Mitchell’s whitewash

Dave Zirin is the author of "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports."

Former Sen. George Mitchell is being treated like baseball’s Moses, a man who came down from the mountain with the tough truth about what he calls “the steroid era” in Major League Baseball. It took 20 months and cost $20 million, but Mitchell is being credited with launching a possible reformation in the game, where players go up to the plate with only a glass of milk -- and maybe some amphetamines -- in their system. Yet beneath the surface, his report is an ugly, sanctimonious fraud, meant to absolve those at the top and pin blame on a motley crew of retired players, trainers and clubhouse attendants.

We should be far slower to praise Mitchell and far more suspect about what the former Senate majority leader from Maine is bringing to the table.

The lives and careers of the nearly 90 current and former players named in the report will never be the same. Baseball and the media want scapegoats. The resultant frenzy has confirmed that the opening paragraph in their obituaries will likely mention that they were named in the Mitchell Report.

The players named are a diverse sampling, to be sure -- the United Colors of Steroid Abusers. They range from the marginal -- any Larry Bigbie fans out there? -- to the MVPs -- Miguel Tejada -- to the all-time greats like Barry Bonds and the man being called the Moby Dick to Mitchell’s Ahab: seven-time Cy Young award winner Roger Clemens.


The Mitchell Report confirms not only suspicions about Clemens but the existence of an outrageous media bias and double standard. While Bonds, the seven-time National League MVP, 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.

Not one owner is cited, and no one from upper management is called to task. Mitchell is selling us the same tired narrative that baseball’s bosses were merely “slow to act” and that the explosion of steroids in the game happened through a bizarre criminal consortium of players and clubhouse attendants.

This is a narrative that reads like fiction. It’s like blaming the ship bartender for the sinking of the Titanic. Performance-enhancing drugs were funneled into the game concurrent with smaller stadiums, harder bats and an incredible shrinking strike zone to boost power numbers and TV ratings after the 1994 strike.


As Nike’s puckish slogan told us, “Chicks dig the long ball.” Well, the owner’s box and Madison Avenue did as well.

The idea that owners and GMs merely facilitated the “juicing” of the game while leaving the very conditioning of players to the players themselves simply strains belief. This is the way people in power stay in power during times of crisis: take some heat, blame the underlings and call it a day.

“Heat” may even be overstating it. Mitchell simply lets the owners skate. This stubborn fact is particularly problematic because -- true or not -- he appears to have had a terrible conflict of interest at work. The man is on the board of the Boston Red Sox and was formerly on the board of the Walt Disney Co. Further, Disney owns ESPN, one of baseball’s chief broadcast partners. This is like having Vice President Dick Cheney in charge of a solar energy initiative.

One would think that any report that refers to the last decade as a steroid era would call on the baseball commissioner of that era, Bud Selig, to resign. But far from it. Selig held a news conference in which he brazenly refused to admit any culpability and instead pledged to flout Mitchell’s recommendation that players who used in the past not be punished. At least Donald Fehr, the players union boss, said, “In retrospect, we should have done something sooner.” Selig’s arrogance wouldn’t allow it, and Mitchell’s report enabled Selig’s strut. The report also may drag out dozens of players for a public flaying, but it’s filled with a mix of hearsay and half-truths. Only two active players spoke to Mitchell, and one, New York Yankee Jason Giambi, 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. Reputations have been ruined, yet the essential “truth” of the report is not being questioned.

At the end of the day, Mitchell has provided the same kind of political cover that the mainstream media gave the Bush administration on Iraq: Errors made were ones of people with good intentions who made terrible choices. Those who suffered from these choices are blamed for taking advantage of a situation and acting out of self-interest.

This is baseball making sure the chain of command stops in the clubhouse, a world apart from the owner’s box.

And so, after 20 months and $20 million -- not to mention years of anabolic angst -- the question remains: What did the owners and general managers know, and when did they know it?