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Stage Is Set for Steroid Hearing

Times Staff Writer

Baseball players, executives and union leaders will sit today before a House committee poised to ask them about steroids, with Congress already panning the new drug policy that Commissioner Bud Selig had claimed would “eradicate” illegal performance-enhancing drugs from the game.

The hearing marks the second time in 13 months that Selig and union chief Don Fehr have been called to Washington to address steroids in baseball -- and comes in the shadow of the BALCO case, Jose Canseco’s tell-all book and Barry Bonds’ chase of Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron.

In the final hours before this morning’s hearing, players arrived in Washington from spring-training sites and their post-career homes, and baseball executives flew in from New York, wary of a committee they say is operating outside its jurisdiction. By Wednesday night, members of Congress had expressed their disapproval for baseball’s program, exasperating the game’s leaders.

“The closer we get to the hearing the more concerned we are about exactly why this process is a legitimate expenditure of government time, and whether this committee has any intention of giving baseball a fair hearing,” said Rob Manfred, an executive vice president of Major League Baseball.

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The House Committee for Government Reform subpoenaed Canseco, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Jason Giambi, Rafael Palmeiro, Frank Thomas and Curt Schilling. Giambi was excused because of potential conflicts with the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative investigation, in which he appeared as a grand jury witness and reportedly admitted steroid use.

All but Thomas and Schilling have been accused by Canseco of taking steroids, some administered by Canseco, an admitted user; they have denied it.

As of Wednesday night, it appeared none of the players would be granted immunity, leaving the possibility some players would read their opening statements and invoke the 5th Amendment, which Canseco’s attorney has threatened. Five players are expected to attend the hearing. Thomas, who is recovering from ankle surgery, will appear via videoconference from Tucson.

They will sit side by side at two tables pushed together, facing committee members. Although the actual arrangement of players had not been settled, according to one committee source, “We’re smart enough not to sit McGwire and Canseco next to each other.”

The committee also subpoenaed several baseball executives, along with 400 pages of documents pertaining to baseball’s drug policies, some dating to 1970. It received a draft of the current agreement Monday, and by Wednesday determined it was “riddled with loopholes,” according to a committee source.

Comparing the policy with the more stringent Olympic standard, the committee found it lacking or contradictory in many areas, including discipline, oversight, testing procedures, public disclosure and the list of banned substances. Wednesday night, Manfred addressed each of the committee’s criticisms, calling them ill-informed or unreasonable or both.

If the committee were dissatisfied at the conclusion of today’s hearing, ranking member Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) said it was “certainly possible” Congress would consider legislation to bring a stronger drug policy to baseball. He added that he did not believe the results of 2004 testing -- Selig said less than 2% of 1,183 players tested positive -- accurately reflected the reach of steroids in the game.

“Given this problem, we’ve got to do something about it,” Waxman said. “The approach of the baseball world has been something like the code of silence. They haven’t acknowledged the problem for many years. In addition, the commissioner said, ‘Don’t worry about it, we fixed it.’ But, their approach seems to me to be wholly inadequate.... As I look at it, it’s not a real program.”

Through the day, the committee and Major League Baseball officials debated the details of the drug policy through statements and telephone calls with reporters.

For example, according to a statement released by the committee, a first-time steroid offender would not be automatically suspended for 10 days without pay, as Selig maintained, but might only be fined $10,000 or less.

Citing only that topic, “I can reach no conclusion but that the league and the players’ union have misrepresented to me and to the American public the substance of MLB’s new steroid policy,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement. “I expect the league and the players’ union to modify the new policy to comply with at least what was announced by MLB in January.”

Manfred said the language had been carried over from the last agreement, but that the intention -- agreed upon by the players’ union -- was immediate suspension for any violation. The lesser penalty, he said, provided only for unusual or unforeseen circumstances in the testing procedures.

Manfred, who negotiated the program with the Players’ Assn., insisted that players who tested positive for steroids would be listed as suspended for violation of the league’s drug policy in baseball’s daily transactions. Although the committee condemned the policy for leaving out four anabolic steroids, Manfred said the list of banned substances was labeled in the agreement as “non-exhaustive,” and further expanded by “anything illegal.” Also, he said, all identified designer steroids, including THG, are on the list of banned substances.

The committee called “extraordinary” a provision that allowed baseball to suspend its program in the event of a “governmental investigation,” as which today’s hearing would qualify.

“By requiring the indefinite suspension of the testing program when government officials, including elected representatives, ask basic questions about drug use in baseball, this provision appears designed to discourage responsible independent oversight,” according to the committee statement.

The provision, according to Manfred, protected the players from illegal search-and-seizure efforts. The government confiscated samples from 2003 testing during the BALCO investigation, and only recently returned them.

“The players agreed they would drug-test to restore the integrity of the game,” Manfred said. “What they would not do is let baseball do what the government cannot do under the 4th Amendment.”

Baseball appears to have let the issue drag just long enough to get Congress’ attention, and so, for now, the hearing appears to be an attempt to humble baseball, heighten public awareness and further the charge against steroids.

In a news briefing Wednesday, President Bush weighed in on the hearing, particularly in the hope that it would dissuade young people from using banned substances.

“I appreciate the fact that baseball is addressing this, and I appreciate the fact that the Congress is paying attention to the issue,” he said.

Canseco, Thomas and Palmeiro released their opening statements Wednesday. Palmeiro’s read, in part, “I don’t think athletes should use steroids, and I don’t think our kids should use them. That point of view is one, unfortunately, that is not shared by our former colleague, Jose Canseco. Mr. Canseco is an unashamed advocate for increased steroid use by all athletes.”

Canseco’s book, “Juiced,” is third on the New York Times bestseller list.

His opening statement will include a plea to the other players: “I am moved by the efforts Congress is taking to address this problem. I am humbled that my book may have played a small part in setting forth this juggernaut. I am hopeful that it will yield a positive result.... To those players who have been thrust into this debate I simply ask them to tell the truth as I have told the truth. To join with me and help resurrect the sport we love from where the owners and union have let it go.”


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