McGwire admits nothing; Sosa and Palmeiro deny use

Updated: March 18, 2005, 11:26 AM ET news services

WASHINGTON -- In a room filled with humbled heroes, Mark McGwire hemmed and hawed the most.

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  • His voice choked with emotion, his eyes nearly filled with tears, time after time he refused to answer the question everyone wanted to know: Did he take illegal steroids when he hit a then-record 70 home runs in 1998 -- or at any other time?

    Asked by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., whether he was asserting his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself, McGwire said: "I'm not here to talk about the past. I'm here to be positive about this subject."

    Asked whether use of steroids was cheating, McGwire said: "That's not for me to determine."

    To a couple of other questions, all he would say is: "I'm retired."

    The dark clouds over baseball rained on Big Mac, whose powerful bat once captivated the nation.

    "I know that he was in anguish yesterday just being there," baseball commissioner Bud Selig said Friday on NBC's "Today" show. "Everybody has to do what they have to do. The other players were very outspoken."

    Friday morning at the team's training camp in Jupiter, Fla., Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa referred to McGwire's testimony as a "missed opportunity." He also said he thought McGwire was "overcoached" by his lawyers.

    "He looked uncomfortable the whole time," LaRussa said. "He has been forceful in his statements denying it. I was surprised that he didn't repeat what he had said earlier."

    McGwire was just part of Thursday's show at the House Government Reform committee's hearing on steroids in baseball, when lawmakers repeated threatened federal legislation to govern drug testing in not just baseball, but perhaps all U.S. sports.

    President Bush, who in his State of the Union address in 2004 called for a crackdown on steroids, watched the highlights of the hearings, his spokesman said Friday.

    Speaking with reporters aboard Air Force One, press secretary Scott McClellan declined to offer support for the congressional effort, saying Bush does not believe that federal intervention is the way to go.

    "Baseball has taken important steps to respond to concerns that have been expressed about the use of steroids," he said. "It's important for baseball to continue to take steps to confront the problem."

    Five current and former players, three of them among the 10 leading home run hitters in history, found themselves sitting biceps-to-biceps on Capitol Hill instead of a baseball field, wearing business suits instead of uniforms, forced by subpoena to testify before Congress about whether they cheated by using steroids.

    Heads turned, strobes flashed and necks craned to get a glimpse of them on a day of extraordinary theater. The players bemoaned steroids as a problem for their sport but denied the drugs are widely used.

    Jose Canseco, whose best-selling book, "Juiced," drew lawmakers' attention, said anew that he used performance-enhancing drugs as a player. Baltimore Orioles teammates Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro said they haven't.

    McGwire in the past has denied using steroids but under oath repeatedly declined to respond directly. Peering at lawmakers over reading glasses, his goatee flecked with gray, McGwire was pressed to say whether he had taken performance-enhancing substances or whether he could provide details about use by other players. Over and over, he said he wouldn't respond.

    Curt Schilling (right), Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa (far left) and Jose Canseco (background) all appeared before the House committee.

    All of the players offered condolences to the parents of two young baseball players who committed suicide after using steroids. The parents testified, too, along with medical experts who talked about the health risks of steroids.

    "Players that are guilty of taking steroids are not only cheaters -- you are cowards," said Donald Hooton of Plano, Texas, whose son, Taylor, was 17 when he hanged himself in July 2003.

    During a hearing that lasted 11¼ hours, lawmakers questioned baseball's new drug-testing plan, including a provision allowing for fines instead of suspensions. A first offense could cost 10 days out of a six-month season, or perhaps a $10,000 fine.

    "That's the best we could do in collective bargaining," commissioner Selig said. "The penalties would be much tougher if I had my way."

    He added that he would suspend anyone who fails a test, vowing: "There will be no exceptions."

    Canseco's book included claims that he injected McGwire with steroids when they were teammates with the Oakland Athletics and that Palmeiro used the drugs. In a tense scene, they sat at the same table, never directly addressing each other. During a break, Canseco was left out while the other players huddled.

    "Steroids were part of the game, and I don't think anybody really wanted to take a stance on it," Canseco said. "If Congress does nothing about this issue, it will go on forever."

    Several congressmen gushed about the sport, recalling how as children they collected baseball cards and autographs and looked up to players. For the most part, members of the committee appeared deferential and unwilling to press the players, saving their harshest criticism for baseball officials.

    "Why should we believe that the baseball commissioner and the baseball union will want to do something when we have a 30-year record of them not responding to this problem?" asked Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the committee's ranking Democrat.

    The paneled hearing room was full when the players appeared, with camera crews lining the walls and clogging the aisles. Much of the crowd cleared out when the players left, leaving empty seats for Selig's testimony.

    He said the extent of steroids in baseball had been blown out of proportion.

    "Did we have a major problem? No," Selig said. "Let me say this to you: There is no concrete evidence of that, there is no testing evidence, there is no other kind of evidence."

    Questions about steroids have intensified as home runs have increased. McGwire and Sosa were widely credited with helping restore baseball's popularity in 1998 when they chased Roger Maris' season record of 61 homers. McGwire's mark lasted only three seasons before San Francisco's Barry Bonds hit 73.

    If a player answers 'No,' he simply will not be believed. If he answers 'Yes,' he risks public scorn and endless government investigations.
    Mark McGwire, in his opening statement before the committee

    Bonds and the New York Yankees' Jason Giambi were not called to the hearing. Both testified in 2003 to a grand jury investigating a steroid-distribution ring, and there were concerns testimony to Congress could hinder the probe.

    Boston pitcher Curt Schilling, a vocal critic of steroid use, sat at one end of the witness table, with Canseco at the other. Palmeiro, Sosa and McGwire were in between.

    Schilling took a shot at Canseco, saying claims in the former slugger's book "should be seen for what they are: an attempt to make money at the expense of others." He even called him a "liar."

    But Schilling backtracked from his earlier claims of rampant steroid use, saying "the issue was grossly overstated by people, including myself."

    While boosting strength, steroids also can lead to dramatic mood swings, heart disease, cancer, sterility and depression; using most steroids without a doctor's prescription for medical purposes has been illegal since 1991.

    Baseball banned steroids in September 2002 and began testing for them with penalties in 2004. Several congressmen pointed out that other major U.S. sports leagues have stricter policies and suggested legislation might be needed to make the testing uniform.

    Information from's Jerry Crasnick and The Associated Press was used in this report.