Where Have You Gone, Jose Canseco?

Missing the Bash Brothers at Congress’ latest steroid hearings.

Steroid hearings. Click image to expand.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig shakes hands with George Mitchell

“We’re not here to talk about the past.” That’s what Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., says at the outset of Congress’ latest hearing on drugs in baseball. Of course, in referring back to the Mr. Short-Term Memory routine that Mark McGwire put on when called to testify before Congress in 2005, Davis is really saying: We must joke about the past in order to liven up the present.

If there was ever any doubt, Tuesday’s meeting of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform proves that George Mitchell and Bud Selig are no McGwire and Canseco. For one thing, the senator and the commissioner have better-fitting suits. For another, they’re less inviting targets. Every congressman praises Mitchell’s 400-plus-page report; many seem in awe that he got so many juicy bits without the benefit of subpoena power. And compared with the pillorying he took three years ago, Selig earns high marks—he takes a few dings for presiding over baseball’s drug age but wins points for soliciting the Mitchell report and endorsing its recommendations. The day’s whipping boys aren’t in the room: The unseen players, represented in absentia by players’ union head Donald Fehr, get called out repeatedly for refusing to answer Mitchell’s questions.

If the congressmen aren’t here to talk about the past, they certainly seem interested in investigating it. Chairman Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., announces that the Department of Justice has been asked to look into whether Miguel Tejada knowingly made false statements to the committee circa 2005. The then-Orioles shortstop told committee reps that he never took illegal performance-enhancing drugs and that he didn’t know any players who did. If you believe the Mitchell report, Tejada’s a fibber. (To see how Tejada connects to the rest of Major League Baseball’s drug supply chain, check out Slate’s “Steroids Social Network.”) The lesson here: Tejada should’ve taken rhetoric lessons from Mark McGwire—sure, you might get ridiculed for refusing to talk about the past, but you probably won’t get DoJ on your tail. Roger Clemens, who is scheduled to testify before Congress next month, is assuredly taking notes.

The hearing moves on, but it’s still stuck in reverse. As Mitchell notes, the information he gathered relates to drug-taking and drug-buying that happened between “two to nine years ago.” Pretty much that entire time period comes before baseball instituted its current, stricter testing program. Reading the Mitchell report, one gets the impression that today’s players aren’t injecting each other in bathroom stalls like their misbehaving forebears. Rather, they’re on the straight and narrow, chastened by rigorous drug testing. The committee is buying the narrative. Commissioner Selig and players’ union head Donald Fehr have “worked together to make baseball’s steroids policy one of the toughest in sports,” Waxman says.

In the absence of tension about baseball’s current stewardship, grandstanding opportunities are limited. Or perhaps Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays simply embarrasses his colleagues into silence. After referring to the heretofore unknown “Chicago Blackhawks scandal,” Shays goes into prosecutorial mode, badgering Mitchell on the question of whether “Rafael Palmeri” took steroids before his milestone “300th hit.” Even if the reform committee uncovers nothing else, at least we now have a good idea of who John Kerry chats with about sports.

Rather than take potshots like Shays, most of the committee members focus on protecting our nation’s youth. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., for one, puts forward the quaint notion of kids “using their allowances to buy these substances,” while Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., tells a long story about buying a video on proper push-up technique for his son, only to find that the instructional movie includes a sales pitch for iffy nutritional supplements.

In between pleas to save the children, one congressman breaks news. Massachusetts Democrat John Tierney reports that more than 100 players got “medical use exemptions” to use drugs like Ritalin and Adderall—information that wasn’t in the Mitchell report. With amphetamines now a banned substance in baseball, it makes sense that players would be on the lookout for legally sanctioned stimulants. The best way to get your fix, it seems, is to get the MLB-approved doctor who says you’ve got an acute case of attention-deficit disorder.

Rather than ask more questions about medical use exemptions, the committee focuses on another perceived scourge: human growth hormone. To listen to the congressmen, HGH is far and away baseball’s most pressing problem: Abuse of the drug is on the rise in MLB clubhouses, and there’s still no test in place to catch the abusers. Massachusetts Democrat Stephen Lynch, who’s pushing a bill to classify growth hormone as a Class III controlled substance (the same as anabolic steroids), goes so far as suggesting that MLB collect blood samples to be tested retroactively, once scientists have developed a credible blood test for HGH.

Lynch and his colleagues have taken an illogical leap: Just because MLB hasn’t found a test for HGH doesn’t mean it’s more of a threat to the sport’s sanctity than steroids. As my colleague Daniel Engber has written, “HGH and anabolic steroids are as different as marijuana and black-tar heroin.” The Mitchell report itself states that “use of human growth hormone does not increase muscle strength in healthy subjects or well-trained athletes.” Anabolic steroids, by contrast, have been proven to make athletes stronger, giving them a tangible advantage over their nondoping peers. Scientists already know that the effects of HGH are overblown. Once pro athletes figure that out, Congress and Major League Baseball will wish that they’d spent less time obsessing over growth hormone and more on the stuff that actually works.