As the congressional steroid hearings closed in on the seven-hour mark Thursday afternoon, Rep. Tom Lantos declared, "I increasingly feel a theater of the absurd unfolding here." What took the gentleman from California so long? At that point we'd already seen both Bash Brothers teeter on the verge of tears.
We'd been informed that the expansive Frank Thomas, looking more like Big Brother than the Big Hurt on a giant video screen, would testify by "remote control" from Arizona. We'd endured a 75-minute recess so members of the House Committee for Government Reform could vote on a matter even more pressing then artificially enhanced home runs -- the nation's budget. Mark McGwire had revealed that he's retired, and Sammy Sosa had provided the day's "Say-it-ain't-so-Joe" moment: "All I can tell you is that I don't have much to tell you."
They were just getting started on Capitol Hill -- still to come were the public spankings of commissioner Bud Selig and union executive director Don Fehr; a congressman's suggestion that notices posted in major league clubhouses might end steroid use; Rep. Dennis Kucinich speaking Spanish; and, yes, further confirmation that McGwire is no longer an active player. Samuel Beckett would have been proud.
Thursday was a rotten day for baseball, but no one took as big a hit as No-Longer-Big Mac. It's not just that McGwire refused to answer most of the committee's questions. It's that he looked so nervous, conflicted, ornery and defensive in doing so. McGwire's credibility and stature as one of the game's icons collapsed. His game plan of focusing on the future, not his past, probably sounded good when he was rehearsing in his lawyer's office. But it became a tough sell the minute Rafael Palmeiro pointed at Congress and all but dared the politicians to accuse him of using steroids.
McGwire had the constitutional right to keep quiet, but exercising it was tantamount to an admission of guilt in the eyes of baseball fans who haven't gotten their law degrees. He had several opportunities to declare once and for all he was not a cheater. He seized none of them. Short of handing Henry Waxman a syringe and asking the congressman to join him in the bathroom, it's hard to imagine McGwire could have done more damage to himself.
But the day wasn't all shattered reputations and absurd entertainment. Here's what we learned during baseball's 11 hours on Capitol Hill:
Congress isn't on a witch hunt
The battered tandem of Selig and Fehr may disagree, but the committee wasn't in the mood to play a gotcha game -- at least not with the players. McGwire faced tough questioning from Rep. Lacy Clay and Rep. Patrick McHenry, but for the most part the committee went easy on the players. No one was forced to officially cite Fifth Amendment rights. The Committee let McGwire and Sosa skate with a litany of head shakes and mumbled non-answers. (Hard to imagine, say, the boys from Enron receiving the same courtesy in that setting.) Committee chair Tom Davis was particularly protective of McGwire, cutting off the few members who tried to draw the slugger out of his self-imposed shell. As bad as the day was for McGwire, it could have been much worse if the committee members hadn't restrained themselves.
Treating the players with kid gloves was good strategy. Congress used the stars' appearances as bait to get the country to watch it go after its real targets: Selig, Fehr and the sport's weak drug policy. (Palmeiro said it all when, after being asked why he never told his bosses he suspected steroids were being used by others, he replied, "I wouldn't know who to go to.") The committee exposed what one member called players' "see no evil, hear no evil" attitude toward steroid use, and managed to do so without naming names and ruining careers. For the most part those who testified -- the non-retired players, anyway -- emerged with reputations intact. The committee, which risked looking foolish by calling the hearing, did too.