Baseball’s Theater of the Absurd

“A theater of the absurd.” This is how Rep. Tom Lantos described Thursday’s “steroid hearings” on Capital Hill. The description is apt. Viewers, as CSPAN and ESPN joined forces, witnessed hearings as pointless as they were, admittedly, riveting.

Congress did not disappoint anyone who wanted to see the Elephants and Donkeys on both sides of the aisle mate and become a litter of Jackasses. Committee chair Tom Davis kicked off the day by stating, “We’re not interested in embarrassing anyone or ruining careers or grandstanding…” Then he and his fellow members of congress set about preening like peacocks before the cameras, proving the adage that “modern politics is celebrity for ugly people.”

First Davis ñ so aghast by grandstanding ñ paraphrased [and forever ruined] the classic baseball poem ‘Casey at the Bat,” fuming, ‘Today there is no joy in Mudville until the truth comes out.’ He then said that the “sunshine” being offered by the dour committee was “the best disinfectant” for baseball’s steroid woes. This was just the beginning. The crush of cameras seemed to be like a brew of catnip and crack-cocaine to the congressional leaders as they sat elevated, facing five current and former major leaguers, including three of the ten top home run hitters of all time. We learned about the members of congress who had baseball card collections as children. We learned who played catch with their dad. We learned that Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s son ñ who we can only hope is younger than 13 ñ sleeps in a Sammy Sosa jersey [although with some of the fawning on display from congress, it seemed like many of them slept in uniform as well, a well-oiled glove tied with string tucked under their mattresses.]

Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders looked at members of the media — including more than two dozen cameramen and said with what we hope was irony, “Maybe we’ll have to bring in great baseball players to talk about crime and poverty.”

Yet as members of congress vogued for the cameras an entirely different drama was playing out among the five players seated tricep to tricep in their seam-stretching Armanis. On one side were Curt Schilling, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa. On the other, Jose Canseco. There is no way these hearings would have occurred if not for Canseco’s best selling book “Juiced”, where the former MVP rolled over on every player and family member who ever took an aspirin.

The players’ seething hostility toward Canseco was so thick in the halls of congress that he even had to be placed in a separate, guarded waiting room before the hearing. At the witness table, no player hid their contempt of the player whose name is now synonymous with stool pigeonry in every clubhouse. As Schilling said, “The allegations made in that book, the attempts to smear the names of players both past and present, having been made by one who for years vehemently denied steroid use, should be seen for what they are: an attempt to make money at the expense of others.”

Canseco himself came off as an oafish and discredited figure. One of the most striking aspects of Canseco’s book is not only that he names alleged users; it’s that he does so to make the case for the greatness of steroids as part of your breakfast of champions. It’s as if George W. Bush admitted his youthful cocaine use and then called for the distribution of little spoons as part of No Child Left Behind. Yet before Congress, Canseco meekly denounced performance enhancing drugs saying, ‘I’m completely turned around.’

Yet while Canseco sweated under the hot lights, the player being lacerated in the hearing’s aftermath is Mark McGwire. McGwire, who has been out of the public eye since retiring in 2002, was the only player who did not deny under oath having used steroids. As sports columnist Larry Biel put it, “McGwire’s silence was deafening. In the court of public opinion, McGwire looked very guilty. ” Another columnist, the Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell, wrote that McGwire “left the hearing room with his reputation in tatters”

But for those of us who consider these hearings a farcical “shamockery”, and disturbing exercise in government power, should be proud of Big Mac’s performance. He was the only player to actually stand up to the committee saying, “I will use whatever influence and popularity that I have to discourage young athletes from taking any drug that is not recommended by a doctor. What I will not do, however, is participate in naming names and implicating my friends and teammates.”

McGwire was also the only person to challenge the entire logic of the proceedings. The argument has been that however comical these hearings may be, if they “save one life” from the harmful effects of steroids then all the grandstanding tomfoolery is worth it.” But as McGwire put it, ‘Asking me, or any other player, to answer questions about who took steroids in front of television cameras will not solve this problem. If a player answers, ‘No,’ he simply will not be believed. If he answers, ‘Yes,’ he risks public scorn and endless government investigations.’

This is absolutely right, Athletes, especially young athletes, take steroids in such disturbing numbers because of the insane competition that funnel out athletes as they advance from pee-wee, to high school, to college, and finally to the big leagues. People take steroids because of poverty and seeing athletics at a lottery worth risking your life for. Joe DiMaggio once said, “You have to be hungry to make it in the big leagues. That’s why no one rich ends up here.” No amount of hearings that highlight millionaire athletes does anything to change this dynamic. It also doesn’t take on who actually has the power and influence in pro sports to make steroids a thing of the past. The people who benefit from performance enhancing drugs at the end of the day are not the young but the pharmaceutical companies and the bosses of Major League Baseball. It’s amazing that a player with a sterling reputation like Raffy Palmeiro could be dragged in front of this committee merely because he is mentioned in Canseco’s book. Yet another person Canseco names ñ who made millions off of baseballës 90’s boom, has gone unmentioned throughout this entire process; someone who had the opportunity to oversee the day-to-day operations of the team. That someone was the general managing partner of the Rangers. That someone is George W. Bush. Until Bush and his ilk are dragged under the hot lights, this entire congressional exploration will continue to be nothing more than a theater of the absurd.

DAVE ZIRIN’s new book “What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States” will be in stores in June 2005. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing Contact him at



DAVE ZIRIN is the author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press) Contact him at