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December 14, 2007

Prospectus Today

The Morning After

by Joe Sheehan

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When you come down to it, George Mitchell is most appropriately described as a bad free agent signing by the industry, Park Avenue's answer to Francisco Cordero or Gary Matthews Jr.

Mitchell was signed not for his expected production, which even at the time of the deal was minimal. He was signed for the press conference, so that the team could sit behind a table and say it was doing something to address its problems, that it wanted to contend. He was signed so the team could get a couple of news cycles of positive press, put the hat and jersey on its new teammate and get that image out, sell a few premium seats close to the action. It knew going in that Mitchell was past his prime, a flawed player even at his peak, and walking into a situation where no one player would be enough to create a contender.

With two years of mediocre performance behind him, MLB now knows that it didn't get value for its money. Nevertheless, it will support the player, as much to avoid the appearance of having made a mistake than anything else. There's $20 million gone, no wins added, and two years of wheel-spinning to look back on, and the team is no closer to success now than it was the day Mitchell was signed.

The Mitchell Commission report runs 409 pages on my screen, and for all those electrons, virtually the only thing of value is Exhibit D, an extensive autograph collection compiled by Kirk Radomski. These autographs, by players and trainers on checks and money orders, are the hard evidence supporting Radomski's claims that players purchased performance-enhancing drugs from him. In 21 months, the Mitchell Commission's sole substantial discovery isn't even its own; it's a gift from the federal government, which investigated, caught and prosecuted Radomski, then handed him to the commission on a silver platter. The feds incentivized the former clubbie to give up information to the Commission, and he did so with alacrity.

I don't mean to dismiss Radomski's testimony. He's the only person in this entire mess who actually showed up with some documentation. (Dear professional athletes: maybe not so much with the personal checks for your illegal drug purchases, eh?) No, the point is that the Radomski chapter is symbolic of this entire report, and the commission's entire work: it basically walked around picking up the federal government's sloppy seconds. There's Radomski, and there's the BALCO thread, and the Signature pharmacy thread, and...nothing. The commission's original work consists of passing along enough hearsay to keep a team of defense lawyers in business until the Rapture.

The commission's failure to do anything of note on its own makes the tone of both the report and George Mitchell's press conference yesterday shameful. Given a bully pulpit with which to change the conversation about performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, Mitchell instead elected to blame the MLBPA and its members for being obstructionist; put little to no blame on upper management of teams or the game itself; proffer unoriginal solutions that, while difficult to argue against, could have been generated by a Google search of Dick Pound quotes; and offered legitimacy to such tired refrains as the connection between PED use by MLB players and usage by young athletes and Don Hooton's claims that steroids drove his son to his suicide.

Today is not the day to go line-by-line through Mitchell's statement nor the 409 pages before us. However, one Mitchell quote stands out for me as representing not only the tone of everything he contributed, but the core problem with the entire discussion. In describing the development of drug-testing programs in baseball, Mitchell says, "A negative test does not necessarily mean that a player has not been using such substances."

As recently as five years ago, there was no testing program in baseball, and the implementation of one was a key negotiating point in the 2002 CBA talks. Those of us with a libertarian bent often point out that a random drug-testing program is more accurately described as a prove-your-innocence program that violates the small-r rights of those it covers. Nevertheless, the players approved this program, and the expansion of both it and the punishments for being caught, over the past five years. They have accepted defeat in the public arena, notwithstanding the caliber of the discussion there, and acceded to the idea that a testing program is necessary to sustain the public's confidence in their sport.

Having done so, the players have now been told that their efforts are irrelevant, that proving their innocence doesn't actually do so, and that even clean urinalysis will not suffice as evidence of a clean body. This is, unfortunately, consistent with the press coverage of the last five years, which has largely disregarded test results in the ongoing discussion of PED use in baseball, with the singular exception of treating Rafael Palmeiro's positive test as an event. The evidence the testing program created-that PED use was restricted to a small and dwindling percentage of players; that use was distributed across skill levels, roles and status; that a positive test and suspension did not carry consequences beyond the time lost-has been ignored in favor of the idea that the vast majority of negative tests simply means that the testing is inadequate.

For a mainstream media consistently unable to grasp the use of data in its argumentation, and with a vested interest in perpetuating a negative story, this circular reasoning is understandable, if disappointing. For MLB's Great White Hope to step to a podium and validate this notion is unacceptable, and confirms the worst fears that Mitchell would be unable to produce a report that is fair to all parties whose action and inaction were a part of so-called "steroid era."

While a number of decision-makers show up in the report, largely through e-mails in which they discuss players' use of PEDs, there is no examination of how owners, presidents, general managers, and managers integrated their knowledge of PED use, such as it was, into their processes. The evidence we have from the market-that it simply doesn't matter-is completely absent from the report. Players who have tested positive and been suspended, such as Ryan Franklin and Guillermo Mota, have subsequently received multi-year, multi-million contracts. Players who have been implicated in various investigations, such as Andy Pettitte and Jose Guillen, also signed big-money deals after accusations of their use came to light. If the argument is that these players' successes encourage the youth of America to take up PEDs, then the message is being sent as much by the owners and GMs who lavish millions on these players as it is the players themselves.

The report is silent on this point.

The report is also silent on the impact of the so-called "steroid era" on the public's interest in the game. Not six weeks ago, Commissioner Bud Selig announced with great pride that the industry's revenues had climbed above $6 billion, the latest in a long series of "mosts" for the game in revenues and attendance. Setting aside the moral issues here-and they are significant-if the use of performance enhancing drugs has been pervasive within the game in recent years, that use has run parallel to explosive revenue growth and attendance gains. Any sober recollection of this period has to take this into account.

Finally, despite having much greater access to employees of MLB than to the independent contractors in the union, the report is largely silent on the role of the game's administrators in setting the tone across the industry. MLB employees, team and league, were not merely encouraged to cooperate, but coerced to do so under threat of job loss and fines. If there is a subset of the MLB world whose practices and opinions should have been well-represented in this report, it is non-uniformed personnel, and beyond that, the people who work at 245 Park Avenue.

Despite this access, we get very little information on how the Commissioner's Office, MLB Security, and other high administrators addressed the growing problem of steroids in the game. There are, in fact, more quotes culled from newspaper and magazine coverage than direct testimony from those within the game. I fail to understand how this could be the case short of it being intentional, a determined effort to keep the focus on the players.

As Mitchell's contract draws to a close, and we look back at his two-year stint with MLB, we find him wanting. His statesmanlike performance yesterday, for which he's drawn praise, is a front for a report that is inadequate in its scope, insufficient in its substance, and inept at closing the door on the era. Instead of delivering much in the way of new or original information, his report leans heavily on the work of the government, and at that, on just a few sources of hard information, while giving far too much play to hearsay and innuendo. There are positives within, such as his recommendation that the industry should spend its time and energy not on punishment for past misdeeds but on eradicating PED use in its future. On the whole, though, the Mitchell Commission has failed to justify its contract, leaving the game of baseball in no better shape than it was 21 months ago.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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