Congress's Wild Pitch on Steroids

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David J. Phillip / AP

Roger Clemens, left, and his attorney Rusty Hardin listen as an audio tape is played during a news conference about alleged steroid use Monday, Jan. 7, 2008 in Houston.

The Mitchell Report, baseball's bible of the steroid era that was released in mid-December, is a bulked-up 409 pages in length. Unfortunately, thanks to our elected officials in Washington, this book may go on for 400 more.

On Tuesday the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, one of the most powerful investigative bodies in Congress, is to hear testimony from former Senator George Mitchell, the author of the report that linked some 90 players to the possible possession or use of performance-enhancing drugs. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig and union chief Donald Fehr will join Mitchell at the hearing, in which Congress will pressure the executives to implement the report's recommendations, which include a truly independent drug testing program and more frequent year-round, unannounced tests (Selig has already acted on a few of them; for example, last week he set up a department of investigations to probe allegations of illegal drug use).

Calling Selig and Fehr back does makes some sense. In 2005, in the face of skepticism about its motives, Congress effectively used its bully pulpit to embarrass baseball into strengthening its steroid penalties and testing procedures. Now Congress has a right to seek closure, to again goad baseball into accepting the recommendations. But the suits are just a prelude to the main event, a potential circus that doesn't seem to serve any real purpose.

On February 13, three players named in the report — former New York Yankee teammates Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Chuck Knoblauch — plus two key sources for Mitchell, ex-New York Mets clubhouse employee Kirk Radomski and personal trainer Brian McNamee, are scheduled to testify before the House committee. This round of testimony was originally scheduled for Jan. 16, but the committee pushed it back to give Congress more time to prepare by, among other things, deposing the players under oath (feverish negotiations are already under way between the players' attorneys and Washington to figure out exactly how that will go).

This hearing, which offers more prurient interest and photo opps than the Mitchell/Selig/Fehr testimony, basically pits Clemens against McNamee, his ex-friend and personal trainer. Clemens has angrily denied ever using performance-enhancing drugs, while McNamee told Mitchell that he injected Clemens with steroids and human growth hormone on at least 16 occasions from 1998 to 2001. Clemens, regarded as perhaps the greatest pitcher of all time, has unleashed a high-profile assault to clear his name — a 60 Minutes interview, a seething press conference, even a defamation suit against McNamee. But to this point, the trainer has stuck by his story. So Congress is mediating a classic he said/she said dispute among old friends (on national television, of course). Many baseball fans wonder, with the anticipation usually reserved for a playoff game, if anyone will crack under oath.

But the right question to ask is, why is Congress playing this game at all? Should a crucial investigative arm of Congress, a body that has done admirable work probing the response to Hurricane Katrina, the actions of controverial security contractor Blackwater U.S.A, and corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff, among other important issues, care about Roger Clemens? Doesn't it have better things to do with its time?

As evidenced by the Mitchell Report, baseball is no longer in denial about its performance-enhancing drug problem. Back in 2005, Mark McGwire's low moment — "I'm not here to talk about the past" — shed light on the steroid issue, and forced baseball to act. But trying to shame, or even vindicate, Roger Clemens a month later? How does that reform the game?

At least one Congressman thinks his committee shouldn't be calling Clemens. "Congress has a lot more important things to do than worrying about all aspects of this issue," says Rep. Christopher Shays, a Republican from Connecticut. "But particularly as it relates to the legacy of individual players, and the disputes among players and their trainers — that's not our responsibility."

So why are his superiors, committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-Cailf.) and ranking Republican Tom Davis, of Virginia, calling these players? This move is especially surprising because soon after the release of the report, Congress gave strong signals that it would leave the players alone. Davis told USA Today, "We don't want to turn this into a circus," and that Congress wanted to "move on." He also told a radio interviewer that Clemens would not be called to Capitol Hill. What changed? "Clemens has asked for a public vindication," Davis says now, referring to his recent blitz of denials.

But that's what the courts are for, not Congress, which is why Clemens has already filed a defamation suit. Moreover, Clemens is not the only player who has challenged the report. Lesser lights like ex-outfielder David Justice, relief pitchers Mike Stanton and Brendan Donnelly and others have also disputed the report's claims. Sure, since these players have smaller reputations at stake, their denials weren't as loud as Clemens'. But if one player like Clemens deserves a chance to try to clear his name, don't all the players? "I do not think it's fair to call one or two players," says Shays. "If we're going to call in players, we need to look at all the players, and not necessarily the ones that have the best records."

Committee staffers argue that since Clemens' case speaks to the accuracy of the Mitchell report, it's crucial that both he and McNamee be called. After their testimony, "either Senator Mitchell's report is seen to be entirely credible, or it's now got holes in it," says David Marin, the minority staff director for the committee. "One of those two things is going to happen." Really? First off, this conclusion presumes that either Clemens or McNamee suddenly changes his story, and admits that he lied. That's the first long shot. "Perry Mason has been off the air for years," says Fordham University law professor James Cohen. "No one is going to crack."

But suppose someone does crack. Say Clemens gives a tearful confession. Say Pettitte, who is a strong witness since he already copped to McNamee's allegations against him in the Mitchell report, rats out his pal and training partner. None of this would make the Mitchell report "entirely" credible. Just because Mitchell got Clemens right, that doesn't mean he is right about the 70 or so other players who haven't corroborated the claims against them.

By the same token, if McNamee admits he lied to Mitchell, in no way does it disprove, or even really damage, the rest of the report. After all, McNamee contributed just three names to the document: Pettitte, who has already confirmed the accusations against him; Clemens; and Knoblauch, who has stayed quiet (both McNamee and Radomski named pitcher Jason Grimsley, who has admitted to using steroids, and David Justice, who denied it). And McNamee's battle with Clemens has absolutely no bearing on the dozens of players whom Radomski named. If McNamee lied about Clemens, sure, it's a hole in the report. But it's a minor hole. The stain the hearings could leave on an already unpopular Congress may be much bigger.