Today in Baseball History: McGwire, Sosa, and Palmeiro testify before Congress

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Anyone who read “Ball Four” knows that performance enhancing drugs, particularly amphetamines, were being used by star players for almost as long as the game had existed. There is anecdotal evidence that players were experimenting was steroids in the 1970s and, possibly, earlier. Baseball officially knew by 1994 that two of its biggest stars — Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco — had been caught up in a federal investigation related to steroids called “Operation Equine.” In 1998, a reporter wrote about seeing a vial of Androstenedione in Mark McGwire’s locker. All of this, however, was either buried or completely ignored. In the case of the stuff in McGwire’s locker, the reporter caught all kinds of hell. McGwire skated.

It was not until the summer of 2002 that baseball began to at least attempt to take PEDs seriously, that was only because, within days of each other, Ken Caminiti admitted in an interview that he was loaded up on PEDs when he played and Jose Canseco announced that he was going to write a tell-all book about steroids in baseball. I know, shocking: baseball reacting to bad press as opposed to being proactive about something.

Two months after Caminiti and Canseco went public Major League Baseball and the union agreed to some rudimentary drug testing. It was pretty toothless and not much would come of it for a couple of years. In the background, however, federal investigators began to look into the BALCO laboratory which supplied PEDs to athletes. In the fall of 2004, bombshell reports linking Barry Bonds and his trainer to BALCO came out and federal prosecutors began prepping a big case. In February of 2005 Canseco’s book — “Juiced,” which did as promised and told all about PEDs — was published.

A cultural tipping point had been reached. And, as so often happens when a cultural tipping point is reached, Congress waded in.

On March 17, 2005 the House Committee on Government Reform put ten baseball players and executives under oath in an 11-hour hearing in an effort to pressure baseball to toughen its policy against steroids. Most notable among the witnesses: Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Rafael Palmeiro. By the end of the day McGwire and Sosa’s reign as baseball heroes would be over. Palmeiro had likewise signed the death warrant for his legacy, though it would not become apparent for several months.

McGwire knew he was screwed before the hearing even began, saying in his opening statement that, “my lawyers have advised me that I cannot answer these questions without jeopardizing my friends, my family, or myself.” He was choking up and appeared close to tears. The most dramatic moment was yet to come, however, when he refused a request by Congressman Elijah Cummings to give a clear answer about whether he had used steroids:

Cummings: “Are you taking the Fifth?”

McGwire: “I’m not here to discuss the past. I’m here to be positive about this subject.”

While, a couple of years later, McGwire would come clean in an interview with Bob Costas, admitting his PED use and expressing regret for it that evasive and, frankly, transparent testimony has dogged McGwire for the past 15 years and will continue to do for the rest of his life.

Sosa’s testimony that day was a different matter. He said the following things, in Spanish, speaking through an interpreter:

  • “To be clear, I have never taken illegal performance-enhancing drugs.”
  • “I have not broken the laws of the United States or the laws of the Dominican Republic.” and
  • “I have been tested as recently as 2004, and I am clean.”

A lot of people got on Sosa’s case for not speaking English, which he had often done in interviews in the past, but that always seemed silly to me. He was under oath, in a high-profile matter, and there were several dozen lawyers in the room who knew that the most they could do anyone there, legally, was to charge them for perjury if they lied. If you were in that situation you would be wise to choose your words very carefully and speaking under oath in your non-native language is a good way to unintentionally misspeak.

And to be clear, Sosa had to speak very carefully, because if you look closely at the things he said, he was walking an extraordinarily fine line to keep from either (a) lying; or (b) admitting to PED use.

Look closely: all of those statements allow for the possibility that Sosa used substances that were legal in the Dominican Republic that would have been illegal to use in the United States, such as steroids or other PEDs. As I have in the past, I tip my cap to Sosa’s lawyer for getting his client through all of that without hanging himself, legally or otherwise. In the end it didn’t save Sosa’s legacy — he has continued to be associated with PEDs and is something of a pariah in baseball — but it kept the heat off of him in more immediate and important ways.

The guy who, long-term, wore the most egg on his face would be Palmeiro. Oh, man, Raffy.

Palmeiro was called to testify, many felt, as the good guy. As a slugger who was closing in on the rare 500-home run and 3,000-hit plateau but who did so with what at least seemed like a relatively normal build under the era’s baggy uniforms (in reality, the guy was way bigger and buff than stars from past eras). He certainly didn’t get a ton of attention before or immediately after his testimony. Palmerio was barely mentioned in basically all of the coverage immediately following the hearing. When he was mentioned he was almost lauded for his straightforward comments rather than being evasive like McGwire or a bit too cute like Sosa.

Here’s what he said: “I have never used steroids. Period.” But it was what he did as he said it that was more notable:

Six weeks after that finger wag Palmeiro received a call from the Players Association telling him that he had tested positive for the steroid stanozolol. Due to appeals, his positive test would not be known for a few months. Just after the All-Star break he collected his 3,000th hit. On August 1 Bud Selig announced his 10-day suspension for a positive PED test and that finger wag would be played over and over again on every channel up and down the dial. Palmeiro would slink back to the game after his suspension and play in seven more games before the Orioles told him to just go home. His career was over. His reputation was ruined more thoroughly than everyone else’s involved because, in addition to the cheating, he had shown hubris.

There were others on hand that day. Curt Schilling, for one. He had been extremely vocal about his opposition to PED use in the weeks and months prior to his testimony, but curiously downplayed it all before Congress, suggesting that PED use in baseball was not as widespread as he had claimed it was when he was not under oath. His talk outside of Congress would prove to be far more accurate than what he said in Washington that day and, generally, his stance has been vindicated by history. Most people believe that he backpedaled before Congress, however, due to the pressure of sitting right next to his peers in the game.

Jose Canseco was there too. He said he couldn’t answer some questions unless he was given immunity from prosecution. He was on probation in Florida on an unrelated offense and if he admitted to taking steroids — which is a crime — in front of Congress, someone might move to revoke it. Why, in light of that, he felt cool to write a whole book about it is beyond me, but his lawyers ended up navigating him through all of that well enough. Of all of the problems Canseco has had in his time in the public eye, his relationship to baseball’s massive, decades-long drug scandal has, actually, been the least of them.

Jason Giambi was called, but didn’t appear, as he was working with BALCO prosecutors at the time. Frank Thomas testified via video from spring training in Arizona. Bud Selig and MLBPA executive director Donald Fehr testified. Selig did his usual Sgt. Schultz, “I see nothing!” thing and got away with it just as he continues to do to this day. Fehr gave the standard union line about it all — we’re all for testing but [insert caveats about protecting worker’s rights] — that, while horribly unpopular with almost everyone, is what a guy in that job sort of has to do. Rob Manfred, then the league’s labor negotiator, was there too. His big moment was pointing out mistakes in the drug testing documents that he himself had drafted. Pretty on-brand for Manfred.

In the end, McGwire, Sosa, and Palmeiro — all players who, based on their numbers and their fame would’ve been first-ballot Hall of Fame inductees at any other time in history — would have the doors of Cooperstown shut in their face. McGwire would eventually make his way back to baseball, serving as a coach for the Cardinals, Dodgers and Padres between 2010 and 2018. Palmeiro toyed with comebacks and played some independent ball, but has mostly fallen out of the public eye. You can read a lot about his post-testimony years here. Sosa’s post playing career has been, well, strange. Almost as strange as Cubs owner Tom Ricketts demanding that Sosa apologize to him before he invites Sosa back to the fold despite the fact that he did not, in fact, own the Cubs at the time Sosa played for them.

And the game moved on.

Also today in baseball history:

 

1871: The National Association of Professional Baseball Players is founded. Five years later it would morph, basically, into the National League.

1936: Joe DiMaggio makes his unofficial Yankees debut, collecting four hits, including a triple, in an 8-7 exhibition loss to the Cardinals.

1946: The Dodgers play an exhibition game against their farm team, the Montreal Royals. Jackie Robinson is in the lineup for Montreal, marking the first appearance of an integrated team in affiliated baseball in the 20th century.

 

1977: A federal Judge rules in favor of Bowie Kuhn, saying that the commissioner acted within his authority when he voided the Oakland A’s selling of Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to the Boston Red Sox for $1 million each and Vida Blue to the New York Yankees for $1.5 million the previous summer. The sales — called “The Tuesday Night Massacre” by some — was Finely’s gambit to cash in on players who, in light of the recent advent of free agency, were poised to leave the club at the end of the season.

1978: For the St. Patrick’s Day exhibition game, the Cincinnati Reds wear green uniforms for the first time. This would, eventually, begin an annual tradition in which most teams do the same.

But not this year.