"This is almost surreal to me," declaimed Rep. Christopher Shays, a Republican of Connecticut, at yesterday's congressional hearings on baseball's latest drug scandals.
The question he found surreal, which he put first to Senator Mitchell and later to baseball commissioner Bud Selig and union chief Donald Fehr, was this: "Why should cheating be a collective bargaining issue?"
Mitchell seemed not to understand how someone could ask such a question. "It has been settled law in the United States for more than 20 years that drug testing is subject to collective bargaining," he said. Fehr simply said, "Under the law, we're supposed to negotiate all terms and conditions of employment."
This sort of mutual incomprehension occupied much of yesterday's hearings. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat of Minnesota, accused baseball of a "criminal conspiracy that defrauded millions of baseball fans of billions of dollars." Rep. Mark Souder, a Republican of Indiana, demanded to know what baseball was doing about gene doping, a technology that does not exist. Rep. Shays soliloquized in Stengelese, repeatedly referencing the 1919 Chicago Blackhawks (presumably he meant the Black Sox), one Palmieri (presumably he meant Rafael Palmeiro, not the famed pianist) and his 300th hit (presumably he meant his 3,000th).
Mitchell, Selig, and Fehr displayed admirable patience in dealing with such displays. More interesting, though — and more important — were their responses to several surprisingly relevant and informed lines of inquiry. Usually these sorts of hearings offer nothing more than empty accusation and implausible evasion. Yesterday's offered something more.
In fairness to McCollum, for instance, she followed on her accusations of fraud with a question posed to Mitchell. His investigation, as she noted, disclosed that two Baltimore Orioles general managers had known of and done nothing about first baseman David Segui's drug use, and that the San Francisco Giants' head trainer had told the general manager and owner there was a drug dealer working in their clubhouse. "What," she asked rhetorically, "do these individuals do with this information?"
The Mitchell report wasn't the first to show the near-total complicity of baseball management and ownership in the sport's drug problem, but he did vividly describe it. Simply in asking the question, McCollum answered it. None of these people did anything, in part, presumably, because of greed, but also because there was nothing for them to do. The total lack of any coherent drug policy was in itself a drug policy, one that tolerated use more or less openly.
Interestingly, Mitchell didn't even try to refute this assertion, instead pointing out that doping goes back to the ancient Olympics. "This is not unique to baseball," he said. "This is not unique to the modern era." Given the chance to wax indignant over the scourge of drug use, Mitchell instead offered perspective. It's rare that a representative of the sport — and for all his purported independence, that is what Mitchell is — does so.
Several other congressmen were impressive. Rep. John Tierney, a Democrat of Massachusetts, noted that in 2006, 35 of 1,356 tested players had secured therapeutic use exemptions allowing them to take proscribed drugs, a number that rose to 111 of 1,354 a year later. Selig and Fehr defended the policy, noting that exemptions have to be cleared by both a personal physician and the drug program's independent administrator. It was no headline-making exchange, but it showed an awareness of a potential loophole in testing and meaningfully addressed it. Rep. Stephen Lynch, also a Democrat of Massachusetts, demanded that Selig and Fehr open the sport's labor contract to address human growth hormone, but allowed that "A lot of progress has been made, and I want to congratulate you on that."
The more politicians and baseball representatives adopt a generally reasonable tone, the less they insist that the problem is always getting worse; the more they talk about actual issues and the more perspective they take on the whole issue, the better. If there are to be hearings, let them at least be civil and useful.
To that end, the most interesting question was posed by Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat of Kentucky. "Do we really know enough to say that taking steroids or HGH improves a player's competitive position," he asked, "any more than chewing tobacco does, any more than chewing on sunflower seeds does?" If Congress is to hold this sort of proceeding, this is at least the sort of basic fact-gathering question it should be asking, before moving on to the intricacies involved with making sure players aren't tampering with their DNA. The answers, as it happened, were even more telling.
Selig, reasonably enough, said that he has talked with lots of doctors and baseball people about the issue, and that they think steroids help performance. "Even if one could make a case that well, really, it doesn't help," "the fact of the matter is that that's something you just can't tolerate." Steroids, in other words, are bad because they're bad.
Fehr cited a specific study that only showed androsteneodione increases muscle mass, a known fact that doesn't answer as to whether muscle mass helps a man play baseball. (He also pointed out that if human growth hormone is really such a wonder drug as it is sometimes made out to be, doctors ought to be figuring out how to use it to cure sick people.)
Yarmuth's question was clarifying. With the world watching, and every incentive to do otherwise, neither Selig nor Fehr could offer concrete facts to back the premise that steroids are a form of cheating. That doesn't mean that the sport shouldn't try to end doping, of course; it's illegal, first off, and it does send a horrible message to the oft-mentioned youth. But the more congressmen investigate matters of fact and first principles, they more they will help the sport, even if only by exposing some of the hysteria presently surrounding it for what it is. The answer to the deceit practiced by many players over the last two decades is truth.