Thursday, March 17, 2005

Random Thoughts on Congress vs. Baseball.

I spent the better part of the day watching the Congressional hearings on steroids in baseball, and while work kept me from staying to the end (I wound up missing the fireworks featuring Bud Selig, Donald Fehr and Rob Manfred), it was interesting viewing for me, being the quasi-wonk that I am. Anyway, some random reactions....

It was a nice touch having Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky) be the first witness. Before going into politics, he put together a Hall of Fame career as a pitcher with the Tigers and Phillies, so when he advocates Congress to step in and take action, his colleagues can't help but to sit up and listen. Plus, he brings that cranky-old-man, "we didn't have it as good as these kids" perspective those old-time ballplayers do so well.

My favorite observation of his: "Mr. Chairman, maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I remembered that players didn't get any better as they got older. We all got worse. When I played with Henry Aaron and Willie Mays and Ted Williams, they didn't put on 40 pounds and bulk up in their careers, and they didn't hit more home runs in their late 30s than they did in their late 20s. What is happening in baseball now isn't natural and it isn't right." (Gee, Mr. Bonds -- I wonder who he's referring to?)

The second panel featured the parents to two young ballplayers who killed themselves following steroid-related depression, and several medical experts. There were two telling moments for me. The first came from parent Ray Garibaldi, who claimed that some of the steroids his son used were supplied by a scout for the Angels. (Holy schnikes! Now, why wasn't this allegation followed up on? This is the first mention I've ever heard of a team official supplying the drug, rather than the players procuring it on their own.) The second came from parent and activist Donald Hooton (brother of former Dodger hurler Burt Hooton, BTW) who said that most of the steroids used by high school kids not only come from illegal labs in Mexico, but are also veterinary grade, meaning they were only manufactured to be used on livestock, not by humans.

As if the harsh words in the Congressmen's opening statements weren't indication enough, their grilling of MLB medical adviser Eliot Pellman showed what they had in store for the other executives later in the day. Basically, they tore him a new asshole and confronted him with glaring loopholes in MLB's drug testing policy that he had to admit he never knew existed. Ouch! Not a happy time for ol' Doc Pellman.

Then came the third panel, which is what everyone was waiting for. Jose Canseco, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Curt Schilling sat side-by-side at the witness table while Frank Thomas testified via a video conference hook-up. Six potential Hall of Famers on the hot seat, all with at least 15 years major league experience. Well, actually only four of them were on the hot seat, in an interesting development -- Schilling and Thomas, both outspoken in the past on the steroid problem, were introduced separately and named to co-chair a Congressional committee on steroid use. This was clearly a move by the committee to separate the "good guys" from the "bad guys." It will be interesting to see how this eventually plays out in clubhouses across the league as players are forced to take sides.

Thomas, who got to testify from training camp because of his ankle rehabilitation, clearly got the best deal of all the player witnesses, since the balky video conferencing technology allowed everyone to just forget about him and concentrate their ire on the guys in the room. (All those tax dollars, and Congress can't get a good video conferencing system and competent people to run it? Sheesh.)

Predictably, in their opening statements, everyone ripped into Canseco and his book, but McGwire was the only one who wouldn't explicitly deny ever using steroids. Of course, we all knew he wasn't clean once that andro was found in his locker back in '98, but I'm convinced his usage went deeper than that. His reputation and his legacy are going to be the hardest hit over this whole ordeal. But will it be enough to jeopardize his Hall of Fame election chances next year? Maybe. But the emotion he showed surprised me. Obviously, there's a whole going on there that he's not telling us -- not just in a legalistic sense, but in a psychological sense. One can only hope that a tearful confession and some genuine contrition are forthcoming in the near future, but I have a feeling his lawyers won't allow that.

Palmiero's emotion surprised me, too. Leave to a Cuban to yell and point an angry finger at Congress. (Besides, we all know that his power comes from Viagra, not from steroids....) But his begging to be on the Schilling/Thomas anti-steroid task force seemed awfully pathetic.

Also predictably, Sosa brought along an interpreter and a lawyer to read his opening statement. This is the same thing he did when he got caught with a corked bat. Seems that he manages to conveniently forget the English language when it suits him.

Like I said, work kept me from watching the executives testify, but all the recaps I've read seem to indicate it was quite a throw-down. But, frankly, they deserved it. Especially the weasely Don Fehr, who is showing the world what an obstructionist he really is.

Although no one's mentioned any concrete legislation yet, it's obvious to me that something is going to come out of these hearings beyond the Schilling/Thomas Bad Ankle Brigade and Anti-Steroid Crusade. It may not be immediate, but I have a feeling we'll see some sort of action by Congress, since this seems to be one of the few issues left with any sort of broad bipartisan support. It may be the stiff criminal penalties for any pro athletes caught using (which someone suggested at the hearing) or it may just be the revocation of baseball's anti-trust protection. Keep an eye out for that.

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