The Federal government cracks down on pumping up in Major League Baseball

The use of performance-enhancing drugs is an issue that has been hanging around the baseball diamond for a long time, but now it's moving out of its friendly confines to a new, more hostile playing field: the United States Congress.

The House Government Reform Committee has subpoenaed seven current or former Major League Baseball (MLB) stars and four of its top executives to testify on the subject of steroid use in America 's national pastime; the House Energy and Commerce Committee has also discussed the issue and is thinking about writing baseball personnel into its lineup as well.

Steroid use in professional sports has been a concern since the days before protective screens behind home plate, so why is the federal government getting involved now?

First there were the federal indictments in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) scandal, which accused the company's founder Victor Conte and several associates of distributing steroids to high caliber professional athletes. During grand jury testimony, MLB players such as the New York Yankees' Jason Giambi and the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds admitted to using performance enhancers, although Bonds maintains he did so unknowingly.

In a sport with statistics on just about everything you could imagine, the rate of steroid use in Major League Baseball is surprisingly difficult to pin down.

There was also the release of Jose Canseco's book "Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, And How Baseball Got Big," which was akin to throwing a fastball right into Congress's wheelhouse. The former Oakland Athletics slugger admitted to using steroids and also implicated several teammates, including fan favorite Mark McGwire, who broke baseball's single season homerun record in 1998 only to see it surpassed by Bonds in 2001.

These events, along with baseball's reluctance to police itself, have led members of the federal government to ask for major changes in the Major League. After the leak of Bonds' and Giambi's grand jury testimony, Senator John McCain of Arizona warned that he would introduce legislation on drug testing standards in professional sports if MLB players and owners didn't do so on their own. Baseball had adopted a testing policy in 2002, but it has been lambasted as too lenient.

MLB owners and players answered McCain's call for a more stringent drug testing policy in January of this year. Along with a different testing schedule, the new program also succeeded in banning ephedra and human growth hormone. From now on, every player will be tested once throughout the season, which includes spring training. After the first test, a player can be tested an unlimited number of times both during the season and in the off-season.

First time offenders will be publicly identified as having failed a drug test and suspended for 10 days. The second, third, and fourth offenses result in suspensions of 30, 60, and one year, respectively. The penalty for the fifth offense is at the discretion of the Commissioner, and all penalties are without pay.

But not everyone is happy with the new policy, including Senator McCain who still finds the penalties too soft, and would rather see a lifetime ban for repeat offenders as in the minor leagues. Other detractors say that without banning amphetamines—stimulants that help players stay alert through the harsh 162-game season—the policy will fail in its attempt to bat clean up.

McCain threw out the first pitch with the threats for governmentally legislated drug testing, and MLB responded, but now Congressional committees have been called in from the bullpen. With its exceedingly broad mandate to investigate nearly anything that involves the federal government, the House Government Reform Committee wants to get to the bottom of what it calls a growing scandal.

In the Committee's starting lineup are five players accused of steroid use—Jason Giambi, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, and Jose Canseco. The other two players subpoenaed were pitcher Curt Schilling and slugger Frank Thomas, both of whom have strongly and publicly criticized the use of performance enhancing drugs.

Baseball suits include Rob Manfred, the executive vice president of Major League Baseball and Commissioner Bud Selig's go-to-guy on the issue of steroids, Sandy Alderson, the executive vice president for baseball operations, Kevin Towers, the general manager of the San Diego Padres, and Donald Fehr, the executive director of the players' union.

Critics of the Congressional hearings wonder why the government is concerned with such an issue when there are many other problems facing the United States , not the least of which are an ongoing war and a struggling economy. Moreover, many argue that even if the government has a place in baseball's dugout, perhaps it should first address other matters such as racial discrimination in the game and the reportedly dangerous living conditions within Dominican baseball camps run by some Major League teams.

In a sport with statistics on just about everything you could imagine, the rate of steroid use in Major League Baseball is surprisingly difficult to pin down. It has been estimated that anywhere between 5% and 60% of players use performance enhancing drugs. In 2003, the first year of baseball's testing policy, between 5% and 7% of tests were positive, but no players were suspended. Regardless of the exact numbers of steroid users, though, players themselves want a strict testing program, with 78% of Major Leaguers in favor of such a policy in a 2002 USA Today poll.

Justifications behind this recent war on steroids include the noted health risks involved with their use, basic notions of fair play and competition, and the attempt to repair baseball's tainted image and restore the oft-mentioned "integrity of the game." But Senator McCain maintains that he is most concerned with the children of the sport, especially high school players who feel that using steroids is the only way to make it into the Majors.

Whether Congress will strike out or hit a homerun with these hearings remains to be seen, but one thing we can write in pen on our scorecards is that if the subpoenaed players and executives do show up at the park, we can expect a game of hard ball.