In 2005, discredited baseball slugger Mark McGwire embarrassingly told Congress that he wasn’t there to talk about the past.
On Thursday, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell in effect took the same tack.
Mitchell, in presenting the findings of his highly anticipated report into baseball’s steroid problem, was all about eyes front, moving on, forward march and let’s-get-over-it spin. It was, in effect, the announcement of an amnesty program for most of the game’s illegal-substance cheaters and complicit team executives.
Not with any real teeth. Not with potential official repercussions. Not with the threat of asterisks or Liquid Paper or industrial-strength erasers unleashed on record books.
As awkward as it will be in the coming days and weeks for many of the 60 or 70 players named in Mitchell’s 409-page report, as dicey as things actually might get for a few — Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, for instance — who are accused of using performance-enhancing drugs in greater detail and with less hearsay than most of the others, the overall impression was that Mitchell’s 20-month investigation was all about starting fresh.
Selig should be pleased
Commissioner Bud Selig couldn’t have asked for anything more convenient and reassuring, not unless it veered into fiction writing.
The points hammered home by Mitchell at the start of his press conference, again at the end and high up in the paperwork in the “Summary and Recommendations” section of his report were:
1. Oodles of players were using steroids or other illicit substances at a time when reliable testing either was non-existent or hamstrung by squabbling between the owners and the players association. Each of the 30 teams, Mitchell asserted, had players who partook.
2. Managers, training staff, front-office personnel and even baseball’s team owners were blamed for dragging their heels in addressing the problem and even accused of co-conspiracy in avoiding it entirely, bowing to the economic boom related to the home-run binges of McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and other assorted Michelin Man boppers throughout the major leagues.
3. Thus, there was a “collective failure” to recognize the scope of the problem. “Everyone involved in baseball the past two decades shares to some extent in the steroids era,” Mitchell said. That’s the crafty Delta House defense from “Animal House,” in which the classroom and social travesties of Otter, Boone, D-Day, Flounder and Bluto get blamed, ultimately, on the higher academic system and the American way of life. In other words, on everybody. And nobody.
Mitchell had no choice but to name names
Oh, Mitchell and his crew named names. They had no choice. For nearly two years, the media and fans had pooh-poohed the likely effectiveness of their steroids investigation, citing the senator’s lack of subpoena power and the players association’s steadfast refusal to cooperate. Mitchell sought interviews with 500 former major-leaguers and wound up talking to only 68. He invited virtually all active players to participate without any suggestion that they were using steroids and ended up getting sit-downs with two: the Yankees’ Jason Giambi (on orders from Selig, with a threat of discipline) and the Blue Jays’ Frank Thomas.
With the expectations so very low, Mitchell’s report demanded names for credibility’s sake. Four hundred- and-nine pages sporting dozens of black-marker redactions would have come across as the ultimate whitewash, leading to nothing but scorn.
Mitchell needed names, too, to sex up Thursday’s presentation, to give each city’s news gatherers and fans the opportunity to scour the report for its players and to keep tongues wagging about performers such as Clemens, Pettitte, Mo Vaughn, Lenny Dykstra, Rick Ankiel, Paul Byrd and others.
But those named appear to have few worries. Many of the incidents cited as second- or third-hand, circumstantial and unsubstantiated. You could throw a dart at a phone book under the “Attorneys” listing and find someone competent enough to shred Mitchell’s report in a court of law.
Beyond that, Mitchell doesn’t even want to see the identified players penalized. He was all about the future Thursday. “I urge the Commissioner to forego imposing discipline on players for past violations of baseball’s rules on performance enhancing substances, including the players named in this report, except in those cases where he determines that the conduct is so serious that discipline is necessary to maintain the integrity of the game,” he wrote.
“Being chained to the past is not helpful. Baseball does not need and cannot afford to engage in a never-ending search for the name of every player who ever used performance-enhancing substances.”
Donald Fehr, executive director of the players union, gave a hearty atta-boy to that outlook later in the day.
Bad cop, good cop
Selig, in between, played “bad cop” to Mitchell’s “good cop” on the discipline front. “Discipline of players and others identified in the report will be on a case-by-case basis,” the commissioner said.
Asked by one reporter why he would disregard Mitchell’s recommendation — if indeed Selig metes out any punishment — he said: “I understand what the senator said today, and he feels strongly about that. But I also meant what I said. Frankly, I feel this is a byproduct of this investigation that I need to address.”
Uh huh. Don’t hold your breath. Again, saying anything else would have stamped “charade” right across the title page of the fat stack of papers. It didn’t help Selig’s persuasiveness that he admitted he had not finished reading the report when he met with the media.
It seems clear that Selig, Mitchell and baseball in general want to use this report like a reset button, a marker from which now, moving forward, players and teams are officially on notice. Clemens and Pettitte might have some ” ‘splainin’ ” to do but it is not likely any of the others will.
The day, it should be noted, wasn’t a complete downer. There were several winners, including:
— All those players who were not named. If steroid use was as widespread as Mitchell suggested, his report neglected to identify dozens, maybe hundreds. Now that it is complete and penalties for past transgressions seem unlikely, they can breathe again.
— Mitchell’s credibility. The former senator was able to artfully deflect conflict-of-interest questions regarding his connections to the Boston Red Sox, where he sits on the board of directors. Deflect but not eliminate.
— Bonds. Not only does Bonds suddenly have plenty of company, thanks to the names in Mitchell’s report, he also has a peer in Clemens. The game’s most dominant hitter and its most dominant pitcher face tarnished legacies and barred Hall of Fame doors in Cooperstown. You can be sure that all those who have defended Bonds will be watching closely to see if Clemens faces a similar amount of criticism and disdain.
Still, nothing was done Thursday to address baseball’s statistical crisis, assuming its numbers of the past decade or two are not to be trusted. Some big-leaguers will have gotten away with cheating.
And the so-called silent majority of players, who faced what has been described as a grueling professional choice between using steroids or falling behind competitively, still have not, as a group, explained their reluctance to choose a third option: Rooting out the cheaters.
For all of Mitchell’s comments about baseball players setting an example, and hopefully a physically healthy one, for “the children,” neither he, Selig nor anyone else Thursday spent any time talking about the examples they are supposed to set for honesty, sportsmanship, integrity and doing the right thing.
It still is a culture of bending every rule up to the point where it breaks, and then scrambling like hell to make sure you don’t get caught. In the past, in the present and, yes, into the future, too.