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US Congress as baseball's cleanup hitter

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When the major leagues recently proclaimed that baseball was coming back to Washington, this is hardly what they had in mind.

The arrival of the Washington Nationals this spring was meant to herald the return of the national pastime to the nation's capital. In truth, it never left. Thursday's congressional hearing on baseball and steroids is merely the latest example of Congress's unique and historic connection to America's most storied sport.

Ever since 1922, when the Supreme Court exempted baseball from United States antitrust laws, Congress has felt a peculiar stewardship for the game - from expansion issues in the 1950s to labor laws in the 1990s. Combining the star power of some of baseball's most popular sluggers with theater of congressional klieg lights, Thursday's hearing has drawn the biggest crowd some here can recall - prompting the creation of three overflow galleries for the press and public.

To some, it's pure political grandstanding, as lawmakers latch on to one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement to create a little Hollywood flash. To others, it's a long overdue effort to clean up a besmirched game. To all, though, it's no surprise Congress has targeted baseball.

"Baseball is a sport that has a special status under laws passed by Congress because it's our national pastime," says Henry Waxman (D) of California. "We ought to review what's happening if [steroid laws aren't] being enforced in baseball."

The point of the hearings, say he and others, is to look into the culture of performance-enhancing drugs and to stamp it out. Rumors of widespread steroid use in Major League Baseball date back to the 1990s, shadowing the race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to break the single-season home run record in 1998. In 2003, federal investigators busted the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO), charging that it produced steroids for professional athletes, including baseball players.

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