The congressional confessional

Funny the way a congressional subpoena works sometimes. Take for instance, the big goat-rope scheduled later this week to tackle (well, dive at, flail and ultimately miss) the performance-enhancement drug problem in baseball.

In the space of five days, Major League Baseball's hierarchy fell in love with both individual rights (well, its own, anyway) and its own union (at least for a day or two, anyway). And then, while MLB and Congress were horse-trading over who would actually get called before C-SPAN's prurient eyes, two more land mines went off.

The first, Jeremy Giambi's admission that he once did steroids, did not create that much of a ripple.

The second, that two steroid dealers told the FBI that a third dealer allegedly sold steroids to both Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, did.

Thus, we have now reached the ants-on-a-hot-brick stage of this story, in which a flood of whispers and confessions are about to dig their way out from beneath the topsoil, either in fear of Congress or in hopes of getting out in front of whatever legal niceties come next.

Much was made of the congressional hearings, comparing them alternately to Lord Baltimore and the mercenaries tracking Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or the House Un-American Activities Committee of the '50s. In fact, the great likelihood is that they will come closer to the cast of "It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World" than either of the other alternatives, mostly because Congress is fuller than ever with bloviating attention sluts who understand neither the chemistry nor the culture that makes steroids attractive.

But we digress.

The value of the hearings, other than the fact that Congress wasn't going to spend any time on health care anyway, is that their very existence discomfits Major League Baseball for its purposeful blind eye. But as a long-term solution, it has the legal force of an old man sitting on his stoop shaking his fist at schoolchildren and snarling, "Why, if I was 55 years younger ..."

Still, there seems to be an as-yet-unidentified undercurrent beginning here, perhaps as a result of the hearings and perhaps not. I mean, with all due respect to the throw-weight of the Kansas City Star, it is hard to see how one pointed question could get Jeremy Giambi to cut loose, or that suddenly FBI sources are finding the New York Daily News' T.J. Quinn that irresistible an interrogator.

The squeeze, in short, is beginning, and while it is hard to know how hard that squeeze will be, folks are now beginning to see a solution in running scared. Or ambitious. Funny the way those things go hand in hand.

Yes, panic is in the air and forces are on the move, and it would be easier for everyone's peace of mind if we knew which forces those were. But the status quo, baseball's idea of "Don't Ask, And For God's Sake Don't Tell," wasn't working for anyone either. There was just something too absurdly disingenuous about Bud Selig's let's-let-bygones-be-bygones argument for otherwise-idle politicians to let sit.

So one can reasonably expect more admissions of culpability, if not law enforcement leaks, in the next few weeks, because nature abhors a vacuum. Indeed, barring a sudden national mood swing away from this story and toward something else (and please, please, please let it not be Michael Jackson), this one is going to last a good long while, because the natural instinct to stonewall is matched in the physical world by the natural desire to break a stone wall down.

So the hearings will happen, and away from them other revelations, both big and small, will ensue. Former performance-enhancement devotees will be nervous for awhile, and baseball will be more vigilant on the subject, for awhile, and eventually we'll get off the competitive-advantage issue and the sanctity-of-the-records issue and onto the public health issue that this really is.

And then we'll find out that confession is occasionally good for more than the soul.

Either that, or this will be one more waste of time and money in the one place where wastes of time and money are S.O.P. ... Washington, D.C.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com