One reputation is in tatters, another could be

Once, he was compared to Babe Ruth.

Thursday, he was compared to Enron.

That's not what you call a great day on Capitol Hill. But that's the kind of day it was for a fallen living legend named Mark McGwire.

People are never going to look at him the same now. Not after a day of dodging questions the way he once dodged fastballs steaming toward his eyebrows.

Legally, of course, McGwire didn't have to answer those questions. Remember that. The men who wrote the Constitution handed him that right. So in a way, all he did was exercise his fundamental right to avoid ensconcing himself in a whole mess of trouble.

But a lot of good that will do Not So Big Mac with millions of people who once loved him, cheered him, froze their existences those four times a night when he walked toward home plate.

It was way too clear what he didn't want to talk about and why he didn't want to talk about it. Now he has to know, just as we know, what that means.

It means he drove his reputation off a cliff Thursday, and left his legacy irreparably splattered. Very possibly beyond repair.

He didn't want to talk about the past. That's what he said. But now, that part he didn't want to talk about is all anyone else will ever want to talk about. And that ain't good.

Once, we could reminisce for hours about that 70-homer magic-carpet ride seven years deep in his past. Witnessing that was the thrill of a lifetime -- at the time.

Now, that's the portion of his past we won't want to talk about anymore. That was one fairy tale that won't be ending happily ever after now.

"There's a simple way to solve this," Rep. Mark Souder lectured him Thursday, "(by saying), 'I am clean.' … The American people can figure out who's willing to say that and who isn't.

"If the Enron people came in and said, 'I don't want to talk about the past,' " Souder went on, looking McGwire straight in the eyeballs, "you think we'd let them say that?"

Well, Mark McGwire didn't steal all the savings in anybody's 401K. Let's get that straight. He has such a special compassion for children that he practically broke down talking about those parents who say they lost their sons to steroid-induced suicide. And he's a good enough human being that we're even willing to take him at his word when he says he wants to "do everything I can to turn this from a negative thing into a positive thing."

So to lump him in there with Ken Lay is a little much. Sorry, Congressman.

And let's give him one more shred of sympathy. Nobody would want to be put in the position this committee put McGwire in Thursday -- dragged in front of Congress, TV cameras rolling, essentially declaring him guilty the moment he walked into the room unless he could figure out some way to prove himself innocent.

We said last week we had a problem with Congress placing anybody in that un-American position. We still do.

But Congress has the Constitutional right to ignore every word we type, too. So it did what it did. McGwire said what he said. And when they were all through, the cloud over the sport McGwire once rescued was darker than ever.

Which doesn't mean that something good can't come of this 11-hour exercise in Congressional windbaggery. Because it can.

If the men who run baseball -- primarily commisioner Bud Selig and his union cohort, Don Fehr -- were really listening closely Thursday, they can't spend the next six months bragging about their new agreement and telling us all to give it a chance to work.

Heck, if they spend the next six hours doing that, they're making a big mistake.

Even if that policy is working -- and we'll admit we think it's had an impact -- the moral of Thursday's story was that Congress doesn't believe that. And most of the American public doesn't believe that. So that leaves Bud and Don two choices:

  1. They can sprint out of the hearing room, head right back into negotiations and come up with an even tougher plan.

  2. They can head back to the luxury boxes and let Congress work it out for them.

We know which of those choices we'd make. It's as simple as a 3-0 fastball.

We assume Bud and Don were paying attention when their good buddy, sidearming Sen. Jim Bunning, grumbled that "baseball needs to get its act together -- or else."

If they were, which part of "or else" didn't they understand?

There were lots of fun threats along the way: Watch us make your antitrust exemption disappear. Watch us amend the labor laws. Watch us pass a law that says you have to enforce the Olympic drug policies.

Bud and Don might want to heed those threats, even if they've heard them before.

There was even fire-breathing Rep. Henry Waxman's parting shot: "Maybe it's time for new leadership in baseball."

As votes of confidence go, it wasn't exactly a tickertape parade for Congress' favorite commish.

On one hand, Selig did survive the day better than he did in his 2001 competitive-balance appearance on the Hill -- when they all but ran him over with a steamroller.

On the other hand, you could see flames burning in the eyes of some of his Congressional pals Thursday, every time the commish blew an opportunity to say, at least once: "We really screwed up in the '90s -- all of us."

It's OK to say, as Selig did, that "I wish I knew in 1995, '96, '97 and '98 what I know now." We know lots of people in the press corps who feel the same way. Ourselves included.

But when you're a leader of something known as the National Pastime, you need to go beyond that. You need to say: "I should have known more. I should have done more. I should have investigated earlier." Even if he doesn't believe that, he should have said it. Taking responsibility is part of the commissioner's job description.

Then again, maybe the worst part of this day was that just about nobody took any responsibility.

Jose Canseco did a 180 on stuff he said in his own book, then used the alibi that it was because he wrote it two years ago. Whereupon Rep. Stephen Lynch sneered: "I'll wait for the sequel."

Curt Schilling, who otherwise comported himself better than almost anyone in the room, still backed off many of the anti-steroid quotes that got him invited to this party in the first place.

Fehr continued to defend the almost-indefensible Five Strikes And You're Out (Maybe) punishment phase of the new steroid policy.

And our good friends in Congress were a veritable Niagara Falls of mangled statistics, faulty research, misinformed criticism and stunning lack of familiarity with even baseball's recent history in this area.

But nothing was sadder than the sight of Big Mac saying countless times: "I'm not here to talk about the past." Once, he was a charismatic and respectful link to the glories in baseball's past. Now he's just a living symbol of its biggest screw-up of the last half-century.

Rep. Tom Davis, the man who chaired this committee with extraordinary dignity, started the day by saying he wanted to hold this hearing to shine "sunlight" on a sport he loves. But 11 hours later, it sure felt like baseball had a whole new hurricane on its hands.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.