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The Mitchell Report: (Why) Do We Even Care?

The Mitchell Report: (Why) Do We Even Care? – December 17, 2007 6:33 PM (edited 12/17/07 1:33 PM)
Talraen (2373 posts) Doesn't Play with Others
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I must apologize for bringing up sports (and specifically steroids in baseball) for two weeks in a row, but with the release of the Mitchell Report it was pretty much unavoidable. Since its publication on Thursday, the sports world has been on fire with discussion about steroid use, HGH (human growth hormone), asterisks, and the hall of fame. A lot of people, in the media at least, are upset because of the perception that baseball is the sport where records are held most sacred. Many are calling for the heads of any significant name mentioned in the report, Congress is threatening to get involved, and all in all the whole thing is a big mess. But it’s all quite ridiculous. Between the flaws in the logic of these rash reactions, and several elephants in the room that no one wants any part of – chief among them the fact that the (allegedly) steroid-driven home run race of 1998 pretty much saved baseball in the wake of the 1994 strike. And note that I say “allegedly” there not because I believe for a moment that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were clean, but because that’s the key word to keep in mind when reading the Mitchell Report.

If you’re not a sports fan, you may be wondering exactly what the Mitchell Report is and what it says. Over the last few years, Major League Baseball has taken a lot of criticism for ignoring the growing use of steroids in baseball since at least the late 90’s, and probably much before. They have added random drug testing, and tightened their standards in the face of criticism and threatened government involvement. Two large problems remained despite any amount of steroid testing, though. First, it is currently impossible to detect HGH with a urine test (and for whatever reason, they don’t do blood tests), meaning that anyone who was using steroids has most likely moved on to HGH without risk of being caught. And second, no one really knows how widespread steroid use was prior to all this testing. It should be noted that the first year of testing was anonymous and unreported, a sort of “test year” where some number (5%, if I recall) of positive tests would result in a “real” testing policy being put into place the following year. This number was surpassed, which led to the current testing policies.

The Mitchell Report was commissioned to try to solve the second problem. Led by former Senator George Mitchell, MLB commissioner Bud Selig asked for this report to “clear the air” on the steroids era, and for the more cynically-minded, to change his legacy from “commissioner of the steroid era” to “the guy who tried to do something about steroids in baseball.” Without the support of the players’ union, or even Selig’s own advisors, it was unsurprising that Mitchell got very little cooperation in constructing his report. When the report was released last Thursday, it named 86 current and former Major League Baseball players connected to performance-enhancing drugs, but the vast majority of evidence came in the form of hearsay. One player, Brian Roberts, was included in the report because someone reportedly remembered hearing him say he had tried steroids once or twice. Most of Mitchell’s information came from one of two sources: former Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski, and former Yankees strength coach Brian McNamee. The only instances where anyone testified to actually seeing someone use steroids were McNamee’s reports that he saw use by Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, both big names. Clemens in particular was a sure-fire hall of famer, one of the greatest pitchers of all time, and in many ways a very close parallel to Barry Bonds, considered one of the greatest hitters of all time.

The report is out, the damage (and it is damage) is done, and now people are reacting. But are people taking this report the wrong way? Are we ignoring clear signs that this report is flawed, or jumping to unfair and unhealthy conclusions? I believe so. There is a whole laundry list of problems both with the report itself and with the reaction to it. I will analyze these reasons one by one, in an effort to explain why people need to slow down and reserve some judgement here.

Conflict of Interest?
Before and after (but not during) the creation of the Mitchell Report, Senator Mitchell has been on the Boston Red Sox payroll. No major Red Sox players have been named. In fact, one player was officially let go two hours before being named in the report, and another (Eric Gagne) was traded several weeks before the report came out. Meanwhile, the Red Sox’s biggest rivals, the Yankees, had nearly a third of their last championship team named in the report. Now, personally I don’t think this is any conscious conspiracy on Mitchell’s part. McNamee and Radomski may have both worked for New York teams, but they were also both under federal probes and had incentive to talk. Naturally, when the Yankees strength is singing like a canary, Yankees are going to be named. If New York was targeted, it was most likely because it’s a high profile city with two major teams, not because Mitchell works for the Red Sox. But we can’t be certain of that. What we can be certain of is that Mitchell should not have been the one making this report because he works for the Red Sox. I understand he’s a respected Senator and all, but one would think a respectable Senator would have the decency to decline a job with such an obvious conflict of interest.

Federal Pressure
McNamee and Radomski talked because of federal pressure. Reportedly, they were interviewed with Federal representatives present. How is that fair? Since when does the United States government force witnesses to testify in an entirely private report? Is that even Constitutional? Had Mitchell used official court records and whatnot, fine, but that’s not what happens. He openly acknowledges that these men were told in no uncertain terms that they had to talk. Aside from the shady nature of the whole deal, can we really trust the words of men who will say anything to avoid or cut down on jail time? They have incentive to lie, yet Mitchell doesn’t hesitate to take their statements as gospel. These are the reasons we have a court system in this country!

Why Name Names?
Mitchell has defended his decision to name names, citing that young kids look up to not only baseball players, but all professional athletes. The idea was presumably to show that using steroids doesn’t pay, because you’ll get caught. But all this report does is name names with very little evidence, most of which would never hold up in any kind of court proceeding, and Mitchell himself suggests that the named players not be disciplined. When you name players like Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Miguel Tejada, and don’t punish them, it seems to me what you’re actually telling kids is that steroids are how you get to the top. Combined with the fact that there is no way at present to test for HGH, naming names is as likely to encourage the use of performance-enhancing drugs among the youth as not!

Convicted in the Court of Public Opinion
Because the Mitchell report named names based on flimsy evidence without any punishment attached, those players named have little manner of defense available to them. They aren’t being tried in any kind of court, and thus cannot be cleared of these charges. At best, they can go on TV and deny the charges, but even so most fans have already decided on their guilt. This is why we don’t let mobs decide court cases. The story of Andy Pettitte is particularly interesting. The report says he used HGH several times in attempt to heal more quickly from an injury, an accusation which he admitted to several days later. He stressed that he was not a habitual user of steroids and never used them or HGH at any other time, yet he was still vilified for it. This is troubling for two reasons. First, we see that honesty and contrition are worth nothing in today’s society, which is quite sad to see. And second, intent and motive are apparently completely irrelevant. If what Pettitte says is true, and he used HGH under the belief (shared by many in sports) that it is a miracle healing drug, can you really blame him? Does that deserve more than a slap on the wrist? Not all crimes are created equal, and not all punishments are, either. But here we have Roger Clemens, accused of resurrecting his career through years of steroid use, being painted with the same brush as a stand up guy who admits that he may have made the wrong decision. (The fact that he apologized “if [he] made the wrong decision” has been latched onto by many as making his apology somehow worthless, but I frankly agree with him, for reasons I will go over later.) We’re not talking about isolated incidents and private figures here. If a man is believed to have killed his wife in a small town in the Midwest, he may be shunned by those who know about it, and may have to start his life over elsewhere. But Pettitte’s career is forever tainted, as are the careers of dozens of other players, without any hard evidence that they were “cheating” in any reasonable sense of the word.

Why Blame the Players?
One of the Mitchell report’s goals was to determine who was at fault for the steroid era. Mitchell concluded that everyone, from players to owners right down to the commissioner, shared some of the blame. Yet media and fan outrage has been squarely focused on the players. Even aside from the obvious problem of letting everyone else off the hook, this seems unfair. If steroid use was as widespread as the report says, how can we vilify any player who ever tried the stuff? Yes, athletes ought to be role models and make the right decisions, but they’re human. They make mistakes. If a player feels pressured to heal as quickly as possible, and turns to HGH, how bad is that, really? And who’s to say there wasn’t pressure from the team, whether it be trainers, managers, or even other players, to do just that. We seem to be holding every player to standards the average person could come nowhere near, and then lumping them in with those who cheated the system from day 1. How is that fair?

The Rules of the Game
Though it angers many to point this out, it has to be said: use of performance-enhancing drugs was not actually against the rules of baseball when the incidents reported on in the Mitchell Report occurred. Yes, steroids and HGH were illegal to buy and use at the time, but that’s a matter for the courts to deal with. Bud Selig said that he would look at the report and decide on a case-by-case basis if discipline was necessary. How can the commissioner of baseball discipline players who haven’t broken any rules?! Many want to strike accused players’ records from the books, or mark them with an asterisk, or block them from entry to the hall of fame, but the record books and the hall of fame are already packed with alleged cheaters, many with far more evidence against them than Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, or Roger Clemens. Gaylord Perry is suspected of smearing Vaseline on baseballs, Don Sutton of scoffing them, and Willie Mays allegedly used amphetamines (which are also newly banned in baseball, but were illegal at the time). Several players are believed to use other illegal (but not performance-enhancing) drugs as well. Why are steroids somehow different? Why are hypocrites like Jim Bunning, former pitcher and current Congressman, allowed to get away with talking about how clean their own eras were, when that’s a blatant falsehood? Babe Ruth was a big drinker during prohibition, but I don’t see anyone trying to nullify his records.

The Truth About Records
There is a belief in baseball that records are somehow sacred, and there are some compelling reasons why records are so much more important here than in other sports. Chief among them is that baseball statistics largely come down to a one-on-one battle against the pitcher, and thus statistical padding from being on a very good or very bad team is limited. But the truth is that baseball records from different eras are not comparable, and never have been. Hank Aaron’s career home run total is higher than Babe Ruth’s, but does that tell us which was a greater home run hitter? They played decades apart. Ruth was one of the first players who made a career out of hitting home runs. All we know is that Hank Aaron hit more, and now Barry Bonds has hit more than him. People who want to mark “steroid-marred” records with an asterisk are ignoring the whole of baseball history. This may be the Steroid Era, but that name sticks so easily because baseball is defined by eras: the Dead Ball Era, for example. Do you think the Dead Ball Era involved a lot of home run records? Of course not. Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA, the best ever recorded in a season, came in an era of piss-poor offensive statistics, with an expanded strike zone, high mounds, and poor hitters parks. No one could possibly touch this record in modern baseball. Does that mean Bob Gibson is by leaps and bounds a better pitcher than anyone today? Of course not. He benefited from his era. For years people have corrected for statistics to compare players from different eras, so why should the steroid era be any different? All baseball records come with the caveat that the game has changed throughout its history, this is no different.

The Hall of Fame
It should be noted that, while no suspensions or asterisks are likely to be handed out because of the Mitchell report, it is quite possible that some players will be kept out of the hall of fame because of it. Roger Clemens, for instance, is considered one of the best pitchers ever to play the game, but he may be kept out of the hall of fame because the people who vote players in want to take a moral high ground. Give me a break. Clemens and Barry Bonds have an interesting bit in common with one another regarding the hall of fame: both were clearly on their way to making the hall before anyone thinks they started using steroids. In terms of pure performance, it is almost inarguable that both deserve to be in the hall, steroids or no. But many voters cite the “character” clause of hall of fame voting, ignoring decades of precedent set electing real jerks (but jerks who could play) to the hall. As previously mentioned, there are several alleged cheaters in the hall as it is.

Incomplete Data
Perhaps the single biggest flaw in the Mitchell report, or more accurately in the perception of the Mitchell report, is that it is nowhere near complete. An inordinate number of Mets and Yankees were named because the main witnesses Mitchell got to speak worked with those teams. Mark McGwire wasn’t mentioned in the report, yet he all but admitted to taking steroids with his refusal to speak at the Congressional hearing a few years back. So just because Mitchell couldn’t find someone to point the finger at a given player, we assume they’re clean? Come on! It says right in the report that a “minority, but a sizeable one” were using steroids. If that’s true, do you really expect anyone to believe that only 86 players out of the decade-plus Mitchell investigated used steroids? There are over a thousand players on the 40-man rosters for the league each year! If only 86 players were using, there wouldn’t really be a steroid problem.

The Elephant In the Room
All of the outrage over steroid use ignores one very important fact: the home run race of 1998 effectively saved the sport. Attendance was way down after the 1994 strike, and having both Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, two likable players, chasing Roger Maris’s single-season home run record was must-see TV. Since 1998, the sport has seen a boom, and even though its claims to the throne of “national pastime” are tenuous at best (sorry guys, it’s football – better luck in Japan!), baseball attendance and revenue records are being set on a yearly basis these days. It’s pretty clear that McGwire and Sosa were on the juice, so it’s not a stretch to say that steroids saved baseball. Those “chicks dig the long ball” commercials were no coincidence. And now we’re vilifying the players for this? Why don’t we be honest, like the Mitchell report is (if you actually read it), and blame everyone, including ourselves, for what’s happened to baseball. There was talk of steroid use in baseball when I was growing up in the 80’s, it’s not some new thing.

In Conclusion
Personally, I want to see steroids eradicated from professional sports. The last thing anyone wants is for every kid to feel pressured to juice, and put his health on the line, if he wants to get anywhere in sports. Testing needs to be more thorough, penalties might need to be more harsh. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that steroid use was limited to a few players (who happen to be the ones we didn’t like to begin with). It was an epidemic, and now we’re doing something about it. Steroids define the last decade or so of baseball, like so many other decades have been defined, and that’s fine. Barry Bonds has the most home runs, but we don’t need to say he’s the best home run hitter. Just like many have argued for years that Ruth was still better than Aaron. It’s OK. If you really want to bitch about steroids, how about tackling the double standard where everyone in the NFL is clearly juicing and no one cares, even when they get caught?

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