Sammy Sosa

Sammy Sosa is sworn in along with his agent, Jim Sharp (left), and interpreter, Patricia Rosell (right), in the Rayburn House Office Building. (Sun photo by David Hobby / March 17, 2005)

WASHINGTON - Some of baseball's brightest stars uneasily testified yesterday about steroid use, but a House committee saved its fire for baseball executives, going so far as to question whether their sport still deserved its treasured exemption from antitrust laws.

In an all-day hearing, the Committee on Government Reform had two targets: the celebrity ballplayers - including two Orioles and a defiant Mark McGwire - and the sport's governing officials. Mostly, it threw softballs at the players while pelting commissioner Bud Selig and his aides with inside heat.

"I have not been reassured one bit by the testimony I've heard today," said committee member Stephen F. Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat. "There are so many loopholes in this [steroid testing], it is just unbelievable. I think Congress has to act."

It was the handful of current and former ballplayers who created the oddest spectacle. Wearing dark suits and ties instead of uniforms, they were sworn in and asked to sit at the same witness table with retired slugger Jose Canseco, who has accused several of them of steroid use.

Most of the players seemed uneasy. Asked whether he supports a tougher steroid testing policy, McGwire drew a laugh when he replied: "Whatever anybody can do to improve it so there are no more meetings like this, I'm all for it."

Earlier, McGwire, his voice quivering with emotion, said he was unable to answer questions about whether he used steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs.

"My lawyers have advised me that I cannot answer these questions without jeopardizing my friends, my family or myself," said McGwire, who had a record-setting home run duel with current Oriole and fellow witness Sammy Sosa in 1998. "If a player answers no, he simply will not be believed. If he answers yes, he risks public scorn and endless government investigations."

McGwire's repeated refusal to address questions about past behavior - as well as the curt answers of other current and former players - frustrated some committee members. The committee had convened the all-day hearing after saying it wanted to uncover the truth about steroid rumors and allegations in the sport, and send a warning about the drugs to youths.

"McGwire's testimony was a euphemism for saying, 'I'm not about to come clean,'" Rep. Mark E. Souder, an Indiana Republican, said in an interview. "As a baseball fan, I think he should have double or triple asterisks beside his records."

Canseco sat next to the men who - in the case of McGwire and Oriole Rafael Palmeiro - he had accused of steroid use in his book. Canseco wrote that he also suspected Sosa, a former Chicago Cub traded to the Orioles this year, but had no proof.

In his remarks, Palmeiro got right to the point. "I have never used steroids. Period. I don't know how to say it any more clearly than that."

Palmeiro, who said his family fled communist Cuba and embraced "the American Dream," offered to be an advocate in educating young people about steroid risks.

Sosa told the panel: "I have never taken performance-enhancing drugs. I have never injected myself or had anyone inject me with anything."

Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, a California Democrat, said she detected a "see-no-evil" attitude among the players. "I'm extremely disappointed in the testimony today. I'm not asking you to name names," she said.

But the committee generally didn't push McGwire or other players to respond. After a pointed question from a panelist about how McGwire might have known the "direct effect" of steroids, committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III cut off the question. Davis, a Virginia Republican, said House rules protected witnesses from inquiries that would "defame, degrade or incriminate."

While the committee approved no formal rule, there was informal agreement among most members "that if there was a clear sense someone would not answer a question, we would not go after them," said a committee staff member on the condition of anonymity.

Illinois Democrat Danny K. Davis said, "I think different individuals decided this was not a criminal investigation and it was not about embarrassing individual players."

Baseball executives received no such cushion.

Baseball was repeatedly accused by the committee of "inaction" on steroids and misleading the public about the toughness of its drug testing policy. While Selig assured the panel of "tremendous progress" on steroids, many on the panel disagreed.