FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Jeff Coffman stood alone outside the gates of the Orioles' spring training complex at 8 a.m., a solitary autograph-seeker on a non-game day just hoping to steal a moment with superstar Miguel Tejada.
Coffman, 24, a nuclear medicine technician from Columbus, Ohio, said without hesitation yesterday that he is a baseball fan. He has been for years. Always will be.
Discussions of steroid use in baseball, including yesterday's hearing before the House Committee on Government Reform in Washington, can't alter Coffman's feelings about his favorite sport.
"As long as [players] come out honestly, I am going to go out and support them," he said. "There is nothing they can do to stop me from being a fan. I just want to know the facts."
Coffman said he hopes baseball and the federal government grant immunity to all major league players, so fans can get a true understanding of steroids' impact on the sport.
"If you took steroids in the past, great, but just let us know now," Coffman said.
Orioles Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa testified before the committee yesterday and vehemently denied allegations of steroid use made by former All-Star Jose Canseco in his book Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, And How Baseball Got Big.
Former superstar Mark McGwire, however, refused to answer questions about whether he had taken steroids. In his book, Canseco asserts that he injected McGwire with steroids during their years as teammates with the Oakland Athletics.
McGwire would neither confirm nor deny the allegation, and his fans aren't convinced that his power was, in fact, chemically enhanced.
"It is debatable," said Richard Mills of St. Louis, who was wearing a McGwire jersey at yesterday's Cardinals exhibition game against the Orioles in Jupiter, Fla. "There is no proof that he did."
"Some players probably did, and McGwire might have. I don't really know," said Roy Vandeven, a Cardinals fan who attended the game with his wife. "I know that I saw McGwire hit a 511-foot home run once. If he was using steroids, it might have added 50 feet, but they didn't [help] that ball going out of the park.
"The whole thing seems a little overblown to me."
But the legacies of McGwire and other sluggers may be at stake.
A recent ABC-ESPN poll of 1,019 adults found that two-thirds of those surveyed believe athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs should not be eligible for the Hall of Fame.
Sixty-five percent said that records set by steroid users should not be recognized, and nearly two-thirds said Major League Baseball has not done enough to prevent use of the drugs.
"The only reason you're hearing about it is because baseball was the only sport that didn't test," said Linda Cook of Glen Burnie, who attended the Orioles-Cardinals game. "They're testing for it now. They should be able to clean it up from this point on. What happened five years ago they can't prove anyway."
Rep. Tom Davis, the Virginia Republican who chairs the House committee, said the hearings were intended to learn more about the issue and how to prevent young athletes from experimenting with steroids, rather than outing users.
"If the purpose of the hearings is really to inform young people of the dangers of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, [the hearings] could turn out to be a good thing," said Steve Warmack, 19, a left-handed pitcher for Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo., who attended the Orioles game.
"I know several guys who use steroids because they think it will help them skip a level in development," Warmack said. "They never consider that it could send them backward two levels."
Thirty percent of the poll respondents said the government should enforce steroid rules for baseball.
But others were not so concerned.
"With everything he has the power to investigate in what's wrong with certain aspects of this country, how on Earth did [Davis] choose the subject of steroid use in baseball?" asked Jeff Myles, a former Orioles season ticket-holder from who took daughter Kate, 12, to the Chicago Cubs-Oakland A's game in Phoenix yesterday. "It's ridiculous,"
Baseball's players were not hanging on every word.
"We're just like everybody else. When we get home and see something [on TV], we'll pay attention to it," said Oakland third baseman Eric Chavez. "It's not that big a deal."
Told that the players were all sitting at the same table for the hearing, Chavez changed his mind. "Now I'm interested," he said, laughing.
Sun staff writers Roch Kubatko and Don Markus contributed to this article, with Craig Barnes of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Mark Wogenrich of The (Allentown, Pa.) Morning Call, Tribune Publishing newspapers.
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