This is your Congress on steroids.

Notes from different corners of the world.
March 18 2005 12:33 AM

This Is Your Congress on Steroids

A Bash Brother gets bashed—and it's not the one who wrote Juiced.

A washed-out anti-drug poster propped against a side wall of the House Government Reform Committee hearing room warns, "Steroids: Know Your Opponent." The opponents, as symbolized by track-and-field hurdles: "stunted growth," "baldness," and "acne."

None of the five players in attendance at Thursday's hearing looks stunted or acne-scarred, though Mark McGwire is losing his hair. As McGwire, Jose Canseco, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, and Curt Schilling take their seats a bit after 2 p.m., the already-jammed room gets a lot smaller and a lot quieter. When senator and baseball Hall of Famer Jim Bunning described baseball's "puny" testing policy earlier in the day, reporters thumbed through their notebooks and read the newspaper. But once Canseco's jet-black ducktail emerges from a doorway in the back of the room, everyone looks up and quiets down. Despite their girth, the ballplayers look like little boys in church—uncomfortable in their tight suits, fidgeting in their chairs, in a hurry to get this whole thing over with so they can run outside and play.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

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The 30 or so committee members are surprisingly gentle on the players. Today's whipping boys will be Elliot J. Pellman, the inarticulate medical advisor to the commissioner of baseball who appeared on an earlier panel, and Rob Manfred, Bud Selig's confrontational right-hand man. The conversation from the dais often turns into a debate about who's the biggest baseball fan. Indiana Republican Mark Souder said that as a kid he "saved money for months to buy a Nellie Fox baseball glove." Rep. José E. Serrano, D-NY, announces proudly that be bought Major League Baseball's Gameday Audio package for his computer and 25 packs of baseball cards.

Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., an inveterate baseball metaphor abuser, begins the hearings by announcing that when it comes to Major League Baseball's testing policy, "we're not at first base, we're just out of the batter's box." Later, he apologizes for a "rain delay" and tells a representative who's been waiting a long time to ask questions that he's "the cleanup batter."

In 1998, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa bashed forearms and exchanged bear hugs as they raced to topple Roger Maris' home run record. Now, they sit in chairs three feet apart for more than three hours without acknowledging each other's existence. If we're going to put an asterisk next to all of those home run records, we should probably save one for Big Mac and Slammin' Sammy's friendship.

Sosa's strategy as a witness: Speak softly and deny carrying the stick. The Dominican slugger talks about his hard-luck childhood—"We sold oranges and shined shoes to get by"—before saying that he hasn't taken performance-enhancing drugs: "I have never injected myself or had anyone inject me with anything." For the rest of the hearing, reporters pretzel themselves forward to hear his inaudible whispers.

McGwire loudly and clearly incinerates his hard-won reputation as a lovable lug by weaving, dodging, avoiding, and buck-passing. In his opening statement, McGwire, looking scholarly in his tiny glasses, presents himself as a team guy who doesn't want to turn stoolie—"I do not sit in judgment of other players, whether it deals with their sexual preference, their marital problems, or their personal habits." Since every other non-Canseco ballplayer on the panel denies taking drugs, McGwire's adopting the tone of a member of the Hollywood Ten sounds like an admission of guilt. His circuitous answers don't impress—or convince—his interrogators. On baseball's current testing policy: "I don't know, I'm a retired player." On andro: "I'm not here to talk about the past. I want to talk about the positive, not the negative about this issue." (The crowd giggles.) McGwire on his message to the kids: "My message is that steroids is bad." (He neglects to add "Mmmkay.") On how he knows that steroids are bad: "Pardon me?"

All the while, Jose Canseco sits alone on the far right side of the table. In Juiced, Canseco wrote that "[s]teroids, used correctly, will not only make you stronger and sexier, they will also make you healthier." Today, he congratulates himself for removing the 'roids scourge from the game. "Hopefully, this book I wrote educates people," he announces. He says that his book may seem like it advocates steroids because it took a really long time to write. "I think we have to put it in context," he says, "that may have been my opinion two years ago."

The strangest moment of the day comes when Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski, D-Penn., asks Canseco what he would do if scientists invented a "smart pill" that would make you a genius but take five or ten years off your life. "The Chemist" pauses for five seconds, pondering this hypothetical pharmacological advancement. "You know," he says, "that's a very tough question."