King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Baseball's new drug probe: A weak swing in hopes of hitting a P.R. single. Plus: George Mason, America's sweetheart.


Salon Staff
March 31, 2006 10:00PM (UTC)

It's unsporting to condemn a do-good initiative before it has taken its first hacks, but it's also hard not to look at baseball's new drug probe as anything more than a weak swing, an overmatched hitter's attempt at a public-relations single.

Commissioner Bud Selig held a press conference Thursday to announce an investigation into "the illegal use of performance enhancing substances by a player or players," with former Sen. George Mitchell of Maine in charge.

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Selig's usual course of action -- inaction -- became untenable in the wake of the publication of "Game of Shadows," an explosive book by two San Francisco Chronicle reporters that details the alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs by Barry Bonds and others.

Coincidentally, Victor Conte, the founder of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, which the book says supplied Bonds and others with drugs, was released from prison Thursday, and he told the Associated Press that he didn't give Bonds steroids.

"I plan to provide evidence in the near future to prove that much of what is written in the book is untrue," Conte said.

You want to see some mighty swings? Get a load of Selig whaling away at expectations like Mad Vlad going to work on a Triple-A control pitcher:

"As a practical matter, however, an investigation of the illegal use of performance-enhancing substances by a player or players is an extraordinarily difficult undertaking," he said Thursday. "Arbitrators have been reluctant to allow compelled, potentially self-incriminating testimony and, unlike governmental law enforcement officials, Major League Baseball lacks the authority to grant immunity.

"The investigatory authority of Major League Baseball, therefore, is particularly limited when the allegations relate to conduct that can create or has created a risk of criminal prosecution for the player. Major League Baseball is also aware of its obligation to avoid interference with an on-going grand jury proceeding or criminal investigation."

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Got that? In other words: Don't expect this investigation to accomplish much. And if it does turn up anything, expect the Major League Baseball Players Association to fire a high, hard grievance at any punishment Selig tries to mete out for past misdeeds.

You may have noticed a decided absence of union officials or players on the dais with Selig and Mitchell.

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Mitchell is a director of the Boston Red Sox. He also is chairman of the Walt Disney Co., which owns ESPN. Not only does ESPN have a contract to broadcast Major League Baseball games, it also has a deal with Barry Bonds to air a self-produced reality show about his quest for the all-time home run mark.

No one is suggesting that Mitchell isn't an honest man. But the whole idea of an investigation like this, which admittedly has a minuscule chance of meaningful findings, is to at least look like you mean it.

Appointing a baseball insider who runs the parent company of baseball's biggest broadcast partner does not exactly give off a sheen of impartiality. Whether Mitchell conducts the probe with integrity or not, it looks like a sham. Selig couldn't have found somebody he doesn't have on speed dial?

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It also doesn't help that baseball is sending mixed messages about Bonds, who almost certainly won't cooperate with the probe. MLB's executive vice president for business, Tim Brosnan, said this week that there would be formal celebrations -- that is, advertising and merchandising efforts -- if Bonds hits the 48 homers he needs to pass Henry Aaron for the all-time home run record, though major sponsors Bank of America and Home Depot have already said they want no part of such things.

Add those planned celebrations, if enough sponsors don't back away, and the revenue they could produce to the list of reasons people can have not to believe Mitchell's investigation will really get to the bottom of things.

Mitchell might surprise us all with an investigation that brings baseball's illicit drug culture to its knees. Good luck to him on that. He's going to need it.

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George Mason's Final Four bid [PERMALINK]

I've been saying it over and over for two weeks and I just don't understand why no one will listen to me: Hofstra should have gotten the Tournament bid. Not George Mason. Hofstra!

Well, not really. I had no opinion on the Hofstra vs. George Mason question on Selection Sunday and I don't have an opinion on it now. For all I know, despite GMU's Cinderella run, Hofstra really did deserve the at-large bid.

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Oddly enough, the people who did have an opinion on the Hofstra vs. George Mason question on Selection Sunday also don't have an opinion on it now. Or if they have one, they're keeping awfully quiet about it.

Let's take a look at the two Final Four games coming up Saturday, starting with those Cinderellas from the Washington suburbs.

George Mason vs. Florida, 6:05 p.m. EST

The farther underdogs like the Patriots go, the harder it gets to talk about them rationally.

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At some point, you just start feeling like a jerk. Game after game, you look at them, look at their opponents, and say, "Well, these plucky lads have had a great run, they've made all the experts look foolish, but they're not going to beat this team." And then they do.

Now George Mason faces a semifinal game against Florida, a powerful team at the top of its game. And, led by 6-11 center Joakim Noah and 6-9 forward Al Horford, the Gators seem uniquely suited to beat George Mason.

The Patriots rely almost exclusively on their five starters, so they can't afford to get caught up in an inside game that might lead to foul trouble. And none of their regulars tops 6-7.

The plucky George Mason lads have had a great run, they've made all the experts look foolish, but they're not going to beat this team.

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Ah, damn, I've done it again.

Of course Florida is the favorite. You don't get to be the underdog national darling without being the underdog. But sure, George Mason can beat the Gators.

Florida ought to be able to dominate the paint and score pretty much at will from inside, but when hasn't that been true of GMU's opponents in this Tournament? That's not all, though. Florida is very balanced and can also get scoring from guards Lee Humphrey and Taurean Green and swing man Corey Brewer. The Gators are deep and athletic.

The Patriots' forwards, Jai Lewis and Will Thomas, can score over bigger players, and they can find open guards out of a double-team. George Mason is also good at disrupting offenses by stepping into passing lanes, and then they're good at running the fast break.

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The Patriots are absolutely a Cinderella, but they're also a good team. They're a smart, veteran club that plays hard and plays well together. And they've grown during the Tournament. They're not as much of a Cinderella after beating top-seed UConn as they were following their routine-for-March upset of No. 6 Michigan State.

ESPN's Dick Vitale likens George Mason to the 1980 U.S. hockey team. I'd say in some ways the Patriots' run is more impressive, though of course it lacks the geopolitical magnitude of the Miracle on Ice.

All the hockey team had to do was pull one monumental upset. George Mason did that against North Carolina, then did it again against UConn. The win over Wichita State was an upset only in terms of seeding.

We'll be talking about the George Mason Patriots and their improbable Tourney run for decades. They're no Hofstra, but they're all right.

LSU vs. UCLA, 8:45 p.m. EST (after GMU-Fla.)

Oh, there's another game Saturday night too.

The game will end up a blowout because I'm saying this, but it's hard to imagine two more evenly matched teams. One's not clearly better than the other. One might just play into your prejudices better is all.

LSU plays into mine, my prejudice for March being "all things being roughly equal, bet on forward and centers over guards."

LSU's best players are its big guys, Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Tyrus Thomas, though guard Darrel Mitchell's pretty good. UCLA's best players are its guards, Arron Aflalo and Jordan Farmar, though forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is pretty good.

LSU is fast and athletic. Thomas practically jumps out of the gym to block shots, and it's completely disruptive to an offense. UCLA is a grinding, defensive team. If the Bruins can turn the game into a slugfest and get Davis and Thomas in foul trouble, it could be a long night for the Tigers.

But I think LSU will pull out a painfully close game.

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Pool o' Experts in disarray [PERMALINK]

The 2006 NCAA Tournament has been so wild, so unpredictable, that pools across the country have long since blown up. Hardly anybody has a dog in the hunt anymore. This column's Pool o' Experts is no exception.

Of the 13 entries, including nationally known typists and chatterers, the NCAA Selection Committee, the public and the coin-flippinest 3-year-old in Dogtown, only four still have points to gain in the Final Four.

Everyone failed to pick the champion. Six entrants -- Luke Winn, Seth Davis and Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated, the Selection Committee, Tony Mejia of CBS.SportsLine and CBS.SportsLine's users -- failed to get a single team to the Final Four. Nobody got more than two teams to the semifinals.

The only game still in play is Saturday's LSU-UCLA game. After that, everybody's tapped out. If LSU wins that game, I will just squeeze past Gregg Doyel of CBS.SportsLine and win the Pool o' Experts, no doubt triggering an investigation by Bud Selig. If UCLA beats LSU, Stewart Mandell of Sports Illustrated wins and I finish third behind Doyel.

Buster, 3-year-old coin flipper, would finish fifth with a UCLA win. He's already guaranteed to finish ahead of Davis. Keep that in mind when Davis offers his expert opinion on CBS's broadcasts: His bracket was beaten by a 3-year-old's quarter. CBS.SportsLine's users, last year's winner and the proud representatives of the wisdom of the masses, have also been bested by a lone toddler, as has Wahl of S.I.

And it's not just the Pool o' Experts that got blown away. ESPN.com, either refreshingly honest or incapable of embarrassment, still displays the Final Four picks of its "experts" on its Tournament front page.

Out of Jay Bilas, Pat Forde, Andy Katz, Dick Vitale and the collective wisdom of the site's users, exactly one bracket correctly predicted exactly one Final Four team. Vitale had UCLA. Other than that, 19 chances to be right, 19 picks that were wrong.

Having covered themselves with glory, the ESPN experts are asking us to believe that this time they can see into the future. Their consensus pick, with only a little dissent: Florida over LSU in the Championship Game.

Give that all the consideration it deserves.

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Women's Tournament [PERMALINK]

The women's Final Four gets underway with the semifinals Sunday. The Championship Game is Tuesday. Maryland and North Carolina meet in the first game Sunday at 7 p.m. EDT, with Duke vs. LSU to follow.

It's going to take four upsets from this point, but we could have LSU winning both titles the year after Hurricane Katrina, which would be kind of nice.

As usual, I did a better job filling out my women's bracket than I did with the men. I got three teams into the Final Four, all of them except LSU. I had Oklahoma emerging from the San Antonio region. My champion, North Carolina, is still alive.

Using the same scoring system I use for the Pool o' Experts -- 10, 20, 40, 80, 120 and 160 points per game in the six rounds -- my women's bracket has racked up 930 points, more than I or anyone else in the Po'E has gathered trying to pick men's games.

That's to be expected. With less parity, the women's Tournament is more predictable than the men's.

But I still want to blow my horn a little. I entered my bracket in ESPN's annual "media challenge" pool, and after four rounds I'm in a three-way tie for eighth place out of 40. I don't know who most of the people in the pool are. One of the co-leaders is Al Jaffe, an ESPN exec you might have seen working as a judge on "Dream Job," but none of the women's basketball announcers or analysts is participating.

I don't care. I'll take my bracket bragging where I can get it.

Previous column: National League preview

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