US Congress as baseball's cleanup hitter

When the major leagues recently proclaimed that baseball was coming back to Washington, this is hardly what they had in mind.

The arrival of the Washington Nationals this spring was meant to herald the return of the national pastime to the nation's capital. In truth, it never left. Thursday's congressional hearing on baseball and steroids is merely the latest example of Congress's unique and historic connection to America's most storied sport.

Ever since 1922, when the Supreme Court exempted baseball from United States antitrust laws, Congress has felt a peculiar stewardship for the game - from expansion issues in the 1950s to labor laws in the 1990s. Combining the star power of some of baseball's most popular sluggers with theater of congressional klieg lights, Thursday's hearing has drawn the biggest crowd some here can recall - prompting the creation of three overflow galleries for the press and public.

To some, it's pure political grandstanding, as lawmakers latch on to one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement to create a little Hollywood flash. To others, it's a long overdue effort to clean up a besmirched game. To all, though, it's no surprise Congress has targeted baseball.

"Baseball is a sport that has a special status under laws passed by Congress because it's our national pastime," says Henry Waxman (D) of California. "We ought to review what's happening if [steroid laws aren't] being enforced in baseball."

The point of the hearings, say he and others, is to look into the culture of performance-enhancing drugs and to stamp it out. Rumors of widespread steroid use in Major League Baseball date back to the 1990s, shadowing the race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to break the single-season home run record in 1998. In 2003, federal investigators busted the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO), charging that it produced steroids for professional athletes, including baseball players.

Now, former Oakland Athletic Jose Canseco has made sensational allegations in a tell-all book, claiming that some of baseball's most popular players - including McGwire - took steroids. With concerns about steroid use among younger and younger athletes - even among middle schoolers - some members of Congress believe this is the time to take up the issue. It summoned both McGwire and Sosa, as well as Canseco.

"This is not about Congress checking personal behavior," says Rep. Tom Davis (R) of Virginia, who is conducting the hearing. In an era when steroids have directly affected many young athletes and their families, "It's about people seeing baseball players as role models for their kids."

Some 50 years ago, it was about people seeing baseball at all. Concerned that Major League Baseball was still hemmed into the northeast corner of the country - no farther west than St. Louis and no farther south than Washington - Congress conducted hearings about baseball expansion. The tone of those hearings was significantly brighter than what is expected Thursday.

New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel, known for speaking nonsense, testified: "I'm in the baseball business, it's been run cleaner than any baseball business that was ever put out in the hundred years at the present time."

To peals of laughter, Mickey Mantle followed his manager by saying: "My views are just about the same as Casey's."

Despite the collegial atmosphere, the hearing had the desired effect. Soon after, the Giants and Dodgers moved to the West Coast, and by 1962, both the American and National Leagues had expanded. Thursday's hearings - even without taking any action - could spur baseball to make similar changes to its steroid policy.

"When Congress thinks something is important, that makes it important," says John Odell of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., who also worked in the Senate. "The fact that they think this is important is really telling."

Indeed, most of the sports legislation Congress considers every year never passes. But big hearings and proposed legislation often have an impact on professional sports, if only because leagues make changes to avoid the enactment of legislation. Laws proposed in the 108th Congress included regulation of professional boxing, solicitation of student athletes by sports agents, and waiving restrictions on Cubans entering the US on visas to play baseball. None became law.

The rapid growth of professional sports since the 1960s drew Congress into issues ranging from labor relations, broadcasting, taxation, and most recently drug abuse.

"Baseball [has] an exemption from antitrust laws that makes it unique in all the sports," says Senate historian Don Ritchie. "It's the business side of baseball that Congress tends to get involved in."

This history notwithstanding, the current hearings strike some as a path of political expedience. Democrats and Republicans have had little success in agreeing on what should and should not be investigated. Outrage at steroid use crosses party lines, and putting hard questions to premier athletes brings big crowds.

"It's playing to a real issue, but not one that Congress is going to legislate about," says Henry Aaron, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution here. "I just can't escape the sense that this is just grandstanding."

Moreover, those big crowds can backfire. Says Rep. Tom Osborne (R) of Nebraska, who spent 25 years as head football coach at the University of Nebraska: "This hearing could be helpful or it could turn into a media circus that's not helpful to anyone."

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