- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 19, 2005

Rafael Palmeiro didn’t want to come to Washington on Thursday to testify before the House Committee on Government Reform. Neither did Sammy Sosa.

But both should be glad they received the opportunity. It gave them a chance to declare under oath they have not used steroids. It might not end the steroid speculation about either player, but it should.

Palmeiro never should have been there in the first place. In the past, there had been sporadic talk about Palmeiro and steroids. But the circumstantial evidence wasn’t supported by Palmeiro’s normal athletic body, his durable playing record and his generally low-key personality, all of which have been consistent for most of his career.

When members of the 500-home run club gathered last year in Houston before the All-Star Game, none questioned whether Palmeiro belonged. They just raved about his sweet swing.

The same wasn’t the case with Sosa. His home run totals from 1998 to 2001 — 66, 63, 50 (in 106 games) and 64, respectively — certainly fell within the realm of steroid speculation, right there with Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds. There was more credibility to the Sosa accusations.

But Thursday, Sosa called everyone’s bluff. He swore under oath that “I have never taken illegal performance enhancing drugs. I have never injected myself or had anyone inject me with anything. I have not broken the laws of the United States or the laws of the Dominican Republic.”

It’s possible to dissect each word of Sosa’s statement — as well as the care Sosa’s lawyers put into it —and perhaps speculate between the lines. When it comes to this issue of steroids in baseball, I have been in favor of speculation because it has driven the call for stricter testing by embarrassing the innocent, who are painted with the same brush as the guilty.

But when someone testifies under oath, everything changes. Speculation isn’t fair game anymore. Proof is needed.

Hopefully, for his sake, Sosa knows the difference between using a corked bat and testifying under oath before Congress.

The hearing also served to expose the near-certain guilt of at least one former slugger. After McGwire refused to answer questions about his possible steroid use, no reasonable person can believe he did not use them. It was embarrassing to listen to him try to squirm out of it, claiming “if a player answers no, he simply will not be believed. If he answers yes, he risks public scorn and endless government investigations.”

As far as his first claim, it is just the opposite. If a player answers no under oath, it diffuses much of the speculation he suffered from before. If a player answers yes, that means he broke the law and also committed a fraud on the American public. He should suffer public scorn and endure government investigations.

Speaking of government investigations, baseball should take the threats of committee members seriously. They demanded a stricter testing policy than the one Major League Baseball and the players association agreed to in principle in January or else risk Congress doing it for them.

This is not the typical baseball-Congress battle, which often involves the sport’s antitrust exemption. This fight is unusual on several levels. It appears MLB and the players union are on the same side, and it also appears the congressional pressure is bipartisan. Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays said the steroid issue “has done more to unite Democrats and Republicans in Congress because of the arrogance of Major League Baseball.”

When baseball has been forced to defend itself against calls to repeal its antitrust exemption, it has produced a remarkable defense by convincing members of Congress that if baseball loses its exemption, the minor league baseball system will collapse. Nearly every member of Congress has a minor league team in his or her district, and enough have bought into this notion to protect baseball’s cherished protections.

Unless baseball can convince elected officials they have a stake in protecting a weak steroid testing policy, their built-in lobby won’t be there this time.

“We’re in the first inning of what could be an extra inning ball game,” said committee chairman Tom Davis, Virginia Republican, who hit a home run with Thursday’s hearing.

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