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Major League Baseball grounds out

Sports | When it came to dealing with the problem of steroids, legislators say baseball swung and missed

Issue: "Schiavo’s fight for life," April 2, 2005

Baseball's opening day came early this year. The games might not start until April 3, but members of the U.S. House of Representatives played pepper with baseball players and executives, forcing them, by subpoena, to appear before a congressional committee on March 17. Congressmen said baseball could use the opportunity of nationally televised hearings to restore the sport's good name. Instead, when it came to dealing with the problem of steroids, legislators say baseball swung and missed.

Hearings before the House Committee on Government Reform on St. Patrick's Day left baseball with a black eye and spurred both Democrats and Republicans to wonder aloud if the sport even took its steroid problem seriously. Congress does. Citing figures that tie the rise of steroid use in baseball to the rise of steroid use by teenagers, Congress pounded Major League Baseball for setting a bad example. And even as some criticized Congress for devoting time to baseball's drug problem, powerful Capitol Hill Republicans said afterwards there might be more hearings.

House Committee on Government Reform chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) worked hard to link the rise of steroid use in baseball to the rise of use in teenagers. According to a study commissioned by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the percentage of high-school seniors who considered anabolic steroids harmful declined from 68 percent to 62 percent from 1998 to 1999. In August 1998, steroid use in baseball became an explosive issue when a reporter found a bottle of androstenedione, a steroid precursor, in St. Louis first baseman Mark McGwire's locker. This was Rep. Davis's point: "Too many college athletes believe they have to consider steroids if they're going to make it to the pros; high-school athletes, in turn, think steroids might be the key to getting a scholarship. It's time to break that cycle, and it needs to happen from the top down."

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Baseball may have thought its new testing policy would satisfy the politicians. But once Congress inserted itself into the burgeoning steroid scandal, baseball's story unraveled. Baseball executives were forced to admit their new tougher punishments for steroid usage weren't so tough. Representatives exploded at commissioner Bud Selig and players' boss Donald Fehr when they discovered players could have been subject to a fine rather than a 10-game suspension for a first-time offense of the league's steroid policy. Both men called the language that made a surprise reference to a fine alternative a "drafting error," and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told reporters he plans to make sure baseball follows through with mandatory suspensions. House Energy and Commerce chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) said he might hold hearings of his own to more thoroughly question players.

Targets of a Barton probe could include San Francisco slugger Barry Bonds, who is becoming more and more involved in the high-profile BALCO steroid scandal. According to grand jury testimony leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, a woman claiming to be Mr. Bonds's mistress of nine years said the baseball star admitted steroid use to her. At the least, if Congress decides to subpoena more baseball players, it means representatives can do what reporters cannot: Pose questions and demand answers.

While accused players like Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa both denied steroid use in the St. Patrick's Day hearings, Mr. McGwire tried to avoid the question. Since his retirement, the former Cardinals and A's slugger has kept out of the spotlight, dodging inquiries from reporters. But on Capitol Hill when Mr. McGwire faced questions about his steroid use, he retreated to a memorized statement, saying, "I'm not going to go into the past or talk about my past." Mr. McGwire can only hope that phrase doesn't return to haunt him when he's eligible for Cooperstown next year.

Around the Horn

· If the San Antonio Spurs are to hold onto their top spot in the Western Conference, it won't be with star forward Tim Duncan. Mr. Duncan sprained his ankle after landing awkwardly on Rasheed Wallace's foot while chasing down a rebound. The injury means the Spurs will not only lose their leading scorer, rebounder, and shot blocker, but also their best defense against other Western Conference teams like Phoenix, Seattle, and Dallas.

· Running back Travis Henry knows what he wants. Or, rather, what he doesn't want. He doesn't want to play for the Buffalo Bills next season, regardless of his contract. Desperate to escape Buffalo (and his backup spot behind Willis McGahee), Mr. Henry engineered a trade proposal that would have sent him to Arizona in exchange for a starting offensive lineman. And though the Bills haven't budged, Mr. Henry says he won't either: "No minicamps. No training camp. No nothing."

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