Batter up!

Congress needs to decide right now whether Major League Baseball and its players union are bigger than it is; whether involvement in the mythical national pastime gives a group of wealthy capitalists and the relatively small number of men they employ the right to defy the legislature’s constitutional authority; whether hitting a horsehide sphere with a wooden bat makes a person more important than one who has been duly elected to draft, debate and adopt the laws of the land.

It is just that simple.

Major League Baseball’s conduct in the steroid scandal is a disgrace and has been for sometime. It is so deeply flawed and innately corrupted by the greed of those involved in it that drastic measures are needed to restore even a modicum of integrity.

Hysterical? I don’t think so. What else is one to conclude when the game is so riddled with the misuse of chemicals that the breaking of precious, highly marketable records is in essence wholesale fraud against the fans? What else can we think when the sport’s lawyers announce their intention to try to thwart congressional subpoenas, claiming the House was exceeding and misusing its power when one of its committees issued hearing summonses for some of the game’s present and former big-time sluggers.

Baseball officials back in the early 1920s were able to con the Supreme Court into giving them an exemption from the antitrust laws of the nation. Through the decades they have managed the game’s growth with unrelenting self-interest while hypocritically painting the sport as an integral part of the American fabric. In the last 40 years or so they have made the players a part of their perfidy, the latest example of which is to turn a blind eye to a burgeoning use of dangerous, illegal, performance-enhancing drugs because those using them attracted fans to fill ballparks.

And when the epidemic became so blatant as to call into question the legitimacy of all those home runs and a federal grand jury investigation began to erode confidence in the game itself, they finally moved to install some rules about shooting up in locker-room toilets or wherever _ but only after they were threatened with congressional intervention by a real hero, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

The MLB contends that the House Government Reform Committee is really doing this for: a.) publicity; b.) politics and c.) “prurient” interests. How astonishing that a congressional committee would have some political or exploitive reasons for doing something. As for the prurient part, one can only guess what that means.

Sometimes congressional power is abused _ as it was in the McCarthy era _ but that is beside the point. It is Congress’ business to look into situations that might need correcting through legislation, and often that requires playing hardball with reluctant witnesses, even granting immunity from prosecution to get them to say more than a recitation of their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. So if members of this committee have any fortitude, they will take this into extra innings.

There is no doubt that the absence of superstar Barry Bonds, who became a prodigious home-run hitter after 35 by greatly increasing his size overnight, unfortunately casts a pall over the committee’s objectives and threatens its credibility. But the players who were subpoenaed _ current players Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Jason Giambi, Curt Schilling and Frank Thomas and retired players Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco _ are enough to get the ball rolling. Canseco was a notorious steroids user and distributor and has implicated others in a new book.

If there is any legitimacy to a reform movement, two things need to be accomplished quickly. Congress should not only conduct full hearings in both houses but the result should be a law making it a criminal offense not only to distribute this stuff but to use it. Any player in any sport caught even once should be banned from the game for life and face charges. Testing should be done once a month at unannounced times and the testing procedures should be kept up to date with masking technology. The expense should be born by the reigning authority of the sport. Records _ home runs, for example _ of perpetrators should be expunged.

Secondly, it is time to eliminate the antitrust exemption for MLB and treat those who have owned the sport all these years like any other commercial enterprise. It never really has been the third leg of the American stool along with motherhood and apple pie.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)