WASHINGTON - The line started to form at 6 a.m. outside the hearing room at the Rayburn Office Building, reaffirming the drawing power of Major League Baseball, even in one of its darkest hours.

There were fans and Capitol Hill interns and visiting students, all hoping to get a glimpse of the five current and former major league players who were scheduled to testify in front of a congressional committee on the scope of the sport's steroid problem.

The high drama of Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco brought together to answer questions about baseball's dirtiest secret was too much to resist for John Wertman of Alexandria, Va., who showed up in a green Boston Red Sox cap and claimed to be a longtime Canseco fan.

"They'll probably put [Curt] Schilling between Canseco and the purported users," Wertman said. "I'd like to see McGwire and Canseco go at it across the table."

It didn't come to that, but the tension at the table - at which Schilling and the Orioles' Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa were also seated - was palpable. What else would you expect in the wake of Canseco's tell-all biography, in which he alleged that he had injected McGwire with steroids while the two were teammates on the Oakland Athletics in the early 1990s?

Schilling of the Boston Red Sox abandoned any pretense of civility regarding Canseco and his book that prompted this hearing.

"I think he's a liar," Schilling said.

In the course of an 11-hour proceeding that began at 10 a.m., Schilling's was far from the only testy remark.

More than 100 people had lined up for a chance to see the hearing, though only nine at a time were allowed to enter. What they and the media horde saw was Democrats and Republicans united in their demands for answers about baseball's steroid culture.

However, as the hearing wore on, it became clear that many of the committee members seemed as interested in making speeches as in asking questions.

Rep. Diane E. Watson, a California Democrat, held up a copy of an old Sports Illustrated featuring then-bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger with the headline "Hot Stuff." During her questions, she held up the magazine and said, "Our kids are inspired by this."

Inside the hearing room, a poster on one wall titled "Know your opposition" listed negative side effects of steroids - an unusual piece of signage in such a setting.

"I increasingly feel a theater of the absurd unfolding here," Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, said to no one in particular.

Though some of the testimony and questioning would elicit frustration, the morning session produced the high drama of parents lamenting what they view as the steroid-driven suicides of their two sons. Both boys, one from California, one from Texas, were baseball players who had been encouraged to bulk up.

Later on, the ballplayers took their place before the committee.

Canseco and the other players never spoke directly to each other. Canseco was kept in a separate waiting room; at the hearing table, he was separated from the others by Sosa's lawyer.

McGwire retired as one of the great heroes of the game after joining Sosa in the most exciting home run chase in history in 1998, while Canseco went from near-certain Hall of Famer to broken-down steroid suspect to baseball pariah with the publication of his bestseller.

Funny, they didn't look very different yesterday. Both have shrunken physically since they retired from the game, and McGwire seemed to shrink even more as committee members peppered him with questions about his possible involvement with illegal steroids.

Say it ain't so, Mark.