Baseball's day of judgement came today with the release of what perhaps will go down as the climax of the steroid era, the Mitchell Report. The report was detailed, long, and did implicate specific players of steroid use. I watched Mitchell's press conference, Bud Selig's press conference, and lastly Donald Fehr's, and I have had a chance to skim the report in its entirety. Here is what I see in the report.
I will start with Mitchell's press conference. As would be expected, he basically outlined the introduction and overview of the report with his prepared speech, but there were a couple of things he said and emphasized that I thought were in particular good. First, he talked a great deal about how baseball needs to move forward, and not get tied down by digging into the past. Even before having a chance to look at the document, I found those words to be very encouraging. Mitchell certainly delves into the past in the report, but ultimately it is about steroid use in general, both how usage became rampant in the game, and how to effectively curtail it. Reading the media coverage leading up to the Mitchell report, I was concerned that this part of the investigation was secondary to unearthing names of big-name users. However, the Mitchell report does focus on fixing the problem, not just identifying it, and he made this clear by the way he wrote the report, and through his press conference today.
Secondly, I was greatly encouraged when I heard Mitchell recommend that Selig not take punitive action against any players named in the report, at least based solely on the report's findings. This was the ultimate signal to me that the report is not intended to be a document that looks back into the past and doles out punishment, but rather looks into the past with an eye towards the future of the game. Clearly, to me, George Mitchell had the best interests of the game at the forefront of his mind during the investigation.
Not surprisingly, Bud Selig received the Mitchell report quite positively (he was the one that commissioned it). Selig was quick to thank Mitchell and his investigative team for the exhaustive job they did, and basically dubbed the report the "tell all" account of the steroid era. Also, Selig did not reject Mitchell's recommendation that penalties not be assessed to players implicated in the report, but he did say that he would review each player implicated, and decide punishment on a case by case basis. It seemed that he had set himself up for a lashing, courtesy Donald Fehr at the MLBPA press conference.
To my borderline astonishment, Fehr was rather subdued with his reaction. He started by acknowledging the issue at hand, even going as far to say that in hindsight action probably should have been taken sooner to combat steroid usage. Fehr also pointed out that the union agreed to stiffer testing when approached seriously about adding it by the owners, and he also made it clear that the MLBPA had not been allowed to see the report in advance, as the owners had, despite his requests. Since he obviously had not had time to read and digest it, all he really added beyond that was that the union would represent and support/defend the players with any actions taken based on this report. Fehr only appeared to be flustered with a question near the end of the interview. I could not hear the question, but with his his response he basically said he could not answer the question yet because he had not had a chance to read the document before needing to make a public statement about it.
It seems likely to me at this point that the owners had hoped that the Mitchell report would blame the players for the steroid problem. I know Selig said at his press conference that he took heat from the owners and players for commissioning the report, and that he hoped the players would participate because they would put the good of the game in front of protecting themselves, their teammates, and the locker room code of conduct. Maybe Selig is telling the truth and he misjudged what would happen badly, but it seems feasible to me that the owners wanted to look like they were the catalysts by commissioning this report, and by acting unilaterally it made participation by the players quite unlikely. So, regardless of the finding, owners could say they were the ones who led the charge, and regardless of the findings they could wag their fingers at the players for not cooperating. Selig supported my theory even further when he stated he would look into suspending players named in the report on a case-by-case basis, even though Mitchell made it clear he hoped that would not happen.
Throughout this process the MLBPA was not treated fairly. Selig should have met with Fehr about commissioning the report beforehand, and tried to work with them instead of dictating to them how things would be. The MLBPA may have still hated the idea, but the best chance they had to get legitimate participation by the players was to include the MLBPA in the process, instead of forcing the commission upon them.
However, what struck me as the dumbest decision was not allowing the MLBPA the advanced preview like the owners got. The reason given for allowing advanced readings was to ensure that no terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement were broken, and if that truly was the reason then the MLBPA should have also had a chance to review it beforehand. Instead, Bud Selig had a few days to digest the report and prepare for questioning, whereas Don Fehr realistically had no chance to react today, limiting the greatest potential source of dissent. Ultimately, as Fehr said at his press conference, this says a great deal about the relationship between the two parties. They are drifting apart again, and negotiations when the current CBA is up just became more difficult.
Aside from the issues between the players and owners, the Mitchell report has its issues too. I would have limited the players specifically named to those that have either public admitted performance-enhancing drug use, or ones that confessed it to the Mitchell investigation team. This would have limited the named players to: Jason Giambi, Jeremy Giambi, Randy Velarde, David Segui, Larry Bigbie, Tim Laker, Adam Piatt, Chad Allen, Wally Joyner, Paxton Crawford, Ken Caminiti, Jose Canseco, and Dan Naulty. This list lacks shock value, but narrowing the list to these players would have limited many of the validity issues being raised, and I think it still illustrates the scope and gravity of the problem, especially if the rest of the players named in the report were not removed, but given pseudonyms.
Ultimately, George Mitchell did what he was asked to do. He made an all-encompassing report about steroid use and drug testing in baseball to the best of his abilities. The section about steroid use among players was essentially an anthology of all that has been reported over the past several years, which should not be surprising given how tight-lipped players remain. There is hardly enough information in the report to charge most of the players implicated, but that was not the point of the report anyway. Mitchell hoped to outline the past to the best of the abilities mostly to help him make informed, beneficial recommendations. Admittedly, Mitchell constructed the past largely on second and third-hand accounts, but where there is smoke there is fire. He was not trying to nail a bunch of players with this report; he was trying to illustrate the wide scope of the problem given the resources he had. There is a difference.
The other thing that struck me was the strained relationship between the players and owners. The more I read the report, the more I got the sense that if they were on better terms the problem would have never got to this point. Mitchell detailed some shady tricks the owners tried to pull with drug testing in the 1980s, which has to stick in the back Fehr's mind. Even more discouraging was reading about labor negotiations in the early1990s though. Thanks to their tense relationship, they could not even see eye to eye on economic issues, and never got to the point where drug testing made it into discussions. What would have happened if the two sides had a better working relationship and had been able to bring up drug testing back in the early 1990s is hard to say. However, given how bad things got unchecked, and how quickly they have improved once stiffer testing was added to the CBA, it seems likely the Mitchell report would never have been needed.