This Sporting Life: The Terrible Twos
We gather this week to celebrate the second anniversary of the Mitchell report. Originally published Dec. 13, 2007, to great fanfare and to save Major League Baseball from itself, it remains an outstanding example of the literary subgenre known as "magical realism" and a fine exercise in the power of wishful thinking.
We mark the occasion of its near-meaningless release with cake and noisemakers and only a little dismay. And in honor of a document that recommended bravely locking the barn door only a quarter-century after the last horse had bolted, we'll lean hard today on the Truth and go easy on the Facts.
It is a bedrock principle of this column that facts and truth are often two very different things. Newspapers, for example, are full of facts, but don't have much room for the truth. The nobody-saw-it-coming suddenness of the subprime mortgage disaster, or the overnight collapse of the big investment banks, are perfect examples of this. The day-to-day facts of our booming economy were not only irrelevant; they actually obscured the truth of the very bubble they represented.
On the other hand, great fiction rings with truth, and does so by tempering "facts" with a deeper understanding of human nature, a strong grasp of human folly and an appreciation of the universe as it is, not as we wish it to be.
Here's a good, timely example of Truth versus Fact from professional football: The Facts -- scrupulously gathered and collated and arranged line after line after line in the NFL record books and on the sports pages and for the weekly tout sheets by men and women of sound character and long experience -- had the Steelers as 10-point favorites over the Browns on Thursday night. Ten points. Maybe 10½. Fact.
The capital-T Truth however, as always, is that predictions are for suckers.
Let's first stipulate here that Sen. George Mitchell's report served its true purpose and served it well. That purpose was not to get steroids and other PEDs out of baseball. Rather, it was to get people to stop talking about steroids and PEDs in baseball.
The Mitchell report even says as much, on Page 33 of the Executive Summary:
"First, a principal goal of this investigation is to bring to a close this troubling chapter in baseball's history and to use the lessons learned from the past to prevent the future use of performance enhancing substances. While that requires us to look back, as this report necessarily does, all efforts should now be directed to the future. That is why the recommendations I make are prospective. Spending more months, or even years, in contentious disciplinary proceedings will keep everyone mired in the past."
In other words, let's put all this behind us.
Because we're not here to talk about the past.
While Senator Mitchell is an admirable man, a man of fine character and high ideals, it must be understood when approaching the 400 pages of his famous, useless report and all the facts it contains that he is acting on behalf of the commissioner of Major League Baseball, who is acting on behalf of the team owners, all of whom are acting on behalf of the bottom line.
Thus the Truth is that the position of commissioner (and I say this with no insult intended to any individual who has held or will hold the office) has always been that of a hired hand for the owners. This was as true of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as it is of any man since. At best this makes the office that of an avid caretaker for someone else's property; at worst, it makes any commissioner a stooge for the profit motive and the status quo.
And being honest about it, and dealing in Truth rather than Facts, the owners (and, let's be fair, the press and the fans) didn't care about PEDs in baseball as long as PEDs were putting fannies in the seats and 450-foot dingers into the second deck, and weren't killing too many teenagers or ruining too many human filter organs.
Thus having abdicated, for decades, our genuine responsibility for the conduct of those playing our national pastime, and having long since valued the heft of the gate over the health of the game, we were left with nothing to do but guess at the number of players using PEDs (5 percent? 50 percent? 85 percent?), mumble our apologies, make tepid recommendations for better testing and hope the whole thing went away.
And the Mitchell report -- which arrived on the scene to bring down the curtain on the "steroids era" by saying it was arriving on the scene to bring down the curtain on the "steroids era" -- is nothing more than an incantation, some mumbled corporate voodoo to make the bad thing disappear.
Turns out America doesn't want rectitude; it wants the appearance of rectitude. Actual rectitude -- strict adherence to a code of ethics -- would require moral effort, work, vigilance. Hard decisions and sacrifices would have to be made.
We don't want that.
We want that ball jacked into the second deck. Bang! So, given enough time, and enough spectacle, we'll all get used to seeing Mark McGwire back in the game as a hitting instructor, I'm sure.
To hope that baseball will somehow regulate itself is the kind of magical thinking that leads us to believe that Wall Street will somehow regulate itself. Even Goldman Sachs understands that the appearance of moderation, rather than moderation itself, is all that matters.
Mitchell's failing (presuming the whole thing wasn't just theater) wasn't that he had some special or conflicting interest in the Red Sox, or even in baseball itself. His failing, like yours and mine, is his belief that somehow an institution can police itself. That any money-making institution -- whether Major League Baseball or AIG or Bear Stearns or the U.S. Congress -- has any practical imperative beyond its own survival, and any moral imperative at all.
Like the rest of us, Mitchell deludes himself into thinking that somehow the institution -- that heartless apparatus, that organism, that company, that league which is itself an expression of human appetite minus empathy, sympathy and accountability -- can change human nature for the better.
(As an antidote to hopelessness, it may be important to note here that great American institutions can and do repair and restore themselves. But it takes decades. The U.S. military in the years after Vietnam is a good example of this. From the lowest point of its public perception in 1975 to its rehabilitation in the hearts and minds of the American public at the end of the first Gulf War took nearly 20 years of daily Herculean effort.)
Major League Baseball has become a little desperate, and rightly so. Its game has been losing market share and its position in this society since the end of World War II. That process began to accelerate in earnest with the NFL's arrival on network television in the late 1950s.
At its worst, baseball is all sentimentality and self-important melodrama. At its best, baseball remains as it always was: a time machine, a pastoral metaphor, a bridge and a passport between our rural past and the urban alienation of the industrial age.
Football, perfect for television, is always the same -- a Michael Bay movie -- all empty, jacked-up narrative and explosions and girls in short skirts. A thoughtless blockbuster.
(Baseball was always about poetry. You want a Donald to fix baseball? All due respect, but you want Donald Hall, not Donald Fehr.)
So blame the commissioner; blame the owners, the players, the fans, the press, the union, the Fates, the stars in the sky. Blame everyone, blame no one. It's all the same. And the lesson remains as it has always been:
Money corrupts everything it touches.
There. I just saved you 409 pages.
But like Bud Selig, like George Mitchell, like Pete Rose or Roger Clemens, like you and Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez and Barry Bonds, I long for the world to conform to my fantasies.
It does not.
Stubbornly, no matter how we rage, it does not.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question: "What Are Sports For?" You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.