Does A-Rod Have a Date With Congress?

As with the banks, the real danger to Major League Baseball is not about the star players; it’s about what remains hidden.

Alex Rodriguez confessing to
steroid use (

Yesterday’s interview with Peter Gammons of ESPN was intended to answer, and in so doing quell, the explosive news that New York Yankees’ slugger Alex Rodriguez tested positive for anabolic steroids in 2003. Yes, he did it, Rodriguez haltingly confessed. His admission had all the hallmarks of a professionally managed damage-control campaign: the intimate home setting, the soft sweater*, the furrowed look of concern, the cloying phraseology (“I was young and naïve”—didn’t Monica Lewinsky say that!?), and, because he’s a Yankee and therefore a dim bulb, the utter inability to pull it off convincingly. All of it was geared toward “putting this behind him” and ensuring that it be only a one-day story.

Well, not so fast, buddy! If today’s letter from Representative Elijah Cummings of the Government Reform Committee is any indication, the Alex Rodriguez Repentance Tour may soon be extended to feature an engagement in Washington, D.C., where the pinstriped pincushion could face the unpleasant prospect of a congressional grilling. As Newsday reports, “Cummings (D-Md.) plans to recommend to the head of the congressional committee that has previously hosted baseball players that A-Rod receive an invite to testify about his steroid use.”

In light of the enormous impact Congress and the Justice Department have had on professional baseball in the last few years, it’s worth unpacking what this might mean for Rodriguez and the league. First, the Newsday story indicates only obliquely that Cummings is not the committee chairman and therefore cannot convene a hearing. It doesn’t mention, either, that Henry Waxman, the guy who convened the last one (and whose investigation claimed another big name today, Miguel Tejada) has left to chair another committee. Nor does it mention that Waxman’s successor at Government Reform, Edolphus Towns, is widely viewed within his own party as incapable and likely uninterested in pursuing the kind of aggressive oversight the committee is famous for—in fact, Cummings himself (who’s no slouch) briefly considered challenging him for the chairmanship last year.

The broader limitation might be the question of what a hearing would accomplish, other than perhaps establishing in the congressional record that playing baseball on steroids did indeed help Alex Rodriguez hit the ball harder and longer (except, of course, in the clutch). Waxman’s original reason for taking up the issue was to try and end Major League Baseball’s rampant steroid abuse, which he thought was exacerbating a public health problem: teenagers were using steroids in record numbers. Cummings indicates in his threat/invitation-to-testify that this remains his interest: “Mr. Rodriguez made the right move by admitting his mistake, and he must now go one step further by working with us to spread the message that performance enhancing drugs are illegal, unethical, and—most importantly—harmful to our young people.” But since the drug abuse Rodriguez has admitted to occurred before baseball instituted a tougher steroids policy—and since the trend toward teenage steroid use has since reversed itself—it’s hard to see what public policy benefits a Rodriguez hearing might yield.

Of course, high-minded policy concerns aren’t the only reason congressmen hold hearings. Having Rodriguez in the witness chair would launch a media circus tantamount to the one that surrounded Roger Clemens, and would be sure to bring lots of fame to his most vigorous interrogators. And if Congress is determined to force baseball to take further accountability for the Steroids Era, deposing Rodriguez under oath might yield some interesting information (such as who supplied his drugs).

But the far likelier course, it seems to me, is that Washington involvement in the Rodriguez case will not bring new criminal charges. Instead, it will intensify and prolong the horrible public relations problems of Major League Baseball in much the same way that its (far more justified) intervention in the financial crisis has caused such a serious black eye for banks. As with the banks, the real danger to baseball is not what we have discovered about the overpaid idiots atop the profession; it’s about what remains hidden.

Rodriguez was one of 104 major leaguers who tested positive for steroids in 2003. He was caught because someone leaked his name. There remain 103 more names still hidden like toxic assets on a balance sheet, waiting to be revealed. (And I can certainly help if anyone feels like leaking them!) After Roger Clemens foolishly insisted on a hearing before the Government Reform Committee, every one of his secrets down to the abscesses on his buttocks quickly became a matter of public record. If Rodriguez testifies, I’ll bet the 103 other players do, too.

That’s a worse scenario for Major League Baseball than for Alex Rodriguez, who probably can focus instead on the lifetime of heckling he’ll now have to endure, at least if I can score tickets. But there is one scenario—so poetically just that you have to root for it—that could pretty much ruin Rodriguez once and for all. The House rules stipulate that “the Committee on Government Reform may at any time conduct investigations of any matter” (italics mine), which is how Waxman and Tom Davis justified the original steroids hearings in 2005. But the rules also make clear that the committee with formal jurisdiction over professional baseball and steroids is Energy and Commerce. That committee recently got a new chairman: Henry Waxman.

*Gary Condit called: he wants his sweater back.

UPDATE 2/11: Sure enough, Edolphus Towns declined to convene an A-Rod hearing. Looks like it’s up to Waxman. Unless 39 Democrats switch parties and give the Republicans a shot. They seem to like high dudgeon.