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End of an era

Hearings confirm success of the Mitchell Report

Posted: Tuesday January 15, 2008 5:23PM; Updated: Wednesday January 16, 2008 12:29PM
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George Mitchell
George Mitchell pointed the way for baseball to move forward, but Bud Selig and Don Fehr still need to act.
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Congressional Hearings
 
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Jan. 15 Hearings
The Report

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The Mitchell Report, which many Friends of Bud never wanted the commissioner to undertake in the first place, officially was confirmed a success Tuesday. Its eponymous author, former Sen. George Mitchell, was so kindly treated by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform as some kind of unassailable hero that the committee worried more about Mitchell catching his train than explaining his methodology. Somehow back in 2005 Congress never worried such about Mark McGwire's travel plans.

Mitchell excelled in the spotlight, the very template of a diplomat. Almost never did he venture outside the script of his report, and he made very clear he couldn't wait to get on the figurative train to get him the hell out of baseball's employ and presumably back to rooting for the Red Sox. He left the room as clean as he had entered.

Even commissioner Bud Selig, praised for his courage in launching the investigation, and players association chief Donald Fehr were treated far more cordially than they were back in 2005, setting Congressional single-game records for saying "thank you." Fehr may have been undercut, some would even say blindsided, by the Mitchell Report, and he left no doubt as to his disgust with it, telling Congress icily of Mitchell, "He served his client well."

But the Mitchell Report, as an institutional vehicle, worked. It succeeded in getting Congress off baseball's back and in establishing some perceived closure to the steroids era. Even Fehr made sure to point out that Mitchell came up with absolutely nothing from 2006 or 2007, driving home the point to Congress that baseball has cleaned up its act.

Baseball knows perception is what matters, especially in front of lawmakers who reference Rafael "Palmeiri" or still don't know how to pronounce the commissioner's name. Baseball's self-examination left them with little to complain about.

There were two notable exceptions, and in each case the exceptions proved that the reality is that baseball still cannot be fully trusted to do what's right, not just what appears to be right. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., and Jack Tierney, D-Mass., bothered to do enough homework and skip the grandstanding for their own districts to ask important questions.

It was Norton who first mentioned the elephant in the room, invoking the name of Roger Clemens after 104 minutes of hearing time had elapsed. More importantly, she pressed Selig and Fehr why they don't just get out of the drug testing administration business, something Mitchell had recommended in his report. Selig and Fehr kept referencing the "independent program administrator," but the title is fraudulent because the administrator has no authority over such key protocols as the number of tests (both in- and out-of-season), the substances that are banned, who collects and tests the samples, what determines "reasonable cause" for more frequent testing, and how to investigate and determine positive tests.

Remember, in the immediate wake of the Mitchell Report Selig made the grand pronouncement that he was prepared to accept all of Mitchell's recommendations whole cloth. But when Norton asked him about turning over the program to a truly independent agency, Selig waffled. Fehr expressed no appetite for such a change.

Baseball can't stand having any authority slip out of its control, and its stand on Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) exposed by Tierney proved such a position once again.

Mitchell asked Selig during his investigation for its TUE statistics. Cursory knowledge of drug testing programs includes an understanding that TUEs are potential huge loopholes for cheaters to use banned substances. Get a friendly physician to write you a note declaring you need a banned substance for medicinal reasons, and you're home free to use that substance. What was Selig's reaction when Mitchell asked for his TUE numbers? He told him to get lost. No wonder Mitchell argued strongly in his report for a more transparent system.

Tierney, however, didn't let Selig's stonewall stand. Instead, he asked baseball for the TUE numbers. Baseball wisely did not tell the congressman to get lost. It gave him the numbers. And what did Tierney learn? The TUEs for Attention Deficit Disorder drugs such as Ritalin jumped from 28 in 2006 to 103 in 2007 -- the first year amphetamines were banned. Ballplayers often use such drugs as stimulants before games. So you have a group of world class athletes with an ADD incidence eight times greater than the general adult population, not to mention an incidence that virtually quadrupled in the first year amphetamines and like stimulants were banned. And you wonder why people such as Mitchell and Norton call for a truly independent and transparent program. The truth remains that baseball never will turn over its program to a group such as the United States Anti-Doping Agency.

The Mitchell Report never was designed to be comprehensive nor could it be. Think of it as a speed trap on a highway: hundreds and hundreds of possible offenders were out there, and 89 of them happened to have the misfortune of showing up on Mitchell's radar. Clemens, in terms of name power, was the dude in the bright red Ferrari. He made a huge tactical blunder by not talking to Mitchell, a piece of one-size-fits all advice from his friendly neighborhood players association.

Fehr actually was enlightening in explaining why players wouldn't sit for tea with Mitchell. He explained how players would put themselves at risk of criminal liability if they talked to Mitchell. After all, the information would be made public and the feds could very well turn them into witnesses or even targets of investigations. He argued that players should have been given access to Mitchell's information through an independent, fully private party.

Makes perfect sense -- as long as you're guilty of using steroids or growth hormone. The clean guy? He has nothing to worry about. Mitchell calls you up and you've never touched the stuff? You're in his office the next morning. (See Thomas, Frank.) If indeed Clemens is as innocent as he says he is, he had no reason to fear any question from Mitchell, no reason to fear criminal liability. You could even argue that to the innocent a phone call from Mitchell was a clarion to get in there, as one anonymous player did, successfully clearing his name with Mitchell and editing himself out of the report.

"What I believe happened," said one former player, "is the union was totally blindsided by this. They operate with such arrogance that they think they're always right. So they figured Mitchell was just a boob for Bud who wouldn't come up with anything, especially if none of the players cooperated. Nothing to worry about. But when the feds gave Mitchell [Kirk] Radomski and [Brian] McNamee, the game changed. The union never saw it coming."

Clemens took a hit Tuesday. Mitchell, who clearly is a star in Congress' eyes, strongly validated McNamee's sworn statements to him, even with Mitchell knowing that Clemens has launched a full-scale defense of innocence since the report came out. "We believe that the statements provided to us were truthful," Mitchell said of McNamee.

Others who took hits: Miguel Tejada, who now is under investigation for the possibility of lying to the committee when he said he never used steroids and, by golly, never even heard any ballplayer talk about them; Giants owner Peter Magowan and GM Brian Sabean, who probably will be fined by Selig after Mitchell outed them for doing what many baseball officials did in the steroid era: looking the other way; Congress itself, thanks to Fehr smartly raising the hypocrisy of cracking down on baseball players while substances supposedly controlled by the Dietary Supplement Act are as freely advertised and available to the general public as M&Ms.

One of the worst moments, though, was when Fehr referenced athletes in youth sports being told they needed to get bigger, faster and stronger. "I haven't a clue of how to attack that," he said.

Huh? It was baseball that delivered the message to those kids. It was the culture of cheating and enablement in the steroid era that turned baseball into a big man's game. Size and power at any cost were encouraged and rewarded. The young athletes Fehr sounded both concerned and perplexed about were exactly the ones who saw and heard that message. It is a responsibility about which baseball must have more than "a clue." It is one that demands vigilance.

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