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Baseball Must Step Up to Plate on Steroid Issue

They are high school kids, playing this Saturday morning amid the ping of aluminum bats and the sizzle of a backstop barbecue grill.

Some fans sit next to the dugout in lawn chairs. Others sit behind home plate on a picnic table. There is no loudspeaker, no scorecards, no music other than the shrill cry of an upset dad.

But make no mistake. When the Calabasas High Coyotes take the field, they want to look and act like major leaguers, even the most notorious of them.

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Check out their baseball pants. By a team vote, the hems are uniformly low and baggy, hugging the shoe tops like oversized pajamas.

Yeah, they all look like Barry Bonds.

Their coach sighs.

“The kids want to be like their idols, the big leaguers, and there’s nothing you can do about that,” says Bret Saberhagen.

The former two-time Cy Young Award winner, in his first year as a high school boss, is now pitching out of a different sort of jam.

To be truly like a major leaguer today, it’s about more than the pants, the eye black, the sunflower seeds.

It’s also about the steroids.

High schools everywhere are discovering kids taking honors classes in weight-room chemistry. The competition for more muscle mass rivals the quest for better SAT scores. There have even been a few reports of steroid-laced children committing suicide.

The problem no longer involves only Saberhagen’s former career, but also his current one. And while he says he has yet to see the temptation surface on his team, he knows that every long home run by a kid with big shoulders and bad acne elicits talk.

“I’m probably naive to think I shouldn’t be sitting down with them and discussing it,” Saberhagen says. “I will do that. I have to do that.”

And he wouldn’t mind if his former colleagues gave him a little help.

Those congressional hearings scheduled for Thursday? The ones designed to elicit facts from 11 current and former players and officials? The ones for which baseball has thus far refused to cooperate?

“I think if the government asks you to say something, you probably should,” says Saberhagen. “If you don’t, it looks bad. It looks like you’re hiding something. If they ask a question, it’s time for answers.”

It’s time, indeed.

It was Commissioner Bud Selig’s refusal to acknowledge this problem 15 years ago that has led to this hearing.

If it weren’t for the BALCO investigation, he never would have pushed for a steroid policy. If it weren’t for leaked grand jury testimony, he never would have given that policy teeth.

And now he refuses to show up to explain all this?

His absence would be dereliction of duty not seen in baseball since the 1919 Black Sox scandal.

Selig says he wants a clean game, but his failure to travel to Washington on Thursday would prove that what he really wants is a fat and rich game, buoyed by home runs that bring in big money from television.

“We would have liked to have seen the baseball commissioner do this investigation himself,” says Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee. “But the commissioner doesn’t seem to have that strong of an interest in it.”

It was Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s home-run chase in 1998 that rescued baseball from the depths of a lockout-lost World Series.

But if neither invitee shows up to affirm that these records were set cleanly?

Believe none of what you saw.

Frank Thomas and Rafael Palmeiro are great hitters who make the sort of contact that steroids can’t provide.

But if they take a rain check on their subpoena?

Phonies, both of them.

About the only person who could be excused from the proceedings is nutty Jose Canseco because, really, after his recent book, what more can he say?

“If the baseball commissioner and union doesn’t step up to the plate, then we have to,” says Waxman.

Lawyers for Selig claim the government has no right to poke its turned-up nose into the affairs of a sport?

Oh yeah? In the case of Major League Baseball, the government bought those rights. Purchased them back in 1922, when it gave baseball an antitrust exemption whose scope remains unmatched in American business today.

The biggest effect of the exemption is that, unlike in other sports, baseball teams are prohibited from changing cities without league approval.

The exemption gave baseball special control over its destiny because, at the time, baseball was more than just a business, it was our national fabric.

Today, under Selig’s watch, that fabric has been frayed and stained.

And so, today, the government has every right to ask why.

The exemption “undermines the point that the commissioner’s lawyer makes that Congress has no business in baseball,” says Waxman. “Baseball is not above the law. It is not beyond scrutiny. It has enormous influence on people; it sends an important message to kids.”

By refusing to testify under oath, baseball is sending its clearest steroids message yet.

It’s guilty.

What else can we think? Why else would they not come forth? The only player who has agreed to testify is pitcher Curt Schilling. Looking at his average body, there is also zero chance that he ever used steroids.

Those testifying would not face criminal charges. They would be testifying about things for which there would be no proof.

“The purpose is not to go after the players for any criminality,” Waxman says. “The purpose is to find out information.”

Those testifying would face only becoming an outcast and, really, aren’t they already halfway there?

If McGwire indeed dirtied the game, any admission he made could be the first real step in cleaning it up, and he would be remembered as much for that.

Either way, none of them really have a choice.

“They can’t win this battle anymore,” says Mark Gubicza, a former big-league teammate of Saberhagen who coaches Chaminade High. “They have to do whatever it takes to clean up the game. Now that it’s come to this point, baseball has no choice but to get up there.”

If for no other reason than something heard the other day from Gubicza’s seat in a high-school dugout.

A big kid from an opposing team walked past. Gubicza’s players moaned.

“They said, ‘Man, that kid must be on the juice,’ ” Gubicza recalls. “Hearing that really set me back. Like they think everyone in this sport is doing it illegally. For a minute there, it made me shameful to be part of this profession.”

For only a minute?

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. For previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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