Absolving the Owners

Ever had someone spit in your face and tell you it’s raining? That’s how it felt watching former Sen. George Mitchell’s press conference on steroid use in Major League Baseball. The former Senate Majority Leader unleashed his “investigative findings” speaking with the somber, deliberate tones of an exhausted undertaker. Mitchell strained to convey scorn upon both baseball owners and the 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 dollar internal investigation aimed at rooting out “performance enhancing drugs and human growth hormones” in the game.

The Mitchell Report certainly contains a great deal of sexy sizzle. First and foremost, it names names: including MVPs Mo Vaughn, Miguel Tejada and Barry Bonds as well as 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 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. While seven time MVP Barry Bonds was raked over the conjecture-coals for years, 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 gross whitewash at work.

There are three fundamental problems with the Mitchell report:

1. Mitchell himself. George Mitchell, the former Senate Majority leader best known before today for helping negotiate the peace deal in Northern Ireland, has had a massive conflict of interest when it comes to baseball. The man is on the boards of both the Boston Red Sox and also the Walt Disney Company. The Disney Company owns ESPN, baseball’s number one broadcast partner. 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 player to speak to Mitchell was New York Yankee Jason Giambi, and he spoke under threat of suspension. Mitchell says he invited the accused to come clear their names, but no one took him up on this generous offer. Yet if you are a 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 is 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 malice. The real fault lied with players and independent acting clubhouse attendants, like the soon to be famous Mets worker Kirk Radomski, who says he secured the juice for players and 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.” Yes, 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 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 looted and destroyed, Iraqis were pilloried for their greed. Rumsfeld, Bush, and Cheney were blamed for being “overly optimistic” and “trusting them too much.”

This is poppycock, whether we’re talking about the Bush cabal, or Major League 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 break down.)

The idea that owners and GMs facilitated these measures while leaving the very conditioning of players to themselves simply strains belief: this is George HW Bush saying he was “out of the loop” on Iran-Contra. This is Dubya saying, “I never read” the National Intelligence Estimate before claiming World War III is on the horizon. 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.

DAVE ZIRIN is the author of “The Muhammad Ali Handbook” (MQ Publications) and “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports” . You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing edgeofsports-subscribe@zirin.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com



DAVE ZIRIN is the author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press) Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.