King Kaufman's Sports Daily

The Mitchell Report's main accomplishment may be to highlight the bumbling of Bud Selig.


King Kaufman
December 17, 2007 3:50PM (UTC)

The Mitchell Report is 4 days old now and I still can't figure out what it was supposed to do.

If the goal of the 20-month investigation into drug use in baseball was to remind us all that commissioner Bud Selig is a bumbling fool, then mission accomplished, but since Selig commissioned the thing in the first place, that probably wasn't it.

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Selig has enjoyed a growing crowd of defenders and supporters over the last few years as Major League Baseball has enjoyed unprecedented prosperity, with both revenue and attendance breaking records. If the cash registers were silent on his watch he'd get the blame, so he has to get the credit when they're ringing. Fair is fair.

But his performance last week was classic Bud. At a time of crisis, the game needed a leader, a statesman. What it got was a petty operator, a sanctimonious hypocrite looking to make the world forget about his and the other owners' role in enabling the drug culture by punishing a few users. Baseball needed a Lincoln. It got a Nixon.

Former Sen. George Mitchell took on the role of statesman, urging Selig not to punish those players alleged in his report to have bought, received or used performance-enhancing drugs. "All efforts should now be directed to the future," Mitchell wrote. "Spending more months, or even years, in contentious disciplinary proceedings will keep everyone mired in the past."

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Mitchell continued: "Perhaps the most important lesson I learned is that this is a serious problem that cannot be solved by anything less than a well-conceived, well-executed, and cooperative effort by everyone involved in baseball. From my experience in Northern Ireland [where Mitchell was a peace broker] I learned that letting go of the past and looking to the future is a very hard but necessary step toward dealing with an ongoing problem. That is what baseball now needs."

The time to say all this had been 20 months earlier, at the start of the probe. Had Mitchell gotten Selig to agree to an amnesty for all players, executives and team personnel who cooperated with Mitchell's investigation, he might have gotten a lot more useful information than the piecemeal goods he was able to cobble together from a couple of small-time operators under pressure from the feds.

But you can guess how high that idea would have flown from Selig's response to Mitchell Thursday, which was swift and Seligian: "I will deal with the active players identified by Sen. Mitchell as users of performance-enhancing substances," Selig said at his press conference, which followed Mitchell's. "I will take action when I believe it's appropriate."

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Here was Selig's chance to lead. He had cover from a real-live statesman to actually do those smart leadership type things Selig never does. To work cooperatively with the players, whom he and the owners should be treating as partners, not adversaries. To think about the long term rather than the immediate.

But like some accounting clerk who's got the boys in sales dead to rights on paper-clip waste, Selig vowed to hand out punishments to those who deserve it, and he'll decide who deserves it. Never mind that what will really happen -- as Mitchell noted -- is years of mud-wrestling over disciplinary procedures.

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Maybe that was the purpose of the Mitchell Report. Maybe Selig just missed the labor wars that had provided baseball fans with so many thrills from the late '60s to the early aughts.

Donald Fehr, executive director of the players association, was calm but chippy at his own later news conference. This probably came as a surprise to Selig, who had referred to himself as "reaching out" to Fehr. He was reaching out with a billy club.

If you want to know what Selig's all about, picture him at the 2002 All-Star Game. All-Star managers had an amiable, long-standing and never-complained-about policy of getting everyone into the game. Inevitably, that policy would lead to both teams running out of pitchers in a game that went into extra innings.

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That happened in '02, the game was called a tie after 11 and we as a nation got our bloomers in a bunch for about six seconds. Mid-July. Nothing else to do.

Selig was completely at a loss. He stood in the first row of the stands and threw his hands up, utterly baffled.

"Not in your wildest dreams would you have foreseen this game ending in a tie," he said afterward.

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Actually, it took only the most meager of imaginations to picture a game ending in a tie because of a lack of pitchers, given that the managers routinely tried to empty their bullpen by the ninth inning. That amount of foresight was beyond Bud Selig. That's Bud Selig.

Selig also couldn't see how hiring Mitchell, a salaried member of the Boston Red Sox board of directors, to write this report might have created the appearance of a conflict of interest. As Howard Bryant of ESPN.com reported in an exhaustive piece two days before the Mitchell Report was released, this was a massive miscalculation.

"He is a man of integrity and we believed he was the best choice for the job," Selig said. Mitchell went off the Sox payroll -- temporarily -- while conducting the investigation. But, Bryant writes, people around baseball weren't eager to cooperate because of the conflict. Trainers and strength coaches figured Mitchell would absolve management and dump the blame on them. Some clubs figured he'd try to deflect blame from the Red Sox.

"It doesn't make a difference what they say," Bryant quotes an American League source saying about Mitchell. "He's one of them."

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The players, of course, would have stonewalled regardless of who'd been running the investigation because it was a unilateral management action the players hadn't agreed to in collective bargaining.

And maybe Mitchell wasn't the best man for the job. Bryant quotes several people around baseball who found Mitchell's investigators to be clueless about baseball and clubhouse culture, and who say the investigators asked dumb questions and pushed them to make guesses about who was on steroids.

So what do we have? Mitchell's report is a pile of mostly uncorroborated hearsay. Frankly, a fair amount of it is believable, and sure enough we've had a trickle of confirmations of the "I did it once four years ago and it was a terrible mistake" variety from Andy Pettitte and others.

But most of it wouldn't get past a good newspaper editor, never mind a judge. It adds up to what even Mitchell admits is a massively incomplete picture of baseball's drug culture, but at least it succeeded in angering the players, the clubs and the support staffs and ensuring that even fewer people will cooperate with the next effort to get at the truth in this or any other serious matter.

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Now, thanks to this latest bungling, this forgoing of cooperation in favor of renewed 20th century-style worker-management grappling, baseball desperately needs enlightened, visionary leadership.

Alas, look who it has as a leader.

Here come a bunch of 15-day suspensions. They'll solve everything, you bet.

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  • King Kaufman

    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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