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Mitchell Report Looms

George MitchellAs teams prepare to tender or non-tender their arbitration-eligible players (the deadline is this Wednesday), the focus in baseball is far from personnel decisions, though not so far from personnel. It appears that Major League Baseball received the Mitchell report tonight, and it is being read over to make sure no terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement have been violated. This is believed to be the final step before it is released to the public, and the widespread belief is that it will be officially released Thursday. I tend to steer away from writing about other people's writing, but Howard Bryant on wrote a rather lengthy piece about Mitchell's investigation that can be read by clicking this link. Bryant does a solid job of both outlining the key people within the investigation, and the feelings wrapped up in the investigation. My response to this article is what follows.

There are enough opinions about the Mitchell report floating around to bury the facts. So, I will start by doing my best to summarize what is known, and then go from there. After reading the article, combined with my own cursory knowledge of the report that I have through bits and pieces reported by the media, here is my basic understanding of how the Mitchell report has come to fruition:

  1. Major League Baseball asked George Mitchell to investigate steroid use in baseball. Major League Baseball promised Mitchell that they would not limit or hinder his investigation in any manner.
  2. George Mitchell formed a team to help him investigate, consisting mostly of members of his own law firm.
  3. Mitchell began by trying to interview players. He did not have the power to subpoena, so no player was obligated to speak with him. No players were willing to speak, so Mitchell turned to other sources, namely the commissioner's office staff, team employees, and sources outside of baseball with knowledge of steroids.
  4. The investigation took a turn last April when former New York Mets employee Kirk Radomski pleaded guilty to steroid distribution. Radomski sold steroids to a number of players from 1995 to 2005 according to federal prosecutors. As part of his plea bargain, he agreed to assist in Mitchell's investigation. As a side note, Radomski is scheduled to be sentenced in February.
As far as I can tell, that is all that is truly known about the Mitchell report right now. Anything outside of the scope of these four bullet points is based on some sort of conjecture, which gives an idea of how many conclusions people are drawing right now. That is not to say that conjecture is bad, but it is important to identify it as such.

Facts are always a great place to start, and they often beg questions. The Mitchell Report facts are no different; they raise many important questions. Below is the one question from each fact that I think is most important:
  1. Why did Major League Baseball ask George Mitchell to investigate steroid use?
  2. Why did George Mitchell select an investigation team that consisted mostly of members from his own law firm?
  3. Why didn't the players cooperate with the investigation?
  4. How did Radomski's cooperation impact the Mitchell investigation?
Here is where my conjecture begins:

Why did Major League Baseball ask George Mitchell to investigate steroid use?
The simple answer is because baseball wanted someone to look at the steroid problem and suggest ways to fix it, restoring credibility to the game. However, owners and the MLBPA had already stiffened drug-testing policies in the collective bargaining agreement twice before Selig asked Mitchell to do an investigation, so there were already efforts being made to address the problem. Clearly, baseball did not need this report to take action, so there must be some other motivation. In 2005, congress held a hearing about steroids in baseball, and basically threatened action unless baseball did something to clean up the game. On the heels of the congressional hearings, baseball stiffened their drug testing (the second of the two CBA amendments referenced earlier), and later announced the launching of the Mitchell report. Congress has been quietly waiting since. George Mitchell is one of only a handful of people who have connections to both congress and baseball, so he was a logical fit, especially given that he was a member of the Blue Ribbon Panel that looked at the problems with baseball's economic model in the early 1990s. To me, it is fairly clear the Mitchell report is the owners' response to the scrutiny of congress.

Why did George Mitchell select an investigation team the consisted mostly of members from his own law firm?
This one is simple. People, when asked to assemble a group of any sort, tend to reach out to people they know that they feel are qualified.

Why didn't the players cooperate with the investigation?
This one is not too difficult to answer either. History has shown time and time again that the players and owners do not get along very well. Thanks to owners' attempts to collude decades ago, the MLBPA tends to assume that anything suggested by the owners is somehow meant to rob the players of something for the benefit of the owners. However, despite the uneasy relationship between the two sides, they avoided a work stoppage when the last Collective Bargaining Agreement expired, and then in an unprecedented move amended the CBA to stiffen drug testing when it had become apparent that steroid use was a major problem. Furthermore, when congress told baseball to take further action, the players once again agreed to even stiffer testing, amending the CBA in place yet again. The players felt they had been more than cooperative in the whole process, so when Major League Baseball (a.k.a. the owners, led by commissioner Bud Selig) came to them and told them that an investigation into steroid use was being launched and they were expected to cooperate, they were less than thrilled. Given what they had already done to address steroid use, and the great mistrust they have in owners, they saw no benefit in complying, especially when the investigation was not given the power to subpoena.

How did Radomski's cooperation impact the Mitchell investigation?
This one is tougher to speculate on. However, it is fair to assume that baseball players were the most likely to be able to provide names of players who used to steroids. Therefore, it is also fair to assume that without the player's cooperation, the Mitchell investigation had few, if any, names linked to steroid use. Thus, when Radomski was charged with steroid distribution, it seems likely that the Mitchell investigators saw him as their best chance to get names of players who used steroids. If Radomski did supply names, it would follow that the Mitchell investigators would then interview other athletic trainers and strength coaches in hopes that they would supply more names, which "sources" (whoever they are) have claimed was the case.

So, to recap, from the four facts known about the Mitchell investigation came four questions, from which the following implications about the report can be made:
  1. The Mitchell Report is the owners' response to congress' look at steroid use in baseball.
  2. George Mitchell's investigation team is comprised of people that he knows, and that he feels are qualified to do a good job.
  3. Players did not cooperate with the investigation because they felt they had already addressed the issue accordingly, and they do not trust the owners.
  4. Radomski was likely the first person with direct ties to steroids to supply the investigation with names of players who used steroids.
These conclusions beg more questions, but this is a blog post, not a full-blown essay, so I will stop here and begin to wrap things up. Clearly, the investigation was hampered by the lack of cooperation from players, but the players had good reason not to participate. If the owners' main concern in this report was getting to the bottom of steroid use in baseball, they likely would have gone to the MLBPA and together figured out the structure of the investigation, to ensure that players would cooperate. Instead, the commissioner acted unilaterally and dictated to the Don Fehr and the MLBPA how things would be, implying they are more interested in something other than ridding the game of steroids. Most likely, the owners are more concerned with escaping blame than getting to the bottom of the problem.

It would not be the first time the owners have used an "independent study" to try get what they want. Look no further than the Blue Ribbon Panel Report, which concluded that baseball needed revenue sharing, and that poor teams needed to build new stadiums to compete. Interestingly, George Mitchell was part of this panel as well, but the owners actually attempted to add many owners of poor franchises to the panel, obviously in hopes of influencing the panel's decision to add revenue sharing. The owners wanted to add revenue sharing, but needed an "independent study" to gain credence. Their blatant attempt to skew the results was rejected by the panel, though the panel still came to the conclusion desired. Revenue sharing has greatly helped baseball, but the main point I want to illustrate here is that the owners do what they can to twist reports to suit their desires.

I will withhold judgement on the Mitchell report until I get a chance to see it for myself, but there are some ominous signs. Given the owners' history and how they went about commissioning the Mitchell report, it seems likely that the owners are most interested in making sure this report does not blame them, whether it actually offers viable solutions to the steroid problem or not. Ominously, many of the trainers and coaches quoted in the Bryant article expressed frustration over the Mitchell investigation, because they were never asked for their input on how to solve the problem. According to them, the interviews focused on identifying specific players who did steroids, supporting the theory that the whole point of the report is to assign blame.

However, it should be noted that Bryant does not support the Mitchell investigation, and the article he wrote is slanted. To start with, he includes speculation that Mitchell's selection of investigators from his own firm is some great plot by the owners to ensure they will not be blamed, which I find to be quite a stretch. It seems quite clear to me that Mitchell would pick members from his own firm for innocent reasons, as I outlined earlier in this post. In addition, Bryant's inclusion of the far-fetched theory that Mitchell leaked information about Paul Byrd's HGH use to help the Red Sox win did not do much for his article either (though he did include quotes both agreeing and disagreeing with the conspiracy). Still, despite the bias inherent in the article, Bryant raises some valid issues, even if he does not use the most valid of evidence to back them up.

Ultimately, the credence of the Mitchell report will not be decided by how many players are linked to steroid use, or who is found to be at blame. This report should be about ridding the game of steroids, so it should only assign blame insofar that it aids in identifying the problem at hand that needs to be solved. At this point, it is hard to tell if the investigation really has fixated on assigning blame, or if the media has fixated on this portion of the investigation. Either could be true. The answer will come on Thursday.