Tuesday, November 16, 2010

THE MITCHELL REPORT: “To Maintain the Integrity of the Game”

I’m not the only baseball fan apathetic about what was written in the Mitchell Report. The one major surprise for me concerning this report was that Former Senator George Mitchell, the Democrat from Maine, actually did his job.  The report names 89 players involved in taking steroids or human growth hormones (HGH) including star players such as Lenny Dykstra, David Justice, Chuck Knoblauch, Gary Sheffield, Miguel Tejada and Mo Vaughn.  To avoid the accusation that Mitchell concentrated only on batters taking the banned substance, Andy Pettitte (who now “admits” he took steroids for a two day period in 2002 while recovering from an injury) and, of course, Roger Clemens were pitchers whose steroid use was disclosed.  And to add balance, unknown players such as Alex Cabrera, who only had 80 major-league at bats in his short career, and Paxton Crawford, who pitched a mere 65 innings over two seasons before leaving Major League Baseball, were also named.  (That players such as Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodriguez were not named gives the report credibility in that it shows Mitchell refrained from using hearsay in preparing his report.)  Brian McNamee, a personal strength trainer and conditioning coach for many professional players cooperated with the investigation.  Kirk Radomski, a New York Mets clubhouse employee, not only helped out, he also produced copies of hundreds of checks, money orders and Fed Ex receipts showing the exchange of great sums of money for the banned substances.  Mitchell estimates that as many as thirty percent of current major league players are guilty of using the banned substances.  (Jose Canseco, probably not the most credible witness in the world, claims it was a high as eighty-five percent.)
Released on December 13, 2007, the 409-page Mitchell Report (and 37 page executive summary) is almost as thorough, dry and factual as the notes from an autopsy, yet it is “supposedly” bringing attention upon the steroid problem.  The Major League Baseball executives hired Mitchell on in the guise of uncovering the truth – like there was anything in the Mitchell Report that was truly unforeseen.  Realistically, we had some idea that the predictable outrage was coming more than ten years ago when Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa started shattering all of the homerun records.  The indignation finally only bubbled over when Barry Bonds, a known steroid user, became the homerun king in August of 2007.  (A congressional commission in 2005 to investigate baseball steroid usage was probably geared up in anticipation of the inevitable breaking of Hank Aaron’s home-run record by Bonds.  And it is now a “wait and see” to discover how the November 15, 2007 criminal indictment of Bonds will actually turn out.)  Yet during this same ten years, baseball revenues did not decrease.  In 2007, baseball took in more than six billion dollars.
What I believe Major League baseball truly wants to do with the report is to use it to bring down the powerful union, the Major League Baseball Player’s Association (MLBPA), for which Major League Baseball players are members headed up by Donald Fehr.  The MLBPA has historically not been patsies for the executives as say the players’ union for the NFL.  Since the days of Marvin Miller and free agency, the baseball players' union has won out in almost every negotiation.  Now Major League Baseball is holding a baseball bat over the union’s head.  Fehr now looks more sheepish when delivering his press conferences.  The Major League Baseball executives not only have appearances on their side by “looking out” for the interests of vulnerable children who are prey to the examples of their Major League heroes, they now have the government joining in to do their bidding on both sides of the aisle.
Senator John McCain, the Republican from Arizona stated in Iowa: “It is time for the player’s union to step forward to help save the reputation of the game.”  Congressman Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland, is quoted as saying: “We cannot afford to sit on the sidelines while some players destroy the integrity of this sport by engaging in the culture of cheating.”  In other words, let’s get the federal government involved.  It’s interesting that baseball is being singled out for this kind of treatment since steroid use in professional football and other sports is probably far more rampant.  The potential physical damage that can be incurred from steroid use, in any case, is obviously more prevalent in football than in baseball.  The physical contact in baseball that does occur is often, though not always, unintended.  In football, we now have defensive lineman weighing in at 280 pounds that run the forty in 4.4 seconds and who can bench press almost twice their weight tackling other players.
Mitchell, himself, had reported that the MLBPA had been uncooperative in his investigation, and this resulted in his not turning over his report to the union for review before its actual release.  Only two active players cooperated with Mitchell: Frank Thomas, who has not been implicated in any steroid use; and Jason Giambi, now 37 and at the tail end of his career, who is named as a substance abuse user in the report.  However, I think Mitchell understands more than many of the commentators why such cooperation was not forthcoming.  Nothing in the report would in anyway enhance any player’s reputation, and every player has a right to fear the consequences of being named.  Despite Mitchell’s recommendation that no retroactive measure be taken towards any of the named players, Mitchell has no control over what Major League Baseball will do.  As Bud Selig commented, “His report is a call to action, and I will act.”  And then there’s the anticipated follow-up by politicians and federal, state, county and city prosecutors.  Probably it will all mean nothing.  Named players may only face a two-week suspension from the game.  Next year’s season will probably see even more revenues brought in at the various baseball parks.  There will be no asterisks assigned by any broken record by a steroid user.  And in two years it will be all forgotten – or maybe we’ll have a new controversy to take its place (the most likely controversy of course being whether we allow any of the named players into Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame).
Hiring Mitchell on to create this report makes baseball management look respectable by creating the impression that they take this problem seriously.  More likely, baseball hoped that the whole controversy would be brushed under the rug.  The policy banning steroid use in baseball was not actually implemented until 2005 after the BALCO scandal came to the forefront implicating Barry Bonds.  Baseball had good reason to put off implementing the policy.  Homeruns, forty-year old pitchers who can throw the ball in the high nineties and other feats of athletic prowess bring baseball fans into the parks.  Major League Baseball probably is not interested in the truth, and their interest in the kids is at least partially (if not mostly) a public relations ploy.  What brought attention upon the actions of BALCO and increased steroid usage was the increased media scrutiny.  Until the 1960s, the media handled the subject of Major League Baseball tenderly.  And it took another forty years after that before the media even began addressing performance-enhancing drugs.  The media historically has been almost as neglectful in addressing any wrongdoing in baseball as the many executives who have a financial incentive in keeping that same wrongdoing quiet.  For example, I wonder how many editorials were actually written before 1947 concerning Major League Baseball not having a single black player in its lineups for the first fifty years of its existence.  I wonder if reporters ever went through the police blotters to discover domestic disturbances or alcohol related crimes involving ballplayers when such notables such as Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Jimmy Foxx and Hack Wilson played the game.  Who before the 1960s even gave a thought to the fact that baseball is 100% exempt from any federal anti-trust provisions?  The policy always was to hide the truth.  With the media treating baseball like it was entertainment, the Major League Executives treating it like it was a money making venture, and the United States Supreme Court proclaiming that it is vital to the very fabric of America’s way of life, baseball has achieved an iconic status that it does not deserve.
Major League Baseball Players are not responsible for any drug epidemic in this country.  We spend fifty billion dollars or more each year on the drug war and the results are negligible.  We actually think that changing the appearance of professional athletes as drug users to clean upstanding citizens is somehow going to make fewer children take drugs.  Forget about the role of good parenting and education.  Whether a Major League Baseball player does or does not take drugs is between he, his families, his teammates, his employers and nobody else.  If you as a citizen do not like it, stop buying the tickets and turn the television set off.  Hero worship to influence young and impressionable minds is not good public policy.
Unfortunately, one of life’s lessons is that simply because someone has the discipline to learn how to hit .300 or become fast enough to steal second base does not mean that the same person is an all around positive role model.  Nor is that athlete required to be so.  Even if we cleaned up the game, having a child propped up in front of the television for three hours while munching down bags of potato chips is not going to make them any better.  Sports can provide great physical and mental benefits to a child who would otherwise be locked up inside.  I agree that it can teach some young people about life.  But we have to use the sport as a means to make the child think as well as provide physical exercise.  An intelligent and well-adjusted child who does not believe all of the hype about the greatness of public personalities is the one who is going to make the right choices later in life.
Many fans only care because now it’s obvious: records will be broken by players that took drugs, and these players will be identified as cheaters.  The problem is now so prevalent that we will never entirely know what accomplishments are legitimate.  If we take away Bonds' homerun records, do we then make the record holders Sammy Sosa or Mark McGuire (or in the future Alex Rodriguez)?  Do we take away records from players that took steroids that were not banned by professional baseball until 2005?  And how will we ever know that the new record holders were also not steroid users – unless we go all the way back to the 1970s before the use of performance enhancing drugs became widespread?  Baseball can’t do that because that would be the equivalent of a death sentence for the game.  And so, like with Pete Rose who holds the all time lead in base hits while being permanently banned from the game, Major League Baseball and its fans have to learn to live with the ambiguity of just not knowing what records are or are not legitimate.  What’s more, so long as we continue to call baseball entertainment while spending billions of dollars on the game, hypocrisy concerning baseball will continue. 

December 16, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

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