Commentary

Congress misses the point about MLB's real drug issue

Originally Published: February 14, 2008
By Shaun Assael | ESPN The Magazine

If your idea of great theater is Clay Aiken in "Spamalot," you loved Wednesday's steroid hearing on Capitol Hill. It had memorable song-and-dance numbers galore, including the show-stopper by Rep. Dan Burton, R.-Ind., who almost seemed to be on the juice himself when he went after Brian McNamee for testifying that he supplied Roger Clemens with 'roids.

But with pitchers and catchers reporting this week, there's one number I'm keeping my eye on: 60. That's the maximum number of random out-of-season tests that can be conducted on MLB's players, according to the collective bargaining agreement. As long as the number stays at 60 -- or 5 percent of the total MLB roster -- we'll still be stuck at zero.

With spring training on the horizon, this would seem to be a perfect time for Congress to talk about what players have been doing in the offseason. But on Wednesday, when the klieg lights were on, we didn't get a shred of conversation about the biggest loophole in MLB's drug testing policy -- one that virtually assures any player who wants to dope that he can do so anywhere in the world in the offseason. Instead, we got a sideshow about a party at Jose Canseco's house.

[+] EnlargeBud Selig
AP Photo/Joe RaymondTo hear Bud Selig tell it, as he did here at Notre Dame on Tuesday, it's all good with baseball. But there's still the matter of MLB's limited offseason drug-testing program.
The investigators who worked on the Mitchell Report appear to have botched a detail about whether Clemens was actually at the 1998 party. Or, at the very least, they didn't do what any journalism student is taught to do: Get a second source. Instead, they took McNamee's word, leaving Clemens a perfect opening to say he wasn't there, and by extension cast doubt on the entire report.

A whole lot of time was spent Wednesday trying to use this dispute to paint the report as shoddily put together, and thus full of holes. By the time Clemens started backtracking, saying, well, maybe he might have stopped by the party to drop his wife off after a golf outing, we were safely in soap opera land. There was even a cameo by The Nanny and a "Have you no decency, sir?" exchange. My head was spinning. Then I remembered …

60.

You have to ask whether Bud Selig and Don Fehr were secretly relieved by the way this whole complex issue somehow got whittled down to a mud-slinging match. It overshadowed everything, including the most breathtaking disclosure of the day -- a remarkable report first disclosed in the New York Daily News that Andy Pettitte's father supplied him with human growth hormone obtained from a local Texas gym.

When drug use goes all in the family like that, what hope do you have without a tough drug testing apparatus?

In testimony before the same House panel last month, Selig and Fehr suggested that they'd happily test for growth hormone, if there was only a good test. At the same time, they dismissed the idea of storing blood samples. In a striking response, the World Anti-Doping Agency's new chairman, John Fahey, accused them of showing a "blatant disregard for the truth." Contrary to their testimony, he said, "There is a reliable test for HGH; the storing of blood is practical, in fact has been effectively in practice for some time in World Anti-Doping Code-compliant testing."

[+] EnlargeRob Manfred
Larry Goren/Icon SMIThe battle of personalities between baseball execs such as Rob Manfred and a number of independent drug-testing agencies has not been productive.
MLB's reaction to WADA was to turn it into a battle of personalities. (Sound familiar?) Taking no prisoners, Rob Manfred, MLB's drug testing negotiator, thundered back: "These continuing, unprovoked, inaccurate publicity stunts by WADA have created an unwillingness to become more involved with WADA or its satellites."

The Mitchell Report endorses the idea of turning MLB testing over to a "transparent" and "independent" agency that can provide "adequate year-round unannounced testing." But you wouldn't know it from Wednesday's hearing. Amidst all the talk about bloodstained pants and smoking syringes, the report was the real victim, reduced to a document that seemed flimsy and voyeuristic.

Charles Scheeler, an attorney who worked closely with Mitchell and seemed pressed into service mainly to separate the rivals, stumbled through incomprehensible answers about why, for $20 million, he couldn't get his facts right. At one point, he answered that he couldn't be held responsible for facts that showed he'd gotten his facts wrong. His performance was so dismal and inept, there was nowhere to go but to the wash room and flush the whole thing.

Talking at a Notre Dame baseball banquet Tuesday, Bud Selig sure sounded like a guy who felt the pressure was off. He said that the answer wasn't handing testing over to an outside agency, but strengthening the independence of his in-house guy, Dr. Bryan Smith. Then he went on to talk about attendance records, the great fans of baseball and how his sport was in its golden age. By the time he was done, you felt so warm and fuzzy that it was easy to forget …

60.

We're all tired of this, I know. It takes allegations against someone of Clemens' stature to even get us to pay attention. But if the past five years get reduced to a handful of gotcha moments, the whole thing will have been a massive, soul-sapping waste. Wednesday's hearing was the equivalent of watching a Yankees game while New York was burning. If you really want to know what's happening from now on, look at one number: 60.

Shaun Assael, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, writes extensively about doping in sports in his new book, "Steroid Nation," available here.

• Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine
• Author of "Wide Open: Days and Nights on the NASCAR Tour"; the New York Times best-selling "Sex, Lies and Headlocks"; and "Steroid Nation"