The Liars Club

The congressional hearings on steroids in baseball, the bigger-than-sports story of the year, turned into a three-ring circus. And only the clown, Jose Canseco, may have told the truth
December 26, 2005

Truth may sometimes come out of the Devil's mouth.

--DR. THOMAS FULLER, 17TH-CENTURY BRITISH CLERGYMAN AND AUTHOR

Over the summer former major league slugger Jose Canseco appeared in a television show called The Surreal Life, the premise of which was to cram semifamous egomaniacs into a made-for-TV fun house and watch the sparks fly. He was insulted by a visiting baseball fan over his steroids tell-all, Juiced; performed as a stripper; and fended off the advances of various dim women--which, considering his bizarre career, was no surprise. What was odd, actually, was watching Canseco emerge as the cast's voice of reason. While his housemates engaged in petty conflicts, Canseco drifted through the show with an attitude notched somewhere between bemusement and boredom, as if he had lived through it all before. Which, of course, he had.

At 10 A.M. last March 17, in Room 2154 of the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C., the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Government Reform opened its hearing on steroids and major league baseball. There had never been anything quite like it in the history of American sports. For the next 11 hours and 15 minutes, in an unfolding drama that would make any reality-show producer weep with envy, big league players and executives and the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association sat pinned to their chairs by subpoenas or cameras or the slim hope of winning the public relations war, squirming under an unprecedented public examination. Spectators and reporters overflowed into the marble hallways. No previous congressional hearing, not even the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton, had drawn so many TV crews. The snapping of camera shutters, says Don Hooton, who testified about his son Taylor's suicide after steroid use, "sounded like thousands of crickets chirping."

The mere prospect of Congress and baseball colliding like bull elephants made the hearing must-see TV. But what sealed this as the most indelible day of the year in sports was the parade of indelible moments: Hooton calling the players "cowards"; retired St. Louis Cardinals star Mark McGwire, once baseball's Paul Bunyan, deflated and weeping; Baltimore Orioles designated hitter Rafael Palmeiro shaking that fatal finger; Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling calling Canseco "a liar"; Connecticut representative Christopher Shays and Major League Baseball vice president Rob Manfred sneering at each other. By the end of the testimony McGwire's reputation was smashed and Palmeiro's was teed up for the blow to come, commissioner Bud Selig and the rest of his office had been revealed as duplicitous or uncooperative or just plain clueless, and the nation had witnessed a year's worth of outrage, schmaltz, sorrow and, yes, comedy. "I would say," ventured Selig, surveying the wreckage, "that it has been a most interesting day."

Closer to the mark was California representative Tom Lantos, who, stymied by McGwire's metronomic refusals to "talk about the past," declared, "I increasingly feel a ... theater of the absurd unfolding here." By then one of the committee's star witnesses, Chicago White Sox designated hitter Frank Thomas, had disappeared into technological limbo: Testifying on a remote feed from Tucson that made it look as if he were transmitting from the moon, Thomas gave a short statement condemning steroids and then--poof!--evaporated when the feed was lost, never to be heard from again. Contentious exchanges were leavened by the occasional puzzler (such as Pennsylvania congressman Paul Kanjorski's suggestion for universal testing "regardless of what sex is involved, whether it's male, female or otherwise") and by nearly everything Sammy Sosa said.

The Orioles outfielder and native of the Dominican Republic, citing language difficulties, had a lawyer read his opening statement and kept a translator by his side throughout the day. She never got a word in. Sosa answered each question in English--even one asked in Spanish--though it may as well have been Swahili for all the light he shed. "To my knowledge, I don't know," Sosa responded to a query about teammates using steroids. "I can tell you, Mr. Chairman," he said when asked if he thought baseball should adopt the Olympic drug program, "I don't have too much to tell you." Asked if he supported baseball's policy on steroids, Sosa said, "I don't have the specific question to explain to you."

No matter. It was all mesmerizing because it wasn't sport as we're used to seeing it. There was no clock or field or scoreboard. The action consisted of paper shuffling, sips of water, men talking in sometimes long and complicated sentences. But there was also an oath to take, and a penalty of jail time for lying, and that charged the air. The five players were big and striking figures, and in uniform Canseco, Sosa and McGwire had once looked as if they'd stepped out of a Marvel comic. Now they sat in workaday dark suits at a cramped table. Selig, Manfred and players' association head Donald Fehr aren't often lectured to and threatened. They're not often held so contemptuously to account. But that happened too. On this late-winter day everybody in the room had something to lose.

"Congress was on trial as much as the players," says committee chairman Thomas Davis of Virginia. "There were a lot of questions: Why are you doing this? Is this McCarthyism? We had to stay focused. If we had wanted to get in there and really mix it up, we could've kept the subpoenas going. We could've destroyed baseball. But that was never our goal."

So what was the goal? A tougher drug policy for baseball? Yes, the chairman will tell you. A warning to the estimated 500,000 high schoolers abusing steroids? Yes. A chance to burnish political careers? That too. But as the hearing progressed, it became clear that Congress was after bigger game. Ready? Don't laugh.

The truth.

Davis ended his opening statement with a twist on Casey at the Bat: "And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout/But there is no joy in Mudville--until the truth comes out."

The idea of politicians demanding such a thing is delicious to contemplate. Washington is a city fueled by lies, spin, a skillful shading of the truth; we give you as only two recent examples, "what the definition of is is" and "weapons-of-mass-destruction-related program activities." But Congress may be the last bastion of sports naiveté; one by one the representatives revealed themselves to be gushing, dewy-eyed fans. One congressman said his son slept in a Sosa jersey, one congresswoman said her husband knew the stats of every Brooklyn Dodgers game. Representative Jose Serrano of the Bronx declared that he would never sell McGwire's rookie card "because you are heroes," he told McGwire, Canseco, Palmeiro, Schilling and Sosa. "You shouldn't be here. Circumstances put you here."

Canseco's book, published last February, alleged that he had injected McGwire and Palmeiro and others with steroids and expressed suspicions about yet other stars, such as Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada and Houston Astros ace Roger Clemens. When the committee's ranking Democrat, Henry Waxman of California, read in late February that Major League Baseball had no intention of investigating Canseco's assertions, he requested a congressional hearing. "Rather than investigate, Major League Baseball and the union hired a ton of lawyers and lobbyists to stop us from investigating," Waxman says. "That made me think they didn't care what was going on."

When, two weeks before the hearing, the committee asked for a copy of a revised drug policy baseball had announced in January, baseball officials didn't respond. They complied only when a subpoena was issued. When the policy finally reached the committee--just three days before the hearing--it contained a previously undisclosed alternative to the 10-day suspension imposed for a first offense: a fine of up to $10,000. Some baseball officials said the option hadn't been approved and had been inserted in the document erroneously, but other officials said it had been approved. The mixed messages only fed the committee's suspicions.

But while many representatives asked the key question--What did those in baseball know about the Steroids Era, and when did they know it?--the answer remained unclear. Nobody was caught in a lie, not exactly, but the players gave the politicos a master class in how to dance around the truth.

There was reversal: Canseco, who in his book claimed steroids would soon be used by all top athletes, "and that's good news," tried to remake himself as an antisteroids crusader.

There was surgical parsing: Sosa declared that he had never taken "illegal performance-enhancing drugs ... never injected myself or had anyone inject me with anything. I have not broken the laws of the United States or the laws of the Dominican Republic." That left a massive loophole for, say, the ingestion of steroids in pill form under prescription from a Dominican doctor.

There was retreat: After years of charging that steroid use in baseball was "a prominent thing" and "widely known" among players, Schilling declared that he had "grossly overstated" the problem.

"The only reason he was invited," Waxman says, "was that he had been an outspoken critic of steroids. But now he suddenly saw nothing, heard nothing."

The most riveting testimony, though, came from Palmeiro and McGwire. Palmeiro, on the cusp of accomplishing the rare double of 500 career home runs and 3,000 hits, couldn't have been more emphatic in his denial of Canseco's claim that he had used performance-enhancing drugs. "I have never used steroids, period," Palmeiro said, and then came what would soon be the most infamous finger-pointing since Clinton claimed he "did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." Canseco, sitting at the other end of the table, says his jaw dropped. "I thought, What is he doing?" Canseco says. "This is Congress. You're under oath. If they catch you, you're going to jail. Don't do that, Raffy."

McGwire, on the other hand, looked guilty from the start. In his tearful, quavering opening statement he came off like a miserable schoolboy tormented by his conscience. He didn't rebut Canseco, and he held off any questions about past steroid use with his weak stand-in for the Fifth Amendment, "I'm not here to talk about the past." For those who had seen him the day before, it was no shock: When McGwire and his lawyers met with Davis, Waxman and committee staffers on March 16, he seemed, according to one observer, "in agony." According to Davis and Waxman, McGwire wanted blanket immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony, a deal Congress cannot grant without Department of Justice approval. Waxman walked away from the meeting with the impression that McGwire had used illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Davis came out of it with an even more detailed read.

"McGwire wanted to tell a story," Davis says. "But it's a five-year statute of limitations for steroid use, and he'd been retired four years. You put everything at risk [here]. You've got the BALCO [case] in San Francisco; he played there [with the Oakland A's]. So he was very reluctant to do it without any kind of immunity. He was willing to sit up there and tell everything."

Told of Davis's comments, McGwire's lawyer, Mark Bierbower, declined to comment. McGwire also declined. During his testimony the former home run king volunteered to serve as baseball's spokesman against steroid use, but he hasn't spoken on the issue since. "I think when his five years are up, it may be a different situation," Davis says. "That's what he indicated to us. If this had been a year later, it would've been a different hearing."

Palmeiro also volunteered to "heed the call" and join the committee's antisteroids task force. He was accepted on the spot. On July 7 he took part, by teleconference, in the task force's 90-minute meeting, and on July 15 he doubled to left for his 3,000th hit--on both occasions neglecting to mention that, on May 4, he had tested positive for the steroid stanozolol, a finding he had learned about two weeks later. On Aug. 1, after Palmeiro had exhausted the appeals process, baseball announced his 10-day suspension for violating the sport's drug policy. The clip of Palmeiro pointing his finger was suddenly everywhere: The Steroids Era, likely to end up as notorious as the Black Sox gambling scandal of 1919, now had its "Say it ain't so, Joe" moment.

By then six months had passed since the publication of Juiced. Canseco had been roundly criticized for the book's errors and undocumented allegations. Yet no one he named as a steroid user had sued him. Meanwhile, Palmeiro's explanation of how the drug got into his body--from a B-12 shot given to him by Tejada--conformed to details in Canseco's book. Canseco wrote that he gave Tejada "advice" about steroids. (Tejada has denied having taken steroids.) Stanozolol, also known as Winstrol, was one of the drugs Canseco claimed to have injected into Palmeiro when they were teammates with the Texas Rangers. Players, Canseco claimed, jokingly referred to their fixes as "B-12 shots."

That kind of connect-the-dots exercise remains the only route to something approaching the truth about steroids and baseball. On Nov. 10 the House committee decided not to bring a perjury complaint against Palmeiro. That he had ingested stanozolol was not in question; what couldn't be proved was that he had taken it before that day in Congress. By November, in any case, the Orioles had made it clear they wanted nothing more to do with him. Pressured by the committee's threats of legislative action, Selig had in April cornered the players' association with the toughest proposed drug policy yet: three strikes and you're out. On Nov. 15 the union buckled, and an even more stringent policy was adopted, with a first positive test now bringing a 50-game suspension. As Selig told Davis, that change never would've happened without the hearing. And the hearing would never have happened without the book.

"I went in blinded," says Serrano of his perception of Canseco before the hearings, "as a fan saying, 'Why is somebody trying to ruin my game?' But months later I realized he was the most honest guy in the crowd."

One Sunday in November, Canseco stood against a bar off a hotel lobby in Santa Monica, Calif. He was working, not drinking. The American Film Market, a convention for independent film producers and distributors, unearths its share of sleeper hits, but it's also a trade show for straight-to-video bombs and Asia-bound slasher flicks, and it has a reputation, as one A-list director puts it, as "Hollywood at its most desperate." At that moment Canseco was the biggest name there. A man sidled up, dropped a name from Miami.

"A lot of women say they know me, they've been to bed with me," Canseco told him.

"You're a lucky guy," the man replied.

"I'm not," Canseco said. "I'm not lucky at all."

Congress was still investigating Palmeiro for a possible perjury charge then, and baseball was days away from announcing its new policy on performance-enhancing drugs. No one was questioning Canseco's credibility anymore. "Whether or not it was his intent," says Richard Lapchick, director emeritus of the Center for the Study of Sport and Society at Northeastern, "he performed a service for American sport."

Yet even with a book called Vindicated due in the spring, Canseco didn't have much interest in I-told-you-so's. The day he heard that Palmeiro had tested positive, Canseco said, "I felt sad for him and sad for the players." The fact that baseball officials left Canseco but not Palmeiro off the Latino Legends ballot distributed last fall to fans was just the latest example, he said, of their plan to blackball him. "The truth always comes to the top," Canseco said more than once. But later, reclining by a fire that blazed to life with the flick of a switch, he said, "Today the truth means nothing; perception means everything. We are a lost society of lost souls: liars, con artists, manipulators."

It's only right that he's conflicted. Canseco may well help end the Steroids Era, but he also helped start it, and if he told the truth now, he also lied then. In 1988, when accused of steroid use on the eve of the playoffs, he issued a typewritten statement calling the charge "completely false and untrue." Asked about that in Santa Monica, he at first denied it, then backpedaled, mumbled something about how reporters twist words, and gave up. "No matter what I say, no matter what the truth is, people are going to perceive whatever they want," Canseco said. "It doesn't really matter."

He's trying to move on. He had spent the afternoon flogging a script called Mr. Mayhem, showing production companies a video of himself kicking and spinning. He wants to be the next martial-arts hero, a Latin Van Damme--a natural next move, the 41-year old Canseco said, "because I've always considered myself an entertainer."

His ex-wife, Jessica, left him for good after he went to jail in 2003 for allegedly violating his probation (stemming from a felony aggravated-battery charge following a 2001 bar brawl in Miami) by testing positive for steroids, and he says he's still in love with her. Since October he and his twin brother, Ozzie, have been facing an $835,000 judgment after a jury found them liable for their part in that bar fight. (The criminal charge was dropped.) Yet what haunts him most is his certainty that the commissioner's office and the players' association teamed up to lock him out of the game after his final season, 2001. He still dreams of baseball. "I wake up in the middle of the night sweating, sometimes with tears," he said. "Like: Wait, am I still playing?"

He stared at the fire. A set of colored contact lenses turned his brown eyes a reptilian shade of gray: In a bad horror movie he'd be cast as a zombie, or the devil. It had been eight months since the hearings. If Canseco hadn't been proved exactly right, he seemed to stand closest to the truth. Anywhere but in a land of lost souls, that might count for something. "People in my industry are never truly happy and always lonely," Canseco said. "We'll leave it at that."

Selig and his office seemed to be either DUPLICITOUS or just clueless.

Schilling said that he had "grossly OVERSTATED" the problem.

One legislator called Canseco "the MOST HONEST guy in the crowd."

PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONMARK WILSON/GETTY IMAGES (4) Photo illustration by SI Imaging  SHOW OF HANDS
Under oath, (from left) McGwire, Sosa, Canseco and Palmeiro offered differing versions of the facts--or nothing at all.
PHOTOMIKE THEILER/EPA PHOTOMARK WILSON/GETTY IMAGES PHOTOSIMON BRUTY

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