The Congressional Hearing That Changed Baseball

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There’s a reason Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens aren’t in the Hall of Fame: Congress.

The same goes for Mark McGwire. Sammy Sosa. Rafael Palmeiro. And maybe, in the long run, Alex Rodriguez. Maybe even Jose Canseco.

These players’ path to Cooperstown was once as direct as a walk to first base after a deliberate walk. Then lawmakers crashed through their careers leaving a baserunner going down a double road.

Diehard fans, sabermetricians and devotees of Bill James will tell you that the careers of these players mirrored or even surpassed the achievements of Babe Ruth, Stan Musial and Tom Seaver. Bonds could shoot a three-run shot at McCovey Cove in San Francisco. The batters shuddered as they faced Clemens’ 98 mph fastball. But it only took one day in Congress to distract those players from the immortality of baseball.

New York Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens reacts after giving up a home run to Cleveland Indians’ Trot Nixon in the second inning during Game 3 of an American League Baseball Division playoff series on October 7, 2007 at Yankee Stadium in New York York.
(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun, File)

Major League Baseball had a problem in the 1990s: doping.

Still, baseball fans marveled at the 1998 home run race between McGwire and Sosa. Sosa and McGwire battled each other to break the one-season home run record of 61, set by Roger Maris in 1961. Sosa finished the season with 66 home runs. But McGwire outmatched Maris and cracked 70. Imagine hitting 66 home runs and not leading the league.

Bonds then shattered the late Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record of 755. Bonds finished his career with 762 home runs. Bonds broke McGwire’s home run record in 2001, beating 73 dingers that year. Clemens has won seven Cy Young Awards. He led the league seven times with the lowest ERA. “The Rocket” struckout 4,672 batters. Palmeiro had 3,020 hits and hit 569 home runs.

The only other players with 3,000 hits and 500 home runs? Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Albert Pujols, Eddie Murray and Alex Rodriguez. bonds. Clement. McGwire. sosa. palmeira. Heading to Cooperstown?

After what Congress did to them, they would be lucky enough to get to Utica. Bonds and Clemens did not get enough votes to qualify for the Hall of Fame this year. It was their final year of eligibility. McGwire, Sosa and Palmeiro fell out of the mood years ago.

DAVID ORTIZ ELECTED IN BASEBALL HALL OF FAME; BARRY BONDS, ROGER CLEMENS WERE REFUSED

The House Oversight Committee called a hearing on March 17, 2005. Among those called to testify were Sosa, McGwire and Curt Schilling (another person not in the Hall, perhaps for other reasons) and Canseco. Canseco’s stat line isn’t as impressive as some of the others. But the case can be made that Canseco is a borderline Hall of Famer.

Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants smiles as he begins to round the bases after hitting his 73rd home run of the season against the Los Angeles Dodgers in San Francisco

Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants smiles as he begins to round the bases after hitting his 73rd home run of the season against the Los Angeles Dodgers in San Francisco
(AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

Every network in America brought the hearing live – from C-SPAN to ESPN. The panel did not ask Bonds to appear at that hearing.

At the time, Bonds was under scrutiny as part of a federal investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO). In the eyes of many, Bonds’ conspicuous absence as a result of the federal investigation spoke louder than what was said into a microphone at the witness table that day.

McGwire leaned over the witness table nearly 17 years ago that day and disappeared in his seat like a fourth-grader called to the principal’s office.

McGwire repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination and refused to “talk about the past.”

Sosa claimed his English was so bad that he couldn’t understand the questions. Palmeiro taught the members.

“I’ve never taken steroids,” Palmeiro said. “Period of time.”

Major League Baseball suspended Palmeiro a few months later for his use of performance-enhancing drugs—just after Palmeiro had hit his 3,000th hit.

Lawmakers that day denounced some of the most legendary players in the history of the game. sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., then serving in the House, marveled at the array of TV cameras in the room. Sanders mused that lawmakers might need to bring in famous players when the House holds hearings on health care or education. Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., criticized the players, saying he was “disappointed with the testimony”.

The hearing shook the public’s attention. And it caught the attention of Major League Baseball.

Edmundo Sosa of the St. Louis Cardinals, right, hits an RBI-single while Los Angeles Dodgers solver Blake Treinen, left, and catcher Will Smith, second from left, watch home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt in the ninth inning of a game Tuesday June 1, 2021 in Los Angeles.

Edmundo Sosa of the St. Louis Cardinals, right, hits an RBI-single while Los Angeles Dodgers solver Blake Treinen, left, and catcher Will Smith, second from left, watch home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt in the ninth inning of a game Tuesday June 1, 2021 in Los Angeles.
(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

MLB has signed former Senate President George Mitchell, D-Maine, to investigate the use of performance-enhancing drugs. The “Mitchell Report” later accused 89 then-active or former ball players of using banned substances.

The report highlighted Clemens as one user. The House Oversight Committee invited Clemens to appear for a behind-closed-door statement. Later, Clemens requested a public hearing to clear his name. From there it was all over for Clemens.

Clemens told lawmakers he was not taking any performance-enhancing drugs. But the late Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., didn’t take it.

“It’s hard to believe, sir,” Cummings told Clemens.

“Somebody lied,” said former Representative Tom Davis, R-Va., then the highest-ranking GOPer on the committee. “(Clemens) was a likeable figure in the sport. He was loved. But he got there and you had two different stories. So we sent it to Justice.”

The commission prepared a perjury referral from Clemens to the Justice Department. The FBI has charged Clemens. The case went to court. The court eventually acquitted Clemens. But the die was cast. Clemens never scored enough votes to reach the Hall of Fame.

BARRY BONDS, ROGER CLEMENS HALL OF FAME CANDIDACY RECEIVES SUPPORT FROM LEGENDARY CATCHER

In addition, Major League Baseball has tightened the rules for performance-enhancing drugs. MLB’s policies have lagged far behind the standards for the Olympics, NHL, and NBA.

“We could have been a lot harder on the players,” Davis said. “They didn’t want to testify against themselves. But they were all on board to change the game. And we did.”

Debates over who deserves a plaque in the Hall of Fame are as heated as arguments over the infield fly rule and designated batter. The baseball writers chose former Red Sox star David Ortiz for the Hall this year. It was widely reported that Ortiz was part of a group of players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003, but before MLB formalized a testing program.

Bonds have never tested positive for drugs. So look who’s in the room. Baseball will soon anchor Ortiz. Bonds and Clemens continue to look in from the outside. We didn’t even ask about Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson. Rose and Jackson are not eligible for Cooperstown for betting and reportedly throwing World Series games. But decisions about who’s in or out are about as clear-cut as a hard slide squeezing the black of the record.

Cap Anson won multiple battle titles and is in the hall. But Anson helped keep the game separate and refused to play with Blacks. Rogers Hornsby finished with a career average of .358. He argued with management, gambled and was surly. Ty Cobb would have been one of the most repulsive individuals to ever get into the batter’s box. And don’t think for a moment that some of Curt Schilling’s views don’t limit his chances of being introduced.

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The debate over Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, McGwire — and yes, Rose and Jackson — is now part of baseball lore.

And some of that lore evolved on March 17, 2005—the day Congress fired a backlash on the national pastime.

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