More media event than substance

Hours before Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco and other big-name former and current players arrived for Thursday’s congressional inquiry into steroid abuse in Major League Baseball, the line to get into the House Government Reform Committee hearing snaked along one long, marble hallway of the Rayburn House Office Building and around a corner.

This was a fidgety train of autograph-seeking fans, celebrity chasers and civics students, of lobbyists who came on other business but couldn’t resist the diversion, of government workers playing hooky for a couple of hours and hoping their bosses wouldn’t see them on TV. Most said that professional baseball needs to be taken to the woodshed and that they hoped the hearings would curb steroid use by players. Some said the hearings were pure theater _ but that was OK with them.

“McGwire’s the one I want,” said Zach Abel, a 25-year-old insurance agent with darting eyes who carried an Oakland A’s jersey stuffed in a plastic grocery bag. “I also need Canseco on a helmet,” he said, “but that’s very unlikely.”

Parents like Gary and Terri Weaver of Jacksonville, Fla., brought their children _ officially, to teach them about the workings of Congress and the dangers of illegal steroids, but unofficially to score coolness points for getting them in the same room as their sports heroes. That included outspoken steroid opponents such as Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, but also some baseball heroes accused of the very abuses that prompted the hearings.

Some of those in line said they’d gotten there shortly after 7 a.m. But with so much demand and relatively little room, most wouldn’t get what they came for. Guards let in the public only nine at a time, for half-hour shifts, beginning at 10 a.m. The players wouldn’t begin testifying until the afternoon.

Hundreds of reporters, producers, photographers and camera crews were on the scene. Some had access to the hearing room. Others watched from an overflow room. Dozens more lurked in the halls, scouting out hidden elevators and secret passageways through which the players and league officials might be escorted to avoid being mobbed.

Just before noon, a group of men in suits, including a tall, well-built figure with a familiar gait, emerged from one office perhaps 100 feet away from a pack of cameras, and turned away down the hall. Crews snapped to attention. Camera lights flicked on. Microphones on poles shot up into the air. “Is that Sosa? Is that Sosa?!” shouted one cameraman. “Sammy!” others joined in. Where was he going? “There’s a bathroom down there,” one cameraman offered, and the others laughed at their own overkill.

Until it was time to testify, several of the players were sequestered in separate rooms in offices off one side of the hearing room.

Canseco, an admitted steroid user who has made enemies of several of his former colleagues with his bestselling book in which he names players with whom he claims to have juiced, waited in the nearby office of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, a member of the committee, whose staff described Canseco as a constituent.

But the congresswoman, unlike her constituent, wasn’t eager to dish about their private conversation. “I’m sure that he loves the media attention,” she said, letting it go at that. “He’s trying to sell a book.”