- Mike Fish, ESPN Senior Writer
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Christopher Shays describes himself as a casual baseball fan. He's the kind of guy who tracks the Red Sox and Yankees hardball rivalry from a distance but would never be caught dissecting box scores in the morning's Washington Post. Actually, after coming face-to-face with some of the leading characters -- namely a handful of players, commissioner Bud Selig and union leader Don Fehr -- during Congressional steroid hearings in 2005, the Connecticut lawmaker has a somewhat more jaded perspective on the game.
Rep. Shays smiles thinking back on the likes of Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro parading before the House Committee on Government Reform -- the sense of entitlement they carried on their broad shoulders, the way they dismissed allegations of widespread steroid use in the game, even though committee members suspected otherwise.
"Let me just say that they were deceitful,'' Shays, a Republican, said of the collective baseball group. "They weren't cooperative. And they were arrogant. And they were like, 'How dare you question us,' kind of attitude. And I want you to know I don't take offense at that. There are certain things as a member of Congress I don't like. But personally, I was just stunned by it because I haven't see worse behavior in anyone in my 20 years in public life in Congress.''
And so, Shays believes baseball has only itself to blame for the PR mess it's in today.
"The union is extraordinarily powerful and the commissioner doesn't run it,'' he said. "It is run by some of the major teams, as far as I can tell. You need someone who really has the [will] to do some really tough things . . . It has just been a long tradition of tolerance. The irony sometimes is people cover up in order not to give baseball a bad name, but in the process everything just ferments. It gets worse. And in the end the name suffers even more. So it is a commissioner who is not willing to take decisive action and it is a players' union that feels very privileged.''
Those hearings two years ago, coupled with players outed for steroid use and the dark cloud that has hung over the game, have Washington lawmakers eager for the findings of the baseball-commissioned investigation led by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.
The much-anticipated report could be released as soon as Thursday. Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the 2005 hearings, declined comment until reading the final report. Other committee members have indicated a keen desire to see what Mitchell says about baseball's cooperation in the 20-month study and the level to which ownership and players have addressed the steroid issue.
Congress might jump back into the fray if Mitchell comes back with a lot of unanswered questions because his staff lacked subpoena power, or if ownership and the players aren't quick to act on recommendations. They want to see Mitchell weigh in on the level of cooperation, with the assumption of it being nothing to write home about.
The juicier tidbits in the Mitchell report -- for example, the bulk of players allegedly driven by performance-enhancing drugs -- fell into investigators' laps by good fortune and a helping federal hand. The titillating names came from the records and statements of steroid dealer Kirk Radomski, a one-time New York Mets clubhouse attendant ordered to cooperate with Mitchell as part of a plea deal reached in his federal case.
Very few active players are thought to have cooperated with Mitchell. Nor was there any incentive for former players, who sources said made up some of the names uncovered through Radomski.
"You would hope that they would be able to police their own sport,'' said Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, D-Mass. "That remains to be seen. So if it discourages greatly, steroid use, then we should consider that a success. However if it is less than effective against steroid use in baseball then I think we have no other option than for Congress to take action under the Controlled Substance Act.
"It is a crime. [Players] are using a controlled substance, so we have every option -- the same that we have with heroine and cocaine and any other controlled substance.''
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., suggested Mitchell's report might be the latest step, not the final one.
"It may be that the report will come out and still have some open questions,'' Cummings said. "And it may be us and the Congress to take it a step further and try to find out additional information. If the report takes us part of the way to finding the answer, then maybe we have to hold hearings or use our investigators -- and we have quite a few of them -- to go even further. I mean that is not impossible.
"I think if you got a situation where it says that this is a problem where, for example, Major League Baseball needs to do more and that [steroid use] is very widespread and there are certain things that players are doing to circumvent . . . testing and things of that nature, then it is going to be pretty much up to the Congress to determine whether or not baseball is doing enough.''
Some members of the committee predict Mitchell's report will reveal the steroid problem in baseball to be more widespread than originally thought. There's an expectation that the report will offer up a detailed historical perspective of the problem, laying out potential loopholes in the current policy, as well as guidance or a blueprint on how best to go forward.
Mitchell reportedly will, at some point, give commissioner Bud Selig a copy of the report before making it public. A source with the MLB Players Association said the union has not been promised an advance copy.
It remains unclear what Mitchell will do with the names gathered from Radomski, though sources said they total "dozens.'' It's also unclear what standard would be required before making them public, or if they'll be labeled as steroid users.
The report might just lay out the facts and let others draw their own conclusions. It might simply state that records indicate Player X wrote a check to Radomski, the date and amount of the check, as well as Radomski's recollection of what was purchased and the fact that Player X declined an invitation to meet with Mitchell's investigators -- which is believed true of all involved.
Like in recent cases of players linked to performance-enhancing drugs through federal raids, union sources don't anticipate Mitchell's report will result in significant disciplinary action against players. A good number of Radomski clients, they believe, are now retired and if they are active, their purchases date back several years. There's the question of whether Mitchell has proof the players took steroids and whether they ever tested positive, as well as what substances were on the banned list at the time.
Some lawmakers are looking not so much for individual names in the report, but the volume of players Mitchell can link to steroids.
"It has taken Mitchell a long time to do this report, so it better be a good one,'' Shays said. "And I would think it would be. But the question is, why does baseball tolerate what is not tolerated, for instance, in the Olympics? And even football has done a better job, a lot better. Football, ironically, has three strikes [positive tests] and you are out.''
At every turn, baseball has seemingly fallen short of its sporting rival in the eyes of Congress. Mitchell's investigation was seen as a bold initiative to catch up, but from the start, questions about its independence surfaced because of Mitchell's ties to the Boston Red Sox. He serves as a director of the club, and Selig had been viewed as instrumental in placing him with the ownership group.
Mitchell, however, is highly respected in Washington circles and members of the Oversight Committee see him as a straight-shooter. Even so, there is an acknowledgement by some that baseball should have dealt with the conflict of interest issue during the selection process, as well as belief the report may now be scrutinized even more closely.
"I think it may cause some members on the committee and some members in Congress to take a closer look at this just to make sure that it has received the objective review that we need here,'' Lynch said. "There will be that added scrutiny, but I think he'll survive it. I think he's done a good job on this. Again, the proof is in the pudding.''
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.