Imagine a solar energy task force headed by Dick Cheney, or a software regulatory commission run by Bill Gates. Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig aspired to this level of lunacy by tapping former Senate majority leader George Mitchell to head a probe into the influence of steroids on America’s Pastime. Mitchell is both a director of the Boston Red Sox and chair of the Walt Disney Company. Disney owns ESPN, the primary national broadcaster of Major League Baseball. Yet Selig and Mitchell insist, over an increasingly loud chorus of critics, that there’s no conflict of interest. As Selig responded to the raised eyebrows, “[Mitchell] has complete autonomy. He wouldn’t have taken this without complete autonomy. I mean the fact that we’re friends had nothing to do with it.”
John Dowd, the respected Washington lawyer who headed baseball’s vigorous investigation of Pete Rose’s gambling in 1989, sees it differently. “Mitchell doesn’t have a great track record with me,” he said. “It doesn’t look like he’s independent.”
The point is that by selecting his friend, Selig guarantees that the investigation’s focus will be on the players and not on the owners, the “guardians of the game.” Mitchell’s presence all but insures that owners won’t be questioned about why they did nothing as players began to show up at training camp looking like Hulk Hogan. They won’t be questioned about why steroids were pointedly not even a banned substance until 2003, and why until then the owners winked at their increased use. They certainly won’t be questioned about how the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa anabolic home-run race was exploited to bring back fans after the 1994 strike canceled the World Series. This would be in step with last year’s Congressional hearings, which dragged prominent players under the hot lights but didn’t question one owner, many of whom grease their share of political palms. Seven Major League owners hold the distinction of being Bush Rangers, meaning they raised at least $200,000 each for the President’s 2004 election, and six others are Bush Pioneers, signifying $100,000 apiece. And sure enough, one owner never discussed was the man in charge of the Texas Rangers in the early 1990s, when Jose Canseco started a pharmacy in his locker room: George W. Bush. Putting Mitchell in charge also means that the commissioner of the juiced era, Bud Selig, won’t have to fall on his sword. As Yahoo! sports columnist Jeff Passan wrote, “If George Mitchell’s investigation into steroid use in baseball is as fair, impartial and thorough as Major League Baseball promises, there can be only one result. Bud Selig’s resignation. And that’s what makes this whole exercise laughable, nothing more than a case of poorly executed crisis P.R.”
While Selig aims to escape scrutiny on Mitchell’s watch, much of the focus of this investigation will be on one player, Barry Bonds. Bonds is on the precipice of baseball’s holiest record. The 41-year-old seven-time MVP has, as of this writing, hit 710 career home runs, within striking distance of Babe Ruth’s 714 and Hank Aaron’s record 755. He is also the most polarizing athlete in the United States, despised by the media and alternately defended or denounced by fans. When it comes to Bonds, no one is neutral. According to Richard Justice, a sportswriter with contacts in the commissioner’s office, the investigation is totally aimed at Barry Bonds. “He is the number-one player going for the most hallowed record…. There may be other names that come out, but this is all about Barry Bonds…. I promise you he will not get the chance to break Hank Aaron’s record.” It seems that Mitchell’s job, in other words, is to run Bonds out of the sport. This took on added urgency for the owners as big-name corporate baseball backers flexed their muscles in Bonds’s direction. Bank of America, a sponsor of Major League Baseball, has said it will not participate in any campaign to celebrate his achievements because of the steroid allegations. The Home Depot then issued a statement, saying it would not open its coffers unless an investigation showed that Bonds did not use performance-enhancing substances.
Dropping an entire juiced era on one person’s shoulders is like arresting an ace computer tech for Enron’s extensive fraud while leaving Lay, Skilling and company alone. Unfortunately, by focusing so heavily on one person, the sponsors, owners and Selig do more than serve up a sacrifice for public consumption and duck their own complicity. They also create an atmosphere that emboldens a societal fringe. According to USA Today Bonds has received bags of hate mail, some overtly racist. The anti-Bonds fervor reached fever pitch on opening day, when a fan in San Diego threw a large syringe at Bonds as he roamed the outfield. Selig and Mitchell need to realize that they have a responsibility for the atmosphere they create around this investigation. The best way to give their probe a “perception of legitimacy” is to actually be legitimate. That means the owners must be questioned about what they knew, and Selig has to go.