Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Mitchell Report Is Useless, Aside From Providing Some Tabloid Thrills

I was at a Yankees-Angels game on August 21 when utility infielder Wilson Betemit crushed a three-run home run to right field in the ninth inning. On its face, that sounds like something exciting. The thing is, the Yankees were losing 18-5 at the time and the Angels pitcher was a 29-year-old guy making his second major league appearance (he would finish the year with three).

That Betemit home run is the perfect metaphor for the report on the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) released by Sen. George Mitchell on Thursday.

Having trouble making the leap? It's not as crazy as it sounds. In theory, a ninth inning, three-run homer is going to be newsworthy, but when you look at the context of the blast, it quickly becomes apparent that the dinger was, in fact, an A Rod special (meaningless; a home run hit well after the outcome of the game was in doubt, and if you think I'm just being mean, consider that in that game, two batters later, A Rod hit a home run to give the Yanks their final run in a dismal 18-9 loss).

Similarly, it would seem that a report that details the alleged use of PEDs by more than 80 players, including potential Hall-of-Famers like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, as well as All-Stars like Miguel Tejada and Andy Pettitte, is a big deal, something worthy of the round-the-clock three days of coverage accorded the story by the ESPN networks (it took the NFL games on Sunday to knock it off the air). But, put in perspective, the report was as meaningless as Betemit's ninth inning home run.

Let's think about what was obvious the minute before the Mitchell report was released. We knew PEDs had been present, even widespread, since the late 1980s, something all but confirmed by Mark McGwire's limp "I only want to talk about the future" testimony to Congress in March 2005. It would stretch belief to think that the owners and management of the teams were blind to the goings on of its players, especially when you consider how baseball was in big trouble after labor unrest canceled the 1994 post-season, and how the 1998 assault on Roger Maris's single-season home run record by McGwire and Sammy Sosa helped energize the sport. It was also common knowledge that the Major League Baseball Players Association, led by Donald "I'd Cover Up a Murder Committed by a Player" Fehr, did everything in its power to prevent and/or limit the testing of players for PEDs.

If Congress hadn't put pressure on Major League Baseball, it's possible that there would be virtually no testing for PEDs today, or, at the very least, the number of tests and lengths of suspensions would be far lower.

In short, we knew the players were doing it, we knew the union was protecting them, and we knew the teams knew about it and looked the other way to make money.

To be relevant, a report on the use of PEDs would have to delve deeper into those subjects, provide a detailed history of the obstructionism of the teams and the union, give a broad analysis of the culture in the locker room and how it led to widespread use of PEDs, and/or uncover a majority of the players who used PEDs over the last 20 years.

The Mitchell report did none of that.

In Mitchell's defense, exactly two active players spoke to him: Jason Giambi, only because he was forced to by Commissioner Bud Selig after he tacitly admitted using steroids in USA Today, and Frank Thomas, because he likes telling people he doesn't do steroids. That's it. No other active players talked to Mitchell. Think it has anything to do with Fehr telling them they didn't have to? Because of Fehr's stonewalling of the investigation, you can give Mitchell a pass for not doing a better job of analyzing the players' side of the issue.

But what about the teams? Club employees were forced by their employers to talk with Mitchell's investigators. Presumably, Mitchell's research into the "look away, they're making us money" culture relating to steroids could have really been probed and uncovered in the report. But if you look at the report's table of contents, you quickly see that while Mitchell outlined the history of steroids use, there is almost no examination of how the teams were actively complicit.

Sure, he concludes that the clubs didn't do enough to combat the use of PEDs, but Mitchell added virtually nothing to the issue that wasn't universally known the day his report was released.

[As an aside, Mitchell does issue a bunch of recommendations for how baseball can move forward and combat the use of PEDs, but we didn't need a 20 1/2 investigation to come up with that list. Much of what he suggests has been out there for years. So long as Fehr and the MLBPA do not cooperate, all the proposals in the world won't mean a thing. Mitchell's suggestions, in the end, don't justify the report.]

Which leaves us with the naming of names. Nowhere is the Betemit analogy more appropriate than in Mitchell's decision to list the 80 current or former layers that allegedly used PEDs.

Don't get me wrong: I think any player who uses PEDs does so at his own risk and should not be protected. I'm not in favor of providing cover to guys illegally trying to get an edge. But the randomness of how these 80 plus players were identified is troubling. First of all, while the report shows copies of checks for some of the guys mentioned as users, other accusations are based solely on the testimony of one person speaking to Mitchell's team. While the players chose not to speak to Mitchell, they were not given a chance to specifically respond to accusations that they used PEDs. The whole thing feels wrong to me, a little too much like players named by Mitchell's star chamber-like team had no recourse. And while I have no doubt nearly all (if not all) of the players who found their way into the report have a good reason to be there, if even one is on the list unfairly, it taints the entire decision to name names.

Even more importantly, the guys busted by Mitchell come from an exceptionally limited number of sources. Essentially, if a player obtained PEDs in one of three ways, there was a good chance he was ending up in Mitchell's report: Via former Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski, from an Internet pharmacy in Orlando investigated by the Albany, N.Y. district attorney's office, or from BALCO, the Bay Area supplier at the center of the federal investigation that swept up Marion Jones and Barry Bonds, among others. But if a player got his PEDs from slimy characters hanging around the other 29 teams' locker rooms, a different Internet distributor, or a supplier from outside of the game, he was safe. How safe and useful does that sound?

Nobody, not even Mitchell, believes that these three sources of PEDs represented the bulk of sales to players. Just the opposite. It is widely believed that Radomski, Balco and the Orlando pharmacy were just the tip of the iceberg. So other than the roadside-wreck curiosity of pointing to alleged users, what was the point of naming a narrow, limited set of names? The very fact that the players named were drawn from three sources only underscores the utter failure of the investigation.

If you go back to why the report was commissioned in the first place, the thinking was that it would uncover what happened in the past so baseball could move forward into the future. Does anyone really think that goal was accomplished? The report didn't reveal anything of substance, merely stating conclusions we were already well-known, and it certainly didn't provide any closure, since there are now more questions than answers.

Maybe the process was doomed from the start. After all, to come up with an independent report on the use of PEDs in baseball, Selig chose Mitchell, who is on the Board of Directors of the Boston Red Sox. Nobody has suggested that Mitchell misused his power as an investigator to benefit his club, but the appearance of bias is inescapable. A less ethical man could have leaked to the Sox if a player the team was considering had done PEDs or, even worse, avoided mentioning current members of the club in the report. The process would have gotten off to a better start if the person chosen to conduct an independent investigation was, in fact, actually independent.

In the end, the Mitchell report plunged baseball's dirty laundry into the media without shining any real light on the underlying problem So, in the end, it has to be branded as a huge failure.

Will baseball save itself from its "steroid era" and move on? Probably, but it won't be because of Mitchell's investigation. The only thing that would have made my Betemit analogy work better would have been if Betemit himself appeared on Mitchell's list of users of PEDs. Then again, we don't know if Betemit has ever used PEDs, only that he didn't get them from one of three places. After 20 1/2 months and millions of dollars, that's all we can determine, which says everything you need to know about the importance of the report.