Ever had someone spit in your face and tell you it’s raining? That’s how it felt watching former Senator George Mitchell’s press conference on steroid use in Major League Baseball. The former Senate majority leader unleashed his “investigative findings” in the somber, deliberate tones of an exhausted undertaker. Mitchell strained to heap scorn upon baseball owners and the player’s union for being “slow to act.” Yet beneath the surface, his report is ugly, sanctimonious fraud, meant to absolve those at the top and pin blame on a motley crew of retired players, trainers and clubhouse attendants. This is truly the old saw of the magical fishing net that captures minnows but lets the whales swim free.
Sanctioned by commissioner Bud Selig’s office, the Mitchell Report was seen by some as an unprecedented act in sports: a $20 million internal investigation aimed at rooting out “performance enhancing drugs and human growth hormones” in the game.
The Mitchell Report certainly gives off a sexy sizzle. It names names: including MVPs Mo Vaughn, Miguel Tejada and Barry Bonds, and former all-stars like Eric Gagne and Lenny Dykstra. It also names a man being called the Moby Dick to Mitchell’s Ahab: seven-time Cy Young award winner Roger Clemens. For some time, people in the game have whispered about Clemens being on the juice. And for some time, the 45-year-old Clemens denied all charges, as a compliant media lapped it up. As Yahoo Sports’s Dan Wetzel wrote, “Year after year he peddled the same garbage, Roger Clemens was so dominant for so long because he simply outworked everyone. It played to the nation’s Puritan roots, made Clemens out to be this everyman maximizing his skills through singular focus, dedication and a commitment to drinking carrot juice, or something. It’s all gone now, the legend of Rocket Roger dead on arrival of the Mitchell Report; one of the greatest pitchers of all time, his seven Cy Young’s and 354 career victories lost to history under a pile of lies and syringes.”
The Mitchell Report confirms not only suspicions about Clemens but also the existence of an outrageous media bias and double standard. Seven-time MVP Barry Bonds has been raked over the conjectural coals for years, but Clemens got a pass. Two players, both dominant into their 40s, one black and one white, with two entirely different ways of being treated. It doesn’t take Al Sharpton to do the cultural calculus.
And yet flaying Clemens shouldn’t excuse the whitewash. There are three fundamental problems with the Mitchell report:
1. Mitchell himself.
Best known before today for helping negotiate the peace deal in Northern Ireland, Mitchell has a massive conflict of interest when it comes to baseball. He is on the boards of both the Boston Red Sox and, until recently, the Walt Disney Company. Disney owns ESPN, baseball’s number-one broadcast partner. Sportscaster and Hall of Famer Joe Morgan has spoken out about how in the 1990s, ESPN execs encouraged him not to state his suspicions about steroid use on-air. As Morgan said, “I would be broadcasting a game and there would be players hitting balls in a way that they had no business hitting them.”
2. No testimony from players.
The only active players to speak to Mitchell was New York Yankee Jason Giambi, who spoke under threat of suspension and Toronto Blue Jay Frank Thomas, who, it was revealed today, stepped forward to provide evidence that disputed Mitchell’s allegations. Mitchell says he invited the all accused to come clear their names, but other than Giambi and Thomas, no one has taken him up on this generous offer. Yet if you are an MLB player, why would you come forward to legitimize a process in which you wouldn’t even have the opportunity to face your accuser? This was a process where Mitchell was judge, jury and executioner: Gitmo meets Skoal. Reputations have been ruined–and the essential “truth” of the report is still based on hearsay.
3. Same old narrative.
Mitchell paid lip service in his press conference to “slow-acting” owners–calling it “a collective failure.” At one point, Mitchell said, without explanation, that baseball execs were slow due to “economic motives.” Yet the overarching narrative is that the owners and general managers were merely ignorant or obtuse, with a complete absence of intent or malice. The real fault lay with players and independent clubhouse attendants, like the soon-to-be-famous former Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski, who says he secured the juice for players and then named names. Radomski was described by former Mets GM Steve Phillips as “the guy who would pick up the towels or pick up a player’s girlfriend from the airport.” Kirk Radomski, a regular Pablo Escobar.
Mitchell went on to say that players have actively and on their own made great efforts to foil the owners’ poorly organized efforts to clean up the game. This is the same kind of political cover–as Naomi Klein has written about so brilliantly–that the mainstream press gives the Bush Administration on Iraq. Errors made are ones of people with good intentions who made terrible choices. Those who suffered from these choices are blamed for their barbarism and self-interest. When Baghdad was being looted and destroyed, Iraqis were pilloried for their greed. Rumsfeld, Bush and Cheney were blamed for being overly optimistic and trusting them too much.
Poppycock, whether we’re talking about the Bush cabal or MLB owners. Performance-enhancing drugs were funneled into the game along with smaller stadiums, harder bats and incredible shrinking strike zones to boost power numbers and ratings after the 1994 strike. (Read Howard Bryant’s excellent Juicing the Game for the full breakdown.)
The idea that owners and GMs facilitated these measures while leaving the very conditioning of players to themselves simply strains belief: this is like George H.W. Bush saying he was “out of the loop” on Iran-contra. This is Dubya saying that he never read the National Intelligence Estimate before claiming World War III is on the horizon with Iran. In other words, this is the way people in power stay in power during times of crisis: take some heat, blame the underlings, cry some tears and call it a day.