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May 22, 2007
Break with the Past
Jason Giambi placed himself at the center of a controversy last week, claiming that MLB should issue an apology as an industry for players' use of performance-enhancing drugs in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Giambi, who testified under oath during the BALCO investigation that he himself used steroids, acknowledged his use in his comments to USA Today but claimed that they didn't help his performance.
The specifics of Giambi's point can be debated, but the central idea here, the one that blame for the nominal Steroid Era lies with personnel both in and out of uniform, cannot. The players who took performance-enhancing drugs shoulder the majority of any responsibility, but to absolve non-uniformed personnel, up to and including the ones on Park Avenue, is folly. We live in an era in which the idea of "clubhouse chemistry" is considered a tangible thing that can be manipulated and monitored. With that the case, it's silly to think that front offices, spending all kinds of time looking for the right mix of personalities, could not be aware of a different sort of chemistry making the rounds.
Fourteen months ago, Commissioner Bud Selig drafted George Mitchell to investigate the use of PEDs in baseball during the pre-testing era. I said at the time, and I believe now, that the Mitchell Commission is a cynical exercise in public relations, designed to turn up no surprises. What I didn't see coming was how the Commission would be used to focus blame for the era exclusively on uniformed personnel. Every time the Commission makes the news, it's in some way reflecting badly on the players: they won't talk, they won't give up medical records, they won't cooperate. If the Commission isn't going to make any new findings along the way, it will certainly make sure to establish in the public eye who the villains are.
To which I say, "enough." The Mitchell Commission isn't going to-and isn't designed to-make any discoveries about the nominal Steroid Era. It has neither the authority nor the gravitas to do any real work. It exists merely in the hopes that it will provide a veneer of credibility to official disdain and/or condemnation of the media-approved bad guys of the timeframe.
The Mitchell Commission should be disbanded. It should be disbanded because all it's doing is extending the shelf life of a story that does the game no good. MLB isn't going to get anywhere by trying to figure out who was doing what five to 10 years ago; there's nothing that can be done, and no credible way or sorting out the impact of PEDs on gameplay, wins and losses, or statistics. If the evidence in Game of Shadows isn't enough for the Commissioner to come down on Barry Bonds-and no, it's not-then no amount of paper-shuffling and stern questioning is going to produce actionable information.
The Commission isn't helping baseball. It's only keeping a dead story alive, while shifting focus from the evidence we have from three years of testing, from MLB's toughest-in-sports PED policy, from the great storylines created by the players on the field. In four seasons of testing, going back to the survey year, the number of positives has dropped from the high 80s in survey testing down to a single-digit number. Of the players who have tested positive, we've seen a mix of pitchers and hitters-putting the lie to the idea that steroids were responsible for the raised offensive levels of the 1990s-and the entire list has a Q rating comfortably behind your average "Dancing With the Stars" cast.
Now, there's a standard counterargument here: it's not that no one is using PEDs, it's that they're using stuff that doesn't show up in testing. If that's your position, fine, but at that point aren't we talking about a belief system? If it was so important a few years ago for players to give up their rights to privacy to prove their innocence-so important that Congress had to get involved-then how can you ignore the results of the prove-your-innocence program? If the testing results aren't going to be seen as evidence of the state of PED use in baseball, then stop testing the players, because it's a pointless exercise.
MLB should stop trying to win the last war. There's nothing that can be done about the past at this point. What MLB can do is get out in front of the story now. Take Giambi's suggestion. Here, I'll even write the release:
This acknowledges both the impact on PEDs on the game of baseball and the impossibility of investigating events that occurred close to a decade ago. It emphasizes baseball's new leadership role on the topic of PED use in professional sports, which includes frequent testing, stringent punishment, lowered usage, and a commitment to education and research.
This press release also closes the book on a story that does the game no good. It is in MLB's best interests to keep the game drug-free, and you can't keep 2001 drug-free. A focus on past usage-and at that, largely one that focuses on a handful of players by necessity-does little except to provide a steady stream of negative stories about the game. It's the equivalent of David Stern taking over the NBA in 1983, and electing to launch an investigation into cocaine use in the years preceding his leadership, rather than shifting the focus back to the product on the court, and to the league's new policies.
The acknowledgement that the blame for PEDs extends upwards from the clubhouse is sure to be an unpopular one within the game. However, I think of it as the Colonel Jessup problem. Bud Selig has stated that he had never heard of a steroid problem in baseball before 1998. However, elsewhere he claims that management tried to negotiate a PED policy with the MLBPA as far back as 1994.
Why the two arguments, Mr. Selig? If you'd never heard of a steroid problem until 1998, then why argue that MLB-which you were the de facto head of in 1994-wanted a drug-testing policy in 1994? There's a dissonance here, and investigating that dissonance should be as much a part of the Mitchell Commission's mandate as digging through Barry Bonds' medical file is. It's better for the game and the industry for the errors of the past-about which nothing can be done-to be left alone.
MLB has the toughest PED policy in sports, and no longer has anything to be ashamed of in how it handles the issue. Rather than spending millions of dollars dredging up its mistakes, it should focus on the future, on keeping the game clean, on setting an example for both its peers in professional sports and baseball players of all ages. That's leadership, and it's something I think the game is more than capable of.