Hearing proves a hard ticket to get

WASHINGTON -- The line began forming in the chilly darkness before 6 a.m., the kind of queue that could be found outside ballparks and arenas across the country in the days and hours before tickets to a jewel event were about to come available. This was a line of insanely devoted fans, to baseball, and even more than that, the truth.

Justin Keelty, a paralegal who works in town, was among the first to arrive, assuring himself a seat in the hearing room at the Rayburn building, once it opened 90 minutes later. In the minutes before he was escorted into the chamber, Keelty was feeling good about his pre-dawn sacrifice.

"There are a lot of line-holders here -- professionals," he said. "Stiff competition."

Behind him, formed against the wall, were about 150 people from all walks of life. Over the next 11 hours, they would rotate into the chamber in groups of nine, for a half hour each, as there were no more than nine chairs available to the public once the journalists, Congressmen, administrative staff, witnesses and special guests were accounted for.

Baseball was on trial, an event that was not to be missed.

As dozens of cameras pointed at Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, Capitol Hill veterans could be heard remarking that the last hearing that drew as much public attention was the Clinton impeachment effort. Enron, two wars and prescription drugs since had been debated in these halls, but nothing compared, in media intensity, to the spectacle of subpoenaed sluggers under oath.

Their presence made Rayburn room 2154 feel like a night game at Fenway. Bright lights focused down on the players from on high in the tall room, like stadium lights, and the questions from committee members boomed through large speakers on each side of the room, like a P.A. announcer signaling what comes next. The busy, low-level chatter filtering in from the hallway was surely what Sammy Sosa had heard plenty of times before, in third innings of 1-0 games with two out and none on.

Rep. Tom Davis, the lawyerly Virginia Republican who called the hearing as chair of the House Committee on Government Reform, even opened the event by invoking baseball lyricism:

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere; and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville -- until the truth comes out.

It was what Keelty, who grew up in Baltimore as a Cal Ripken fan, was there for.

"I think baseball can handle the truth," he said. "The context of steroids is going to come out, in that you had to do it if you were going to succeed. People are going to realize that."

By the end of testimony by U.S. Senator, Hall of Fame pitcher and opening witness Jim Bunning, though, Keelty had been cycled out of the room. His half-hour admission pass had expired. It would be hours before the players, in the third of four panels, would arrive.

The tension was palpable in the minutes before the players appeared in the hearing room. All eyes were on the left rear doorway where they were expected to enter.

"Please take your seats," a committee aide implored to the media, nearly all whose members were standing.

No one sat down.

"Please take your seats!" the aide said again, raising his voice.

At that, a handful of the several dozen reporters in the room plopped down -- only to be roused again a minute later by a buzz coming from the corner of the room. It was just a false alarm. A foul ball, essentially.

When the players finally entered the room, filling the doorway, Curt Schilling sat on one end of the witness table, Canseco on the other. Just over Canseco's right shoulder, maybe five feet away, in the front-row seat assigned to him by the committee, was baseball commissioner Bud Selig. It was a shot made for TV.

Just behind McGwire, in their assigned seats, were Denise and Raymond Garibaldi. The Bay Area psychologist and business consultant, whose son Rob shot himself in the head in 2002 after taking steroids, had just told their story, in moving terms, to the committee members.

When the players finished their testimony, while getting up to leave, Schilling and Rafael Palmeiro took a moment to greet the family.

"Bravo!" Denise Garibaldi said to them, applauding the players' willingness to lead a new, cultural fight against steroids.

McGwire, Sosa and Canseco, though, said nothing to the Garibaldis.

"You know, McGwire went to the same college as Rob," said Raymond, whose son played baseball at USC, just like the former St. Louis Cardinals and Oakland A's home run champ.

Raymond's round face betrayed disappointment for McGwire's declining to answer under oath whether he took steroids. McGwire was a hero to Rob Garibaldi, a player whose swing he dissected on video in an effort to improve as a player.

"It's really important that he, or any of these guys, come forward," Raymond said. "They just need to move on. For the kids, and for the game itself."

Interjecting, Denise noted, "What's important is that my son thought (McGwire) was doing steroids." Then she smiled, somehow, her consolation being the dissemination of what she considers an important message.

Outside the hearing room, finally at the front of the queue, Sean Spicer, a 33-year-old from Rhode Island, draped a replica of Schilling's jersey over his right arm. The cuff of his dress shirt revealed a monogram of Spicer's name, S.M.S.

"Us Red Sox fans have waited 80 years to get a jersey like this signed," he said.

A minute later, less interested in legislative theater than hero worship, Spicer gave up his spot at the front of the line to take a up a position at the end of the hallway, where he figured Schilling would pass through after exiting the hearing.

By the end of the hearing, only one member of the public was still around. The long day had chased off everyone except Michael Culotta, 24, a law student at American University.

But Culotta could not be disturbed. Wearing baggy pants and a sweater, he slumped in a chair in the rear of the room, two rows behind Jeff Novitzky, the young IRS agent who headed up the BALCO investigation in San Francisco but was in D.C. only to observe the committee hearing. Squinting as Selig and players' union chief Don Fehr evaded questions from the committee, Culotta tried to make sense of baseball's drug policy, its attitude about steroids -- and, by extension, his childhood.

"I was 18 years old when McGwire and Sosa went head-to-head (in the 1998 season)," he said. "I fell in love with those guys. Now it feels like I've been hit in the gut, by them not speaking up much about what they used."

With that, Culotta pushed on the brown, wooden door and left the room. He did not look inspired by greatness.

Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at tom.farrey@espn3.com.