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Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Is there any value to the Mitchell report?

By Eric Neel and Jim Caple
Page 2

Eric Neel and Jim Caple love baseball, so they started e-mailing each other to figure out what value (if any) we would get from the findings in the Mitchell report.

Eric Neel: I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, Jim, because I know from watching television and listening to the radio and reading our site that it's an event on par with the release of the Warren Commission findings, but I don't see what all the fuss over the Mitchell report is about. Enlighten me. Tell me why it matters, why I should care what it says ...

Jim Caple: I would if I could. But I'm as puzzled as you are. As best I can figure, it won't tell us anything more than we've known for years. That professional athletes who can make untold millions of dollars would take a substance that improves their performance. I'm shocked. Shocked! I tell you.

Eric: Ah yes, you're one of them hardened journalist types. But let's press the point a bit. Let's say the report includes the names of big-name players who have used, guys whose pictures are on the covers of media guides and video games, will that surprise and disappoint the average fan, do you think?

Jim: It probably would disappoint some fans but I would imagine they would react the way most do. If it's a guy on the other team, they'll complain. If he's on their team, they won't believe it. But I don't think we're going to get a bunch of big names. I think we're going to get more of the same from the past few years. And this will just continue to drag out more and more.

Which is why I'm still trying to figure out the point of the report in the first place. Why would baseball go out of its way to launch an investigation that will only make it look bad and prolong an issue that has been discussed ad nauseam? From the league's standpoint, where is the upside?

Eric: The upside, clumsily grabbed at as it is, is to look busy, to look concerned, to look serious, isn't it? The general public, and most of us with laptops love to skewer Barry Bonds, but it's pretty much conventional wisdom now that baseball itself is just as culpable for the steroid era as any player. The Mitchell project, at least on the surface, is meant to look like the beginning of a new era. Mitchell is a serious man with an impeccable reputation and a record of significant real-world diplomacy. Baseball wants to widen the gap between its front office and the shadowy hallways where players and suppliers allegedly do their deals. So it aligns itself with Mitchell and tells us his word turns the page, scrubs the game clean. It's window dressing, a car-mirror air freshener disguised as the morning after a hard rain.

You describe fans above as having homerish blinders on, which certainly describes a big part of the fan base. However, don't you think the bigger concern for baseball isn't that they won't care because none of the guys named are one of "their" guys, but that they won't care because they have no real expectations that anyone in the game -- Bonds, Bud Selig, Donald Fehr, even their favorite players on their favorite teams -- is above reproach at this point?

Jim: I really don't think the general public is as outraged as the media. I think fans know and accept that players in baseball and football and most other sports have juiced and are juicing -- and they don't mind. Attendance certainly hasn't fallen.

If baseball wants to move on, it should move on. This investigation only gives columnists and talk show hosts more fodder to express their "disgust'' and anger, just as they have for several years now (though clearly not when Mark McGwire was bopping home runs and "saving'' baseball in 1998). It only drags it out longer. Rather than send out Mitchell to look under more rocks, it should take the NFL approach by pretending that its "tough'' testing policy has cleaned up the sport no matter how big the players get.

Eric: Denial. Repression. You may be on to something there. It's been the survival strategy for my dysfunctional family tree for generations. You've pegged maybe my biggest frustration with the Mitchell-O-Rama: It doesn't resolve anything. Beyond maybe cutting short the careers and limiting the earning power of the specific players it names, it doesn't accomplish anything at all. It doesn't change the history of intentional neglect on the part of the league and the union. It doesn't change the decisions made by individuals who used. And it doesn't put to rest the suspicions of those who have concerns about the role of performance-enhancing drugs now and in the future (because I don't think everyone is where you are: satisfied to just live with juice as a fact of life). It pretends to scratch a metaphysical itch, it plays at resolving something out of whack, at healing something sick, but we know it doesn't do these things. It's like our enthusiasm for wanting it to matter is all that is making it matter. We're so desperate for resolution, so hungry for an end to this mess, that we've invested the Mitchell Show with meaning it can't carry.

Jim: Mostly it just keeps baseball looking bad for a problem that is worse in other sports.

Here's what Bud should say:

"I'm sorry about the steroids thing. We were slow to act. But we're always slow to act. Hell, it took the Cubs until 1988 to discover electricity. Everyone knows we should have taken care of this long ago. We didn't and we were wrong. For that I apologize. But we have now instituted the toughest testing policy in sports and are ready to turn the page and watch our national pastime continue to grow. Thank you for loyal support. And go Brewers!"

Really, at this point, what more needs to be said?

Eric: First you were a jaded writer-type and now you're a wild-eyed crazy dreamer. But I'm with you. That's the only thing to be said. And not just by Selig. By anyone. Our expectations are so low now that half of us who care about baseball have convinced ourselves that Jason Giambi's marble-mouthed apology was actually a stand-up move. The only real value in this report, no matter who it does or doesn't name, is that it highlights what it is we really want: Someone to talk straight. No hedging, no spinning, no playing politics. Just say what you did or didn't do. Say why. Apologize. Or don't.

And then we move on. Even Bonds would come out smelling good if he were bold enough to make that move.

Jim: Actually, I don't care about that. I just want people to be consistent. If you want to condemn baseball, fine, but also condemn the NFL too, where a mere glance at the bodies tells you the problem is worse. If you want to condemn the players for taking steroids, fine, but condemn the owners -- including a former owner who lectured the nation on the evils of PEDs in the State of the Union address -- for signing them. If you want to condemn the current era of players, fine, but remember the players from your youth likely took greenies, which is now an officially banned substance. If you don't want to vote for a player for the Hall of Fame, fine, but be careful you never praised him for "saving the game'' with his home runs. And as long as we're condemning people, better condemn ourselves for rooting for so many guys we suspect are juiced, just because we like them or they wear "our'' team's jersey.

Eric: But people aren't consistent. And baseball isn't pure. And that isn't limited to drug use. It includes race prejudice and game-fixing and ownership collusion, and the list goes on and on. You can outlaw PEDs, but you can't guarantee they're going away, all the way away, forever. There will always be some threat of some kind of engineering. That's the byproduct of intense competition, for rings and dollars. So given that consistency is even more of a pipe dream than your call for Selig's public mea culpa, and given that we both agree that Mitchell's report is a potentially colossal waste of paper, what, if anything helps where we are now? How do we incorporate what's likely happened and, as you say, "move on"?

Jim: Simple. We ignore the report, ignore the screaming media and turn our attention to more important issues, like whether the Twins will really trade Santana.

Eric: If they give him up for less than Jacoby Ellsbury AND Clay Buchholz, I won't need a report or a confession; I'll KNOW Twins GM Bill Smith is using.