Still more questions than answers in Palmeiro case

Sports Views

Posted: Friday, August 05, 2005

Nobody likes being lied to. But only Congress gets to make a federal case out of it.

And bully for them in this case, since everybody else involved in baseball’s ongoing steroid sham is either unwilling or unable to do anything about it.

Three weeks ago, Rafael Palmeiro doubled into the left-field corner in Seattle for his 3,000th hit and got a three-minute standing ovation. That applause wouldn’t sound the same today. And while the 39,000 paying customers and everybody else looking on that night can’t do anything about it, Congress is another story.

Five months ago, Palmeiro poked a finger in lawmakers’ faces and swore under oath he never used steroids. Now the facts say otherwise. And not just any steroid, but that ol’ demon stanozolol, so powerful it can be obtained legally only with a prescription.

It’s as likely to turn up in an over-the-counter supplement as Drano.

Still, given how much abuse Palmeiro has already taken, pursuing a perjury rap might seem like a vendetta to some. Fine. That’s never stopped Congress before.

‘‘If we did nothing,’’ House Government Reform Committee chairman Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., said earlier this week, ‘‘I think we’d look like idiots. Don’t you?’’

I wouldn’t touch that one with a 10-foot Louisville Slugger, but there’s a few people who ought to be compelled to answer it under oath.

According to a handful of reports, Palmeiro was informed of his positive test in May, as were Gene Orza, the union’s No. 2 man, and Rob Manfred, MLB’s executive vice president for labor relations. That was required under the drug-testing policy. Under that same policy, a player has a right to challenge the result and a panel made up of Orza, Manfred and two doctors — each side chooses one — decides whether to send the appeal to an arbitrator. A single ‘‘yes’’ vote by any of the four members of the panel, called ‘‘HPAC,’’ is all it takes.

Six players tested positive before Palmeiro did, and every one of them invoked the ‘‘contaminated-supplement’’ defense. Though it’s a plausible explanation, just barely, not one of those cases reached an arbitrator, and the names of all six ballplayers were made public soon after the positive test.

It would be interesting to know who cast the ‘‘yes’’ vote.

The timing was interesting, too, because once an appeal reaches an arbitrator, letting due process run its course can take several months. In this case, it ran on long enough for Palmeiro to collect his 3,000th hit.

Now imagine the reaction on that warm July night in Seattle if the rest of us knew then what we know now.

At the outset of the congressional hearings in March, Congress’ threat to close the loopholes in the drug policies of the major pro sports leagues sounded very much like a bluff. Now, two separate bills have passed out of committee and could hit the floor when lawmakers return from vacation next week.

When commissioner Bud Selig finally broke his silence Thursday, he repeated his call for a stricter drug program. He says his hands are tied. It was almost as if he was egging on Congress.

‘‘While I believe the suspensions show that the current program is working, they underscore the need for an even tougher policy. There is a deeper issue confronting baseball,’’ Selig said in a statement. ‘‘It is the integrity of the game and that transcends the viability of the current program.’’

Just like baseball, isn’t it, to make a mess and dare somebody else — anybody else — to clean it up?

This time, though, they might have poked the wrong people. Congress is leaning hard in favor of an Olympic-caliber drug-testing program. There’s more independent review at every step, the process is more transparent from start to finish, and as a result, rulings are not only just, but usually swift.

Plus, the penalties bring a two-year ban with the first offense and strike two means you’re out — forever. Oh, and there’s this, too: Olympic officials can expedite appeals to keep athletes who test positive out of big competitions in advance, or failing that, write them out of the records books afterward. Imagine that.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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