Mitchell Report Fails to Step Up to Plate with a Plan

12.23.2007 | POLITICS

Shortly after former Senator George Mitchell released his report on performance-enhancing drug use by major league baseball players, he suggested those singled out be granted amnesty. But he had to know that Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig was planning to take each violation "case by case" and dole out penalties as he saw fit. By outing a couple of teams worth of players and then washing his hands of the consequences, Mitchell couldn't have been more disingenuous.

Why name names in the first place? It's hard to tell which paragon of good government he resembles more: J. Edgar Hoover or Joe McCarthy. Which sets a worse example for young T-ball players? Drug use or a witch hunt?

The lead dog on this story has been ESPN's Howard Bryant. In "Friction and fractures erode faith in Mitchell's investigation," a lengthy investigative piece written before the report's release, he exposed the flaws of its methodology.

Among them is Mitchell's compromising affiliation with the Boston Red Sox (none on the list), from whose board of directors he's been on hiatus during the investigation and its aftermath. More to the point, in the absence of cooperation by players and their union, he's opted for law enforcement's usual path of least resistance -- squeezing the little guy.

Team trainers, strength coaches and clubhouse attendants feared for their jobs if they didn't cooperate. Worse, Mitchell's investigators pressured them to rat out not only those they knew used performance-enhancing drugs, but to speculate on those who might have.

Crime-stopper Mitchell got his Public Enemy Number One all right: Roger Clemens. While he's at it, why not send Clemens to Gitmo for the threat he poses to our national pastime?

We asked Rich Herschlag, co-author of "Before the Glory," a recent book chronicling baseball players' childhoods and the paths they took to the major leagues, about the effect on lesser-known players whose names cropped up on the list.

"Brian Roberts is the poster boy for what is wrong with the process and the report it produced," he responded. "So let me get this straight -- a one-time roommate. . . says he never saw Roberts doing the stuff or buying the stuff [but] remembers a conversation from at least a couple of years back during which Roberts says he tried it 'once or twice in 2003.'

"And for this, a guy who is 5'8", 165 lbs., who hit between 10 and 18 home runs a year. . . and who spends his free time visiting sick kids in the hospital, is thrown onto a list with the likes of Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire? Talk about due process. How about due hearsay?"

In fact, Roberts's team, the Baltimore Orioles, recently released a statement in which they cautioned, "observers to resist the temptation to accept collective judgments based upon unsubstantiated allegations."

Before high-profile players, not to mention their contracts, were inflated with steroids, baseball was the sport of the working man. Tickets were affordable and teams played almost every day, like he worked.

Also, smaller than football and basketball players and less muscular than boxers, baseball players shared body types with their fans. For example, the most notable feature of the all-time greatest slugger, Hank Aaron, wasn't his build, but wrists and forearms like a construction worker.

That may be ancient history, but any thoughts of culling users from the record books would only be a legalistic exercise in revisionist history. True, many fans agree that current home records are tainted. But, much of the backlash against steroids boils down to a profound dislike for Barry Bonds. His arrogance and insularity are a far cry from the graciousness of Aaron and the rabble-reveling Ruth.

In fact, the bar has been raised on baseball as a spectacle. Fans would feel cheated if their sports heroes weren't bursting at the seams and busting the ball out of the park. Even infielders are expected to be ripped these days.

The hands of time can't be turned back to baseball's halcyon days (the small matter of decades of racial discrimination aside). Besides, as Bryant wrote in his first article after the report's release, it "offered no recommendations to commissioner Bud Selig regarding baseball's record book."

Drugs Cast Larger Shadow Over Other Sports

Time to take a deep breath. Compared to other sports, the cloud cast by performance-enhancing drugs over baseball looks less like a storm than just a rainy day. Track and field, for instance, still burdened with its quaint role as standard-bearer for amateurism, recently saw its foundation rocked.

One of its most gifted athletes of all time, Marion Jones, not only tested positive for drugs, she was stripped of her three Olympic gold and two bronze medals. Worse, bringing its fist crashing down on one of the sweetest and most joyful athletes of our time was a public relations disaster for the sport, which came off looking heartless and authoritarian.

An equivalent instance in baseball would see all-American hero Mickey Mantle relieved of his three MVP awards because, just for the sake of argument, he set a bad example with his alcoholism.

Bicycle racing is at least as plagued with drug scandals as track and field. The 1998 Tour de France, for example, has become known in some quarters as the Tour of Shame.

But erasing 2006 winner Floyd Landis's first-place finish from the record books is as cruel as what befell Jones, especially in light of the nature of the race, which is as grueling as a battle. (Note to Tour: If you can't disqualify a racer during the event, instead of after he's completed the entire, grueling campaign, just chalk it off to experience.)

Into the Vacuum Left by Mitchell Springs a Plan

Maybe it's time to yield to the inevitable. In the words of a member of reggae royalty, the late Peter Tosh: Le-guh-lize it. No penalties, no tests.

Huh? The case for legalizing recreational drugs may be convincing. But performance-enhancing drugs give its users an unfair advantage over those with too much integrity and sense to take them. While recreational drugs, even when freed of their stigma, expense and the attendant jail time, often put their users at a disadvantage.

Before taking on how they tilt the playing field, we'd first like to ask: What if performance-enhancing drugs were risk-free?

Human growth hormone, for instance, made from recombinant DNA, can already be viewed as a boon to mankind. Not only are health risks few, it's been shown to increase bone and muscle strength, prevents obesity and prolongs life span.

Designing the danger out of steroids, of course, is much more of a challenge. But Major League Baseball -- all sports, in fact -- should consider funding research into making steroids safer or developing new performance-enhancing drugs. That's easier said than done, of course, and in any event, would take years.

In the interim, MLB should acquire the anabolic steroids deemed least dangerous (presumably oral). Of course, approval by the Food and Drug Administration will be required. (No problem if President Obama, instead of choosing him for his cabinet, appoints Arnold Schwarzenegger its head.) Then establish a program in which they're issued to players like methadone.

Afterwards, as is done when doctors prescribe steroids for patients, institute a post-cycle therapy to minimize side effects.

Legal drugs -- where's the fun in that? -- may only serve to whet an athlete's competitive juices and induce him to seek out that fruit that's still forbidden. Companies like Balco, with drugs which are as state-of-the-art as their masking techniques, may always be around. It's at this juncture that the Major League Players Association needs to step in and police those who attempt to make an end run around the proposed regimen.

The issue of players who don't wish to partake remains a sticking point, however. They may be forced to resign themselves to careers without numbers as high as those of users. To reward proven non-users for their idealism, MLB can mandate the inclusion of a special clause in their contracts to bring their salaries up to par by use of a sliding scale.

Still, those with the most to lose would be the same as today: borderline players just trying to make the roster. But there's hope for them, too. Why not fund job training to expedite a career as coaches and scouts, which many of them seek after their playing days anyway?

Okay, it sounds fanciful. But one man's quixotic is another's visionary. The players want drugs, many fans require their heroes use them, and team owners and executives would like to see the issue go away.

Then what comprises the faction opposing performance-enhancing drugs? Self-appointed keepers of baseball's lore and legend like sportswriters. Legislators looking to score points off an easy issue devoid of the controversy of, say, immigration or abortion.

And, of course, former Senator Mitchell, in search of a second feather in his cap to add to his role in 1998's Good Friday Agreement, which helped bring peace to Northern Ireland. But, like Colin Powell going to bat for Bush on invading Iraq, he backed the wrong horse this time and upended the entire cart of his legacy.

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