Amnesty isn't perfect, but it sure beats the alternative
Amnesty. That's what I'm proposing. A one-time, get-out-of-MLB-jail card if you use or used steroids, HGH or assorted other performance-enhancing substances. Turn in your syringes now and we'll try to pretend the past 10-20 years of baseball through better medicine didn't leave permanent needle marks on the game.
I haven't worked out all the specifics yet. But you can come clean now, or eventually the feds, Congress, the media, a player or former player with a guilt complex, a chatty doctor or pharmacist, or an entourage member will do it for you. It's like the esteemed Jerome Holtzman (Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 1989, MLB historian) told me the other day: "People are going to find out. There isn't anybody who is taking steroids that won't be discovered."
He's right, though who knows how long it will take for the cheaters to be discovered. Months? Years? The time it takes for Los Angeles to get an NFL franchise?
My proposal is simple enough: You admit, under oath, that you did the deed. Then you agree to provide a blood sample now and then other samples at the times of our choosing. One of these days there's going to be a reliable test for human growth hormone, and the blood samples will give us a tiny bit of insurance.
If you and your chemists come up with a new, undetectable designer drug, you do so at your own risk. Because the amnesty program doesn't believe in third chances. You get the one freebie and that's it. A future violation means you're thrown out of the game, just like a scuffed baseball. The penalty will be swift, final and very public.
So I ran the amnesty idea past a well-known sports agent who represents one of baseball's premier players. He doesn't want to be quoted by name, but he said, "I think the idea of it has more merit than this constant witch hunting. This can't still be going on in two years. If this is still a story in two years, this will be absolutely horrific for baseball."
He's right, too. MLB commissioner Bud Selig can talk all he wants about this being the "golden age" of baseball (attendance and revenue reached new highs in 2006), but the sport's credibility is in its numbers. When "flaxseed"-enhanced, amphetamine-taking players such as Barry Bonds start breaking such sacred numbers as Henry Aaron's career home run record, then the numbers -- and MLB's credibility -- begin to suffer structural damage. You enter the dangerous age of, Did He or Didn't He?
I'm not saying the amnesty deal would prevent Bonds from becoming baseball's all-time home run leader. Only age, injuries and pitchers with a grudge can do that. But Bonds' reputation and believability was compromised seasons ago. I'm talking about the wave of players and statistics after Bonds.
The amnesty concept isn't perfect -- isn't even close -- but it beats the alternative, which is the Mitchell investigation. The Mitchell investigation is the equivalent of the NCAA's Reggie Bush investigation. In other words, it's all gums, no teeth.
"I've been concerned from the beginning and I have expressed that concern to anyone who will listen," said Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), the former big league pitcher who was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996. "But we have to give Sen. George Mitchell time to do his job."
Former Sen. George Mitchell's investigators have no subpoena powers, no cooperation from the players and, by the sound of some of their questions to team management personnel, no clue. But at least the investigators are getting Marriott points.
"If you know anything about George Mitchell," Bunning said, "you know that he's a digger."
But Bunning is quick to add that he isn't sure Mitchell and his investigators have "the right tools," meaning subpoena power. He said Mitchell hasn't requested it from Congress, but, "I'm willing, ready and able to ... if he asks. We could have a hearing with [Mitchell] present and subpoena as many people [as necessary] ... to force people to appear or exercise their Fifth Amendment rights."
It took the Senate Watergate Committee 13 months to help end Richard Nixon's reign and then issue a 1,250-page report on the hearings and investigation. It's taken the Mitchell investigation almost 12 months (and counting) to realize its fishing with no bait on the hook. Meanwhile, at least two big league players, among others, were implicated after federal and state narcotics agents recently raided pharmacies that allegedly sold steroids and performance enhancers over the Internet. And make no mistakes, there's more of these raids to come.
Amnesty would be MLB's bait. It wouldn't give baseball total drug closure, but we're never going to have that anyway. But amnesty would at least give baseball a chance to start relatively fresh, right?
"That's a naive notion," Holtzman said. "If you give amnesty, which is fine with me, in a year or two you'd have cheaters."
"The public outcry of being exposed is the biggest penalty," a team baseball executive said. "I don't know why someone would admit to it ... I don't see the use of [amnesty]."
So I explain the concept to Tim Kurkjian and Buster Olney of ESPN The Magazine and "Baseball Tonight" fame, as well as to ESPN.com contributor Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune. All three writers were in Florida for spring training assignments.
Kurkjian actually laughed at the proposal -- not because an amnesty program didn't have possibilities, he said, but because the players would never participate. Olney said the players considered themselves bulletproof when it came to testing, so what was the point of turning themselves in? And Rogers simply said, "The time has passed for that."
Even the player agent, who likes the idea, said it wouldn't work -- but for a different reason.
"The amnesty thing would be great if we didn't have Bonds," he said. "Society wants raw meat. They want a villain. He is a perfect villain. Unfortunately, he fits that role so perfectly ... What would happen [with amnesty], you'd wash away the villain."
But this isn't just about villains. Bonds has always been, and always will be, insufferable. This has more to do with trying to fix a sport that enjoys unprecedented popularity, but also unprecedented scrutiny.
"I'm not worried because it always shakes out," Holtzman said. "This isn't the first time baseball faced scandal. It survived the Black Sox. Geezus, if it survived that, it can survive this."
The 1919 Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the World Series. Performance enhancers -- and the players who use them -- threaten to do much worse. They can destroy the natural balance of an entire sport. They can make the asterisk the most-used symbol in the record books.
"It's now becoming readily apparent that you're going to have the pre-steroid, steroid and post-steroid eras," said the player agent.
Maybe the "amnesty era" is something to think about. It's a naive, admittedly flawed idea, but it's a start. Or we can just wait for the Mitchell investigation to provide the answers. I'm sure it will be done any year now.
"I hope the Mitchell report will lead the way," said Bunning, who has offered a confidential wish list of fix-it proposals to Selig. "I don't know that to be a fact. But I hope that's the case."
Hope. That's what we're left with these days. Hope, a prayer and subpoena power. What a lineup.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.