WASHINGTON – They stood next to each other as though brothers in combat, and in a way, Bud Selig and Don Fehr, enemies otherwise, were. Each raised his right hand and swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth before easing into the seats in front of a 15-person firing squad.
The memories of this place were bad enough. Inside Room 2154 of the Rayburn House Office Building, nearly three years ago now, a group of congressmen gutted Major League Baseball for more than 11 hours about its failure to stop performance-enhancing drugs from metastasizing throughout the sport. Here they were again Tuesday, Selig and Fehr, the commissioner and the leader of the players' union, in front of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, 50-foot-high walls dwarfing them, bottles of water within arm's length for when they started to sweat.
And then something curious happened.
"Thank you," said Rep. Henry Waxman, the committee chairman.
"Commissioner Selig," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, "I want to join the chairman in thanking you."
"You have a terrible burden, Mr. Fehr," said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton.
On and on the niceties went, almost contagious, as though Selig and Fehr had found Osama bin Laden instead of making limited progress in the quest to rid the game of performance-enhancing drugs. Congress, save for a few exceptions, turned Charmin even though baseball's biggest morph since the first hearing was from combative to conciliatory.
Problems continue to bewilder the sport. There are questions out the yin-yang of the three-lettered-acronym variety – HGH, IPA and TUE, which we'll get to – yet by the end of the four-hour session, they really didn't resonate.
Because MLB, the most important three-letter jumble of all, had skidded away safely.
Well, most of baseball. The digits most important to Miguel Tejada no longer are his home runs but his potential inmate number. The government, as it has shown with Barry Bonds, does not like alleged liars – Mr. Clemens, paging Mr. Clemens – and proved it once again by asking the Department of Justice to launch an investigation into whether Tejada had lied when interviewed about Rafael Palmeiro's steroid use.
About the last name anyone wants to see on caller ID is Michael Mukasey, the attorney general and the man to whom Waxman and ranking member Tom Davis sent the letter outlining Tejada's misdeeds.
The juiciest part of the Aug. 26, 2005, interview – not taken under oath but with the knowledge that there's no such thing as little white lies when dealing with the government – came when a member of the committee staff asked Tejada, consecutively, whether he ever had taken a steroid, an illegal performance-enhancing drug, or androstenedione or another steroid precursor.
"No," Tejada answered thrice.
Turns out, according to the report by former Sen. George Mitchell – the impetus behind these hearings – Tejada had imbibed in steroids and human growth hormone. Baltimore owner Peter Angelos, who signed Tejada to a six-year, $72 million free agent contract in 2004, said he did not know of Tejada's alleged drug use. But it should be noted that the Orioles did trade Tejada on Dec. 12, one day before the Mitchell Report was released to the public – and one day after Selig, an Angelos ally, received it for review.
Such conspiracy theories weren't peddled by the panel, which went the question-by-rote route. HGH, the drug that befuddles the best anti-doping doctors, was a big favorite.
"I'm frustrated by HGH," Selig said. "So if there comes a test that's available, I think we'd have to have very meaningful, expeditious discussions. I think we'd adopt it fast, adopt it as soon as it's available."
Fehr wasn't so quick to adopt that sentiment, which drew the temporary ire of Rep. Stephen Lynch.
"Test for it now," Lynch said. "Get the blood sample."
He was under the impression there was a viable blood test now. There is not. Lynch's faux pas was not the best of the day, either. Those go to Rep. Christopher Shay, who breathed fire about "the Black Hawks scandal," called Palmeiro "Mr. Palmieri" and couldn't bother to pronounce Selig's name correctly, addressing him as "Mr. Sell-ig."
Once the HGH brimstone cooled, Norton brought up the day's other contentious issue, the idea of handing over the drug-testing program to an independent authority. It is a slippery area, as baseball employs Dr. Bryan Smith, a respected figure throughout the anti-doping industry, as its independent program administrator (IPA). And though Selig generally relented on most issues, he considered turning over the program to the World or United States Anti-Doping Agencies a step too far.
On this, he and Fehr were teammates. Over the last two years, Fehr argued, baseball has run 6,500 tests and come back with five positives. Why, then, go with an outside administrator?
Well, perhaps because of TUEs, as therapeutic-use exemptions are known. They allow a player to take a certain drug because of a medical condition diagnosed by a doctor and confirmed by Smith. Rep. John Tierney outlined numbers that spoke to the abuse of the program.
In 2006, 28 players received TUEs for attention deficit disorder, allowing them to take Ritalin, Adderall and other stimulants banned under baseball's amphetamine-testing program. This season, 103 players were granted a TUE for the same diagnosis, meaning either 75 players suddenly were afflicted with ADD or they found a loophole to abuse.
It's typical, of course, as baseball players have proved that when it comes to pharmacology, they don't do anything halfway. Davis called baseball's recent years a "drug-induced nightmare," and he's not exactly wrong.
"This scandal happened under your watch," Cummings said, the strongest words directed at Selig and Fehr. "I want that to sink in. It did."
A few others didn't bite their tongues. Rep. Betty McCollum accused baseball of fraud, saying: "It's my opinion we're here in the middle of a criminal conspiracy." Rep. Mark Souder wants baseball to levy extra tests on players whose statistics improve significantly. Waxman suggested that the BALCO fiasco might have been averted had San Francisco Giants brass reported to Selig everything they knew about Barry Bonds' steroid-pushing trainer, Greg Anderson. And Davis grilled Mitchell about why he did not forewarn the players named in the report about the accusations against them, the most interesting part of the session with the senator, who looked so fidgety because he was late to catch a train.
Baseball had its pet causes too, with Selig finally apologizing for letting this happen to the game and Fehr batting away any questions that might make him look bad by referring to his job as a labor lawyer. When he tried to do so with Norton, she reminded him, kindly, that she had taught labor law at Georgetown.
"Blew that one," said Shays, ever eager to needle Fehr and Selig.
Actually, in terms of asking pointed questions, Congress did the biggest bungling. Praise rained and reigned, perhaps more a symptom of low expectations that MLB could fix the problem than anything else.
"In 2005," Waxman said, "I had my doubts."
And those may return soon enough. Clemens is due in the same building Feb. 13, ready to step into Room 2154 and face a firing squad that, in this instance, saved its bullets.