Putting the integrity of the national pastime under a harsh spotlight, a House committee questioned a panel of superstars Thursday about steroids in baseball, eliciting sharp denials from several -- and in the case of retired home run legend Mark McGwire, an emotion-choked acknowledgment of baseball's doping problems followed by repeated refusal to answer questions about his own possible involvement.
McGwire appeared on a lustrous panel that included his former Oakland Athletic teammate Jose Canseco, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Curt Schilling and, by video hookup, Frank Thomas -- all of them potential Hall of Famers who were subpoenaed by the Committee on Government Reform.
Canseco, whose recent tell-all book provided some impetus for the hearing, acknowledged his earlier use of steroids, while Sosa, Palmeiro and Thomas all pointedly denied ever having used them.
That focused attention on McGwire, who hit a then-record 70 home runs in 1998 after engaging in a season-long display of mano a mano slugging prowess with Sosa -- a friendly duel that many credited with restoring the nation's love affair with baseball four years after a labor dispute canceled the World Series.
"I'm not here to discuss the past," McGwire said repeatedly when representatives asked about his own possible use of banned substances, as Canseco had alleged in his book, "Juiced." It was the first time he had been asked under oath about steroids, or about his admitted use of the now-banned supplement androstenedione, a steroid "precursor."
His refusal to provide clear responses drew a sharp rejoinder from Rep. Mark E. Souder (R-Ind.), who said: "As far as this being about the past, that's what we do. This is an oversight committee. If the Enron people come in here and say, 'Well, we won't want to talk about the past,' do you think Congress is going to let them get away with that?"
In unsworn comments, McGwire has denied using steroids.
The players' appearance marked a dramatic high point to a long, sometimes digressive, often tense day that began with the testimony of a U.S. senator who also is a Hall of Fame pitcher, and concluded more than 11 hours later with a scolding of baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, players union chief Donald Fehr and other officials.
In calling the hearing, the committee had "decided it was time to break the code of silence that has enveloped the game," said Chairman Thomas M. Davis (R-Va.), citing statistics from the Centers for Disease Control that "more than 500,000 high school students have tried steroids, nearly triple the number just 10 years ago."
Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, the panel's top Democrat, raised the possibility of federal legislation that would impose penalties for use of performance-enhancing drugs for all sports at all levels -- from high school to the pros.
"If we are going to do something for our nation's kids, it seems we are long past the point where we can rely on Major League Baseball to fix the problem," Waxman told the packed hearing room.
Much of the questioning and testimony focused on baseball's steroid testing program, first implemented for the 2003 season, then strengthened in January amid mounting public and political pressure.
The tougher rules came about after the Major League Baseball Players Assn. agreed to reopen its collective bargaining agreement with owners two years before it was set to expire. Though the new policy added penalties for first-time violators and random, year-round tests, it is far weaker than the one used at the Olympics, and was attacked from many quarters on Thursday.
Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), the hearing's first witness, called it "pretty puny."
Lawmakers complained about a loophole that they said would allow a player to pay a fine of up to $10,000 in lieu of being suspended for a first violation. But baseball officials pledged that players would be suspended -- and publicly named -- the first time they test positive, with penalties increasing on subsequent violations. A fourth positive test carries a one-year suspension, and thereafter the commissioner would determine discipline, including a possible lifetime ban.
Souder called baseball's anti-steroid policy "so full of holes that if it was cheese, it would definitely be Swiss."
A number of lawmakers said baseball and others sports should adopt the Olympic rule -- a two-year suspension for the first violation and a lifetime ban for the second.
"Baseball will not rest and will continue to be vigilant on the issue of performance-enhancing substances as we move to my stated goal of zero tolerance," Selig said.
Near the end of the lengthy testimony, only 11 committee seats were occupied, the gallery, once standing-room only, was less than half-full and darkness filled the gaps between the shades behind Davis.
Yet committee members continued to assail baseball's leaders -- Selig and executive vice president Rob Manfred, in particular -- for what they viewed as a weak drug policy and years of neglecting the steroid issue.
Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.) counseled Selig to be firmer in his dealings with the players association. He also called for Congress to legislate change, a familiar theme in a hearing where several members cited the need for a single policy for all American sports, amateur and professional.
"I think Congress has to act," Lynch said. "I think the time for waiting is long past."
Waxman, among the most agitated members, appeared to call for Selig's job.
After summarizing the problems he had with baseball and its program, he told Selig, "I think you've let the game down," and added, "Maybe it's time for new leadership for baseball."
Selig responded courteously, noting that none of baseball's previous commissioners had instituted a drug program as stringent as his, and asked again that Congress give this one a chance to work.
"Only time will tell," Selig said of the policy. "You may be right."
In the afternoon, there was a discernible collision of cultures: muscular ballplayers in tailored suits fielding questions from politicians, some of whom reminisced about childhood baseball memories or, in one case, posited a fanciful allegory on the possible impact of "smart pills," were someone to invent them.
Some of the players showed their disdain for Canseco.
Schilling, an outspoken critic of drug abuse, called Canseco a liar and assailed his book for "glorifying steroid usage." The Boston Red Sox pitching star called it "an attempt to make money at the expense of others."
McGwire and Canseco, whose home run exploits for Oakland in the 1980s earned them the nickname the "Bash Brothers," never exchanged words or glances. They were separated by Sosa and Sosa's lawyer and interpreter. McGwire, referring to Canseco's book, said: "It should be enough that you consider the source of the statements in the book, and that many inconsistencies and contradictions have already been raised."
The players disagreed over the extent of steroid use. Sosa and Palmeiro, both of the Baltimore Orioles, denied ever using performance-enhancing drugs. "I am clean," Sosa said.
Canseco responded: "From what I'm hearing I was the only individual in Major League Baseball to use steroids. That's hard to believe."
When McGwire was asked whether steroid use should be considered cheating, he said, "That's not for me to determine."
Some of the players had earlier threatened to defy a subpoena, but they all agreed to show up rather than risk possible prosecution for contempt of Congress. While they disagreed over the extent of steroid use in the game, each one acknowledged the grief and loss suffered by earlier witnesses -- the parents of two young athletes who committed suicide after taking steroids.
"Players that are guilty of taking steroids are not only cheaters; you are cowards," said Donald Hooton of Plano, Texas, whose son, Taylor, hanged himself.
Denise Garibaldi of Petaluma, whose 24-year-old son Rob died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2002 after steroid use, told the committee that there was "no doubt in our minds that steroids killed our son. How many more youngsters will die questing ego and fame through steroids?"
Just what Congress can -- or will -- do is unclear.
"There are a lot of things we can do to get their attention -- by amending the labor laws, repealing the outdated antitrust exemption that baseball alone enjoys, and shining the spotlight of public scrutiny," Bunning said, urging that records set by players while on steroids should be wiped out.
The exemption, granted in 1922, allows baseball to operate more freely than other sports in certain areas of its business operations.
Baseball is like any private business entity in that the federal government cannot step in and dictate a drug-testing policy, said Andy Abrams, professor of legal studies at the College of Charleston. Congress could regulate the professional sports industry as a whole, drawing in all sports, but that would be a lengthy, difficult process, he said.
"Baseball has been a sacred cow. Congress has to use the threat of [revoking] the antitrust exemption," Abrams said.
Davis said the hearing is just the beginning of his panel's investigation, though he did not say what would be next.
Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) suggested that the committee call on Gov. Arnold Schwarznegger, who has acknowledged using steroids years ago, to testify. Asked if he would appear before the panel if asked, Schwarzenegger spokesman Margita Thompson said the governor's office "won't speculate on an invitation we haven't received."
Davis announced the creation of "Zero Tolerance," a group co-chaired by Schilling and Thomas that will campaign against steroid use and make recommendations to Congress.
The spectacle of legendary ballplayers raising their right hand before Congress to discuss illegal doping demonstrated that the game had entered a realm unfamiliar to Bunning, who won 224 games in a 17-year Hall of Fame career that began in 1955.
"Mr. Chairman maybe I'm [old-fashioned]. I remember players didn't get any better as they got older. We all got worse," he said. "When I played with Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and Ted Williams, they didn't put on 40 pounds and bulk up in their careers, and they didn't hit more home runs in their late 30s as they did in their late 20s. What's happening in baseball now is not natural, and it isn't right."
Times staff writers David Wharton and Peter Nicholas contributed to this report.