Baseball: Big hitters strike out following accusations of steroid use

Not long ago, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and Jose Canseco would have been a baseball dream team, four of the modern era's mightiest sluggers, owners of a combined 2,170 home runs and counting.

Not long ago, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and Jose Canseco would have been a baseball dream team, four of the modern era's mightiest sluggers, owners of a combined 2,170 home runs and counting.

Yesterday the quartet were in the dock on Capitol Hill, at odds with each other, facing charges of using illicit drugs to inflate their performances, devaluing some of the game's most hallowed records and setting a deadly example to young sportsmen.

In an atmosphere crackling with tension, the four were sworn in to testify before the House Committee on Government Reform - surrounded not by fans but by lawyers, inquisitorial Congressmen and unrespecting reporters.

The hearings have embarrassed major-league baseball to the point that angry officials have likened them to the infamous McCarthyite witch-hunts of the 1950s. Proceedings began in precisely that vein, amid accusations that baseball had failed to tackle its cancer within. "For 30 years Major League Baseball has told us to trust them, but the league hasn't honoured that trust," Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California, charged.

In emotional opening statements, Mr Sosa and Mr Palmeiro flatly denied using illegal drugs: "I have not taken steroids, period," said Mr Palmeiro, 10th on the all-time career list with 551 homers. Mr Sosa, with 574 lifetime homers, also denied using drugs.

Not so the two central players in the drama, Mr Canseco and Mr McGwire. Once they were the "Bash Brothers", twin superstars of the Oakland Athletics in the 1980s and early 1990s. Yesterday they were enemies, united only by their decision to take the fifth amendment to avoid self-incrimination.

Baseball's steroid scandal began with the 2003 Balco affair, involving the game's premier hitter, Barry Bonds. It acquired critical mass last month with the publication of Mr Canseco's book, Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big , freely admitting his own use, and claiming that he and Mr McGwire had injected each other with steroids in the locker-room.

"I won't dignify Mr Canseco's with a comment," Mr McGwire said, his voice crackling with anger, as his former teammate turned away. But at no point did Mr McGwire deny using drugs. Mr Canseco also indicated he would refuse to answer questions in case they created legal difficulties.

As recently as 1998, Mr McGwire and Mr Sosa staged a thrilling home-run race, credited with restoring baseball's popularity after the 1994-5 strike. But now Mr McGwire's single-season record of 70 homers is under a cloud.

Earlier, the parents of two teenage athletes who committed suicide after steroid-induced depressions bitterly criticised the players, their union and the management of major-league baseball.

"Players that are guilty of taking steroids are not only cheaters - you are cowards," said Donald Hooton, whose 17-year-old son hanged himself in 2003.

Driven by growing outcry, baseball has stiffened punishments for steroid abuse. But critics complain that they are still too lenient. A first offender is suspended for 10 games. In athletics, a first offence brings an automatic two-year ban.

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