circus. And only the clown, Jose Canseco, may have told the truth
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December 26, 2005

The Liars Club

The congressional hearings on steroids in baseball, the bigger-than-sports story of the year, turned into a three-ring circus. And only the clown, Jose Canseco, may have told the truth

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Truth may sometimes come out of the Devil's mouth.

--DR. THOMAS FULLER, 17TH-CENTURY BRITISH CLERGYMAN AND AUTHOR

Over the summer former major league slugger Jose Canseco appeared in a television show called The Surreal Life, the premise of which was to cram semifamous egomaniacs into a made-for-TV fun house and watch the sparks fly. He was insulted by a visiting baseball fan over his steroids tell-all, Juiced; performed as a stripper; and fended off the advances of various dim women--which, considering his bizarre career, was no surprise. What was odd, actually, was watching Canseco emerge as the cast's voice of reason. While his housemates engaged in petty conflicts, Canseco drifted through the show with an attitude notched somewhere between bemusement and boredom, as if he had lived through it all before. Which, of course, he had.

At 10 A.M. last March 17, in Room 2154 of the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C., the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Government Reform opened its hearing on steroids and major league baseball. There had never been anything quite like it in the history of American sports. For the next 11 hours and 15 minutes, in an unfolding drama that would make any reality-show producer weep with envy, big league players and executives and the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association sat pinned to their chairs by subpoenas or cameras or the slim hope of winning the public relations war, squirming under an unprecedented public examination. Spectators and reporters overflowed into the marble hallways. No previous congressional hearing, not even the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton, had drawn so many TV crews. The snapping of camera shutters, says Don Hooton, who testified about his son Taylor's suicide after steroid use, "sounded like thousands of crickets chirping."

The mere prospect of Congress and baseball colliding like bull elephants made the hearing must-see TV. But what sealed this as the most indelible day of the year in sports was the parade of indelible moments: Hooton calling the players "cowards"; retired St. Louis Cardinals star Mark McGwire, once baseball's Paul Bunyan, deflated and weeping; Baltimore Orioles designated hitter Rafael Palmeiro shaking that fatal finger; Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling calling Canseco "a liar"; Connecticut representative Christopher Shays and Major League Baseball vice president Rob Manfred sneering at each other. By the end of the testimony McGwire's reputation was smashed and Palmeiro's was teed up for the blow to come, commissioner Bud Selig and the rest of his office had been revealed as duplicitous or uncooperative or just plain clueless, and the nation had witnessed a year's worth of outrage, schmaltz, sorrow and, yes, comedy. "I would say," ventured Selig, surveying the wreckage, "that it has been a most interesting day."

Closer to the mark was California representative Tom Lantos, who, stymied by McGwire's metronomic refusals to "talk about the past," declared, "I increasingly feel a ... theater of the absurd unfolding here." By then one of the committee's star witnesses, Chicago White Sox designated hitter Frank Thomas, had disappeared into technological limbo: Testifying on a remote feed from Tucson that made it look as if he were transmitting from the moon, Thomas gave a short statement condemning steroids and then--poof!--evaporated when the feed was lost, never to be heard from again. Contentious exchanges were leavened by the occasional puzzler (such as Pennsylvania congressman Paul Kanjorski's suggestion for universal testing "regardless of what sex is involved, whether it's male, female or otherwise") and by nearly everything Sammy Sosa said.

The Orioles outfielder and native of the Dominican Republic, citing language difficulties, had a lawyer read his opening statement and kept a translator by his side throughout the day. She never got a word in. Sosa answered each question in English--even one asked in Spanish--though it may as well have been Swahili for all the light he shed. "To my knowledge, I don't know," Sosa responded to a query about teammates using steroids. "I can tell you, Mr. Chairman," he said when asked if he thought baseball should adopt the Olympic drug program, "I don't have too much to tell you." Asked if he supported baseball's policy on steroids, Sosa said, "I don't have the specific question to explain to you."

No matter. It was all mesmerizing because it wasn't sport as we're used to seeing it. There was no clock or field or scoreboard. The action consisted of paper shuffling, sips of water, men talking in sometimes long and complicated sentences. But there was also an oath to take, and a penalty of jail time for lying, and that charged the air. The five players were big and striking figures, and in uniform Canseco, Sosa and McGwire had once looked as if they'd stepped out of a Marvel comic. Now they sat in workaday dark suits at a cramped table. Selig, Manfred and players' association head Donald Fehr aren't often lectured to and threatened. They're not often held so contemptuously to account. But that happened too. On this late-winter day everybody in the room had something to lose.

"Congress was on trial as much as the players," says committee chairman Thomas Davis of Virginia. "There were a lot of questions: Why are you doing this? Is this McCarthyism? We had to stay focused. If we had wanted to get in there and really mix it up, we could've kept the subpoenas going. We could've destroyed baseball. But that was never our goal."

So what was the goal? A tougher drug policy for baseball? Yes, the chairman will tell you. A warning to the estimated 500,000 high schoolers abusing steroids? Yes. A chance to burnish political careers? That too. But as the hearing progressed, it became clear that Congress was after bigger game. Ready? Don't laugh.

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