Commentary

Selig, Fehr check denial of steroids era at congressional door

Updated: January 16, 2008, 12:11 AM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- When Bud Selig and Donald Fehr left Room 2154 of the Rayburn building on Tuesday afternoon after testifying to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, any resistance to the notion that there was a steroids era had collapsed like a house of cards.

Angry denials on the part of Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association, which had condoned a decade-long drug culture, marked the hearing on March 17, 2005. These gave way to a very different mood Tuedsay. Selig and Fehr looked beaten, weary of the subterfuge.

This time, there were no subpoenas or confrontations, no threats that Congress ultimately would oversee baseball's drug-testing program or torpedo its anti-trust exemption. There was simply the public acknowledgement by the two most influential men in the sport that their game had gone awry with them at the controls. It was an obvious, but powerful and unprecedented, moment. Anyone looking for fireworks would have been disappointed. In the larger scope, Congress received its victory by forcing Selig to abandon his former positions and by taking the teeth out of Fehr's usually sharp rhetoric. That left Selig and Fehr where Congress has long wanted them: accepting responsibility for their considerable roles in allowing performance-enhancing drugs to define the 13 years that followed the 1994 players strike.

When Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., asked if they felt they had been complicit in the steroids era, Selig and Fehr answered softly in the affirmative, and this game of running from the truth was at last over.

[+] EnlargeBud Selig
AP Photo/Haraz N. GhanbariThe question now is what Commissioner Bud Selig will do about front-office executives for their roles in enabling the steroid culture to persist.
It quickly became clear that the day's proceedings were not designed to discuss the methodology of the Mitchell report, but to coronate the report itself. The committee did not question how the investigation was handled, although John Dowd, who investigated Pete Rose, has said he believes Mitchell undermined himself at numerous turns.

Committee chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and ranking minority member Tom Davis, R-Va., did not hammer Selig or demand accountability for his culpability in creating the steroids culture. They allowed the Mitchell report to be the official document of the steroids era and dared Fehr to question its legitimacy and face the consequences.

When he did not question it, the congressmen and women sheathed their swords and returned to their role as public servants, more focused on the effect of anabolic substances on children than the business of baseball.

In the past three years, the combination of the Justice Department and Congress has left no doubt about the existence of the steroids era. What began with Mark McGwire rhetoric -- "There's nothing in a bottle that can help you hit a home run" -- ended when Betty McCollum, D-Minn., referred to those years as a "criminal conspiracy that defrauded millions of fans." It was a devastating indictment of Selig's entire tenure, and he did not challenge it. The power of the government crushed anyone in the game's hierarchy who suggested that steroids were anything but a powerful, devastatingly negative force. Selig and Fehr tried to do so in 2005, and the result was the public disintegration of McGwire and the lowest moment the sport had seen in decades.

At the end of the 2005 hearing, Selig told the committee he felt the game's drug policy was effective, and Waxman, then the ranking minority member, responded by telling Selig perhaps it was time for him to resign.

On that day, it was Selig who was adamant that an investigation was pointless. For the entire spring of 2005, Selig refused to consider the idea of an investigation, clinging to the mantra that history would absolve him. History, he said, would prove his detractors wrong.

During those days, Selig called anyone who challenged his position "revisionist."

Yet, on Tuesday, Selig reversed his position. He sounded like a crusader, no different than Gary Wadler or Dick Pound or Chuck Yesalis, and the acknowledgement of the steroids era was, at long last, after years of denials, finally complete.

"I knew that an investigation would be an extraordinarily difficult undertaking. I knew that an investigation would be painful for all of those associated with the sport. No other sport has confronted its past in such a way," Selig read from a prepared text. "But I knew that baseball must undertake that journey in order to preserve the integrity of our game and maintain credibility with the millions of baseball fans throughout the world."

Donald Fehr
AP Photo/Haraz N. GhanbariPlayers association head Donald Fehr accepted that he did not recognize the true breadth of the problem.
By accepting Fehr's and Selig's words and moving away from threatening to oversee baseball's drug policy, the committee showed it is not a vindictive body. Selig's repudiation of himself and Fehr's acceptance that he did not recognize the true breadth of the problem seemed to be enough for Congress.

Along these lines, Mitchell will be remembered for placing the official seal of authenticity on the steroids era, as it was his voice Selig and Fehr did not refute. The considerable list of anti-doping crusaders has voiced recommendations similar, if not identical, to what Mitchell wrote in his report. Three years ago, Wadler testified to this very committee about the need for independent testing, just as Mitchell wrote in his recently released report. Back then, Selig and Fehr responded by accusing Wadler of attempting to profit from steroid abuse.

Yet Mitchell produced a document Selig was bound to listen to, and Congress used its power to back that document.

"You have to remember how far this has come since 2005," Waxman chief of staff Phil Schilero said. "They were telling us in 2005 that they didn't have a steroid problem. They were telling us it didn't exist. Today was a different day, and you could see a different tone from the committee."

Selig reversed field. So did Fehr. And now, the players are next. Waxman already has petitioned the Justice Department to investigate whether Houston Astros shortstop Miguel Tejada made false statements to the committee during its 2005 perjury investigation of Rafael Palmeiro. Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte will be under oath Feb. 13, essentially to refute the veracity of the Mitchell report.

In the end, the committee left the industry of baseball to Selig. Waxman did pressure Selig to take action against the San Francisco Giants, particularly owner Peter Magowan and general manager Brian Sabean, for their role in enabling the steroids culture. Selig responded that he is the "judge" in both cases and is reviewing the information closely. Three years ago, Waxman would have used the Giants as an example of Selig's inability to lead. At the end of the hearing Tuesday, Waxman referred to disciplining Magowan and Sabean as "baseball's issue."

Still, the commissioner is not off the hook. Congress certainly will be watching to see if Selig disciplines anyone other than players. It would be unsatisfactory to acknowledge a pervasive, illegal culture as Selig did Tuesday and yet have owners, general managers and other executives escape unscathed. That would fit neither Waxman's nor Davis' description of accountability. At the end of the day, Waxman and Davis left Selig with the facts of the Mitchell investigation and the prospect of having presided over a decade of scandal in which everyone walked free -- which surely would destroy the legacy he reversed himself to protect.

Congress appeared Tuesday to have said that its job now is complete and that it hopes Selig has the strength to write the final chapter.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.