Thursday, June 14, 2007

Commissioner's Threat to Suspend Giambi Is a Joke reported today that Commissioner Bud Selig has informed Jason Giambi that if he does not cooperate with Major League Baseball's steroids investigation headed by former Senator George Mitchell, he will be suspended for remarks he made to a USA Today reporter on May 18. Giambi told USA Today that, "I was wrong for doing that stuff" (obviously referring to steroids). More importantly, Giambi went on to say, "What we should have done a long time ago was stand up — players, ownership, everybody — and said: 'We made a mistake.'"

Selig's demand on Giambi is a farce from several different angles. From a legal standpoint, Selig and Mitchell can give Giambi immunity from punishment by MLB, but their amnesty powers do not extend any further. Presumably, the government can subpoena anything Giambi tells Mitchell. No competent defense attorney would advise his client to discuss illegal activity if the testimony could be used to prosecute the client at a later date.

Further, Selig's threat is toothless, since baseball has no grounds to suspend Giambi. Not only did he not explicitly admit to steroid use, under Selig's spineless leadership, players could not even be suspended for steroid use until 2005. So, what would Selig suspend Giambi for doing? For implying he did something that did not violate MLB's rules at the time that he did it? It is unlikely that any disciplinary action taken by Selig against Giambi for his remarks would survive an arbitration challenge.

Selig is being hung by a rope he himself created. Selig, the owners, and the general managers sat back and watched players bulk up and pound home runs at an aberrantly increasing pace, and they turned their heads and let it happen, basking in the financial benefit while cruising in a blissful state of denial.

After all, baseball was in trouble. After a labor impasse led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, baseball was at its lowest point when it returned in the 1995 season. Two events are often identified to as turning points in baseball's resurgence: Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig's "unbreakable" consecutive games played record, and the 1998 march on Roger Maris's single-season home run record by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, a journey that we now know was taken on a road littered with syringes. McGwire's testimony before Congress, where both his voice and spirit were broken and he could only manage lame demurrals to every question that he only wanted to talk about the future, changed forever the way he and his records are viewed. When McGwire was up for election to the Hall of Fame this year, he didn't even come close to election, a result that would have been thought impossible at the time of his retirement five years ago.

Any assertion that Selig and the rest of MLB didn't know about the influence of steroids is simply disingenuous. After all, Giambi's agent had the Yankees remove the word "steroids" from the slugger's contract when he signed his seven-year, $120 million deal with the club before the 2002 season. For Selig to act like Giambi's statement was some kind of revelation is just ridiculous. The quote was as big of a scoop as Alex Rodriguez's admission in spring training that he and Derek Jeter weren't close anymore after A Rod pathetically ripped Jeter in a 2001 Esquire interview.

In light of the admissions of a handful of retired players and leaked grand jury testimony from the BALCO investigation, it is now a foregone conclusion that steroids were a common scourge in baseball in the 1990s and early 2000s. It's not like the revelations were a shock, after watching players like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds not only smash longstanding home run records, but blow up to the size of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade floats.

Baseball stood by, let the players do their steroids, and never fought to enact any kind of anti-performance-enhancing drug policy. It wasn't until Congress hauled executives and players up to Capitol Hill for a hearing and threatened to take action on its own did Selig and players union chief Donald Fehr come up with a policy, one that was so weak that they had to agree to bolster it shortly thereafter.

Selig's appointment of Mitchell to investigate steroids was not only years too late, but was symbolic at best, since Mitchell has no subpoena power and, as we've seen, players are being advised that they can put themselves in legal jeopardy by cooperating.

And now, Selig has the nerve to act surprised by Giambi's statement and try to discipline him for it, playing the part of the innocent guardian of fair play in baseball. Is he that self-deluded? Or, does he think he can pull a fast one now that baseball is resurgent, breaking attendance records across the country?

Giambi is no saint, having cheated his way to a long-term, big-money contract, and then, with his financial future secured, watching as his body broke down, presumably, at least in part, from the drug abuse. But, his statement recognizes a key point, that ownership was just as complicit in the rise of steroid use as the players were. In this instance, he is right, and, even more importantly, he gave Selig an opening to take some blame and establish some credibility on the steroids issue going forward. Instead of making toothless threats and acting holier-than-thou (with the blood of the steroids massacre still fresh on his hands), all Selig had to do was say, "We certainly wish we had been more aggressive on this issue early on. While I don't condone Jason Giambi's actions, I will take this opportunity to say that we regret our inactivity on performance-enhancement drugs in the past, and I pledge that in the future, baseball will fight to eliminate them from our game, both for the good of fair competition and for the health of our players."

If Selig had stood up, taken responsibility, and moved on, he would have walked away with a pocket full of credibility. Can you imagine the leverage he would hold over Fehr on the issue? But, by acting as shocked as a professional wrestler accused of using a foreign object he just threw under the ring, he is left with as much credibility and respect as Vince McMahon.

Giambi is no hero, but he is nevertheless being unfairly treated by Selig. More importantly, Selig is making a bad situation worse by failing to own up to his role in a disgrace to baseball that will stay with the sport for years to come. Selig can be mad that Giambi spoke out, but he would be better off taking a bit of his advice. And so would the game of baseball.