Selig's legacy in play in next round of congressional hearings

Will Bud Selig be cornered by Congress again? He appears to be better-positioned this time around. AP Photo/Caleb Jones

The commissioner sagged in his seat, brow furrowed, arms folded across his gray pinstriped suit, listening as members of Congress berated him and his leadership.

Through those March 17, 2005, hearings, when he sat in the front row of the gallery while others testified, Bud Selig threw glances behind him like fishing lines, hoping to catch a sympathetic look from someone who shared his sense of injustice. His reactions were particularly conspicuous when two families first testified how their sons committed suicide after extensive steroid use and then suggested that Major League Baseball needed to take greater responsibility to combat the issue with big leaguers.

When it finally was his turn at the microphone, Selig was a man trying to keep his footing against a crashing surf.

For more than 11 hours that day, members of the House Committee on Government Reform showed the most powerful man in baseball what power really is. They punished him, in part for a mistake that was made before Selig even entered the room -- when MLB told Congress to mind its own business.

Jose Canseco's book, "Juiced," released a month earlier, had the sports world roiling with accusations of rampant steroid use among players, and it goosed Congress into action. When players were subpoenaed to appear and testify under oath, MLB sent the committee a letter that said it had no jurisdiction and that the hearings were "an absolutely excessive and unprecedented misuse of congressional power."

"That might not have been the best strategy," says Rob Manfred, MLB's senior vice president for business and labor affairs. Manfred met recently with ESPN.com.

The right strategy, though, has been elusive for Selig and other baseball officials, with their responses to the steroids issue at times reactive and defiant. Selig's supporters and MLB owners believe he has done more to fight doping in his sport than any other commissioner, at least one who has to negotiate his policy with a union.

But on Tuesday, Selig is scheduled to return to Washington, to face the same panel that blistered him two years ago. The commissioner has become a frequent witness on Capitol Hill the past few years, and this appearance represents the latest referendum on his leadership during the so-called steroids era. It's also likely to reveal how far Selig and the game have progressed since 2005.

Some committee members aren't convinced Selig has come far enough.

"The commissioner should tell the owners of baseball that this is the standard that he is going to implement, and if they don't like it, then find a new commissioner," Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., told Bloomberg Radio last week. And if the players balk, Selig should say, "'If you don't like it, then go on strike,'" Shays said.

MLB's executives argue that negotiating policy with a powerful union is a little more complicated than Shays' scenario, but Selig learned a lesson in those 2005 hearings. If he wanted to keep control of his sport, he had to take control of the issue.

"One thing about Bud, he is realistic," Manfred says. "At that point in time, he thought we were being treated differently, but that's the way it was."

With the grudging consent of the MLB Players Association, Selig toughened penalties from no suspension for a first failed test to a 50-game suspension, and the sport went from a "five strikes and you're out" policy to a more baseball-appropriate three.

And against all advice, Selig bet the farm that employing former Sen. George Mitchell to investigate the steroids era would both provide closure and put an end to accusations that the commissioner was willing to overlook doping in the national pastime. Closure, though, has been particularly difficult to come by, leaving the commissioner open to criticism for his handling of the era.

In recent weeks, Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., who is not a member of the newly renamed House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform but who previously headed up his own congressional hearings on steroid use in sports, called for Selig to step down, telling ESPN that Mitchell's selection had been "a little political" and an attempt to shield Selig from his own responsibility.

"I think his credibility is marginal, because he was the captain of the ship during all these problems," Stearns says. "If you have a CEO of a major corporation and something like this is occurring, what do they do? They replace the CEO."

Selig's supporters believe he was visionary in turning Mitchell loose on the game, but whether the report represents the clean break Selig has sought remains to be seen. And the hearings Tuesday will be an early test.

Already, Mitchell's report has had the unintended consequence of setting off a battle between the most decorated pitcher in the game's history, seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens, and the personal trainer who, in the Mitchell report, accused him of using steroids.

Now, as Selig prepares to appear in front of the committee, he will find out whether everything he has done since 2005 will be enough to keep Congress off his back.

Selig is expected to say that he is reviewing each player named in the report and eventually may suspend any active player found to have violated MLB policy. Although he hasn't indicated how he might deal with San Francisco Giants executives implicated in the report for not addressing suggestions a steroids dealer was in the team clubhouse in 2002, the commissioner found the details "very troubling," according to sources close to him. The sources indicated he wants to show he will be as tough on the clubs as he is on the players.

He also is expected to announce that MLB will meet with union officials after the hearings to negotiate Mitchell's recommendations.

Union officials and many players felt betrayed by Selig after they twice agreed to reopen the basic labor agreement to toughen the testing program, only to have him unilaterally announce the Mitchell investigation. Some felt it was an attempt by Selig to build his own anti-doping credentials at the expense of the players. The union refused to cooperate and told players they were under no obligation to speak to Mitchell, much less incriminate themselves. One source said union officials discussed trying to use legal means to block the release of names in the report, but decided against it.

Selig's best shot at protection in these next hearings might be the fact that Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader, will appear before the committee prior to Selig and union chief Donald Fehr. Mitchell's report criticized baseball's response to doping, but it didn't find particular fault with Selig personally. The report is critical of the union's refusal to cooperate, however; and if committee members ask Mitchell about that lack of cooperation, Fehr could draw more fire than Selig.

Michael Weiner, general counsel for the union and Fehr's point man on the steroids issue, declined comment for this story, in deference to the looming hearings.

On the past year, Selig embarked on a plan designed in part to shield him from a repeat of the 2005 St. Patrick's Day massacre in Washington.

"We've worked very hard to make sure that doesn't happen again," an MLB official close to Selig said on the condition of anonymity.

Selig is sure to mention that last week his office ordered background checks for all clubhouse employees and the formation of a Department of Investigations, the first of Mitchell's recommendations Selig plans to implement. Sources say MLB and the union expect to schedule meetings after the hearings to discuss the rest of Mitchell's suggestions, such as hiring an independent company to administer the drug program, a development that both MLB and the union have resisted for years. Also last week, MLB announced it was giving $3 million to a new anti-doping initiative with the United States Olympic Committee and the NFL.

Those actions mirror the moves Selig made in the buildup to the 2005 hearings. Then, he came to the Hill and announced not only a beefed-up testing plan, but also a new partnership with Drug Free America, an organization geared toward educating youth about the dangers of drug use. Those measures, the commissioner said, were designed to address concerns raised by Congress at hearings held only one year earlier.

"Every time they have done anything, they have only done it under pressure," Stearns says. "My perception is that they do just as little as possible to get by."

But Selig's most significant course change began long before last year. In fact, it started soon after he left Washington in March 2005.

Within weeks of those hearings, MLB hired as an adviser former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who opened his own consulting firm in New York after he left President George W. Bush's staff.

Selig also sent MLB's lobbyists to Capitol Hill to spread the word that the commissioner understood and truly was fighting the union to make changes.

But the primary impetus for the Mitchell investigation was, Selig says, the publication of the book "Game of Shadows" in March 2006. (One of the writers of this story is a co-author of "Game of Shadows.")

In an interview at MLB's Park Avenue offices shortly after the release of the Mitchell report, with two public relations executives also present, Manfred and MLB chief operating officer Bob DuPuy told ESPN there were too many forces to contend with to proceed as usual. Besides the book and a stream of negative stories, "We also had [leading Democratic Rep. Henry] Waxman and [leading Republican Rep. Tom] Davis saying, 'You need to do something about it, or we will,'" DuPuy said.

Manfred nodded: "At that point, doing nothing was not an option."

At that point, it stood to reason that any investigation would focus primarily on the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative and the handful of major league ballplayers who had been identified as clients of the lab, which had distributed performance-enhancing drugs to dozens of elite athletes.

Still, Selig began to think that without some sort of accounting, baseball might face another best-selling book every spring for years to come as clubhouse secrets continued to spill. And each time, Congress would scream for action.

"At the time, there was injury by 1,000 cuts. Everyday, something else seemed to pop up," a major league executive says.

Selig was tired of surprises.

In 2003, after the BALCO scandal broke and Barry Bonds' personal trainer, Greg Anderson, was implicated for distributing steroids, Selig called Bonds and told him to spill everything, a source close to the commissioner told the Chicago Tribune. "If you did anything wrong," Selig reportedly told Bonds, "tell me now, and if it becomes public, I'll do what I can to support you. But if you lie to me and another shoe drops, I'll come down on you hard."

Bonds told him there was nothing to worry about.

When it was clear to Selig that he couldn't count on Bonds for information, his office started its own quiet probe of Bonds' activities. Thomas Carlucci, a San Francisco lawyer with Foley & Lardner, the same firm at which DuPuy had been a partner, was told to tap into his old connections at the U.S. Attorney's Office to find out what he could.

In December 2004, the San Francisco Chronicle published portions of the testimony Bonds and Jason Giambi gave before the BALCO grand jury, showing that Giambi had confessed to using steroids and human growth hormone and that Bonds had implicated himself as an unwitting steroid user. A little more than a year later, "Game of Shadows" offered further details about Bonds' use of performance-enhancers.

Selig went into decision-making mode, calling Manfred, DuPuy, owners, confidantes, Fleischer and anyone who would listen to weigh his options.

"Selig has this tendency, because of his personality and the whole way he is made up, he really does want to hear -- and it's important for him to hear -- every opinion, even from the average fan on the street," says Bob Milbourne, a longtime close friend of Selig's. "He stops and talks to fans he doesn't know and is intensely interested" in what they have to say.

Selig says he also kept his own counsel in walks around his Scottsdale, Ariz., home with the family retriever, Goldie. He started to think the only solution to the ongoing steroid revelations was an all-out investigation headed by an independent investigator.

"I would think about it, I would talk to myself, and Goldie would just be looking at me," Selig says. "I would tell myself that, in spite of the fact that I knew the union didn't want it and that most owners didn't want to do it, and that my own staff came up with a lot of very wary reasons they had not to do it, I knew I was going to do it."

One argument against such an investigation was the potential for embarrassment to Selig himself, both DuPuy and Manfred say. Like most Selig allies, DuPuy and Manfred have long felt that the commissioner's public image has fallen far short of his resume, and they are motivated guardians of his image. They worried that by unleashing Mitchell on the game, Selig's legacy would be associated only with steroids.

"Our concerns for the commissioner were shared with him. We did not want his stature diminished. He put that aside," DuPuy says. "I think subjecting the industry to this kind of solution was painful. But we had to draw a line in the sand and go past it."

From that point, Selig would not be dissuaded. Selig says, and his friends and colleagues agree, that he never wavered once he revealed his plan. The commissioner is famous for taking considerable time to make decisions, enlisting any and all opinons, but holding fast once they're made.

"No, he's not one to second-guess himself," DuPuy says.

Selig called the owners and explained what he planned to do, then announced Mitchell's investigation on March 30, 2006.

"It seemed like a difficult decision to me, and that he didn't have to do it," says Oakland A's owner Lew Wolff. "I think we all felt it was a pretty gutsy move. None of us had thought of it. I guess it was better for us to take the initiative than for Congress."

A source loyal to Selig says one thing his opponents and even friends overlook is just how smart the commissioner really is. The source added that members of his brain trust came to agree that Selig had been visionary in calling for a report that would (A) give baseball credit for something no other sport had done, (B) allow MLB to say in future years that it already had dealt with the issue, (C) allow Selig to hammer the union as obstructionist, and (D) give fans what they needed to say baseball had done all it could to rid the game of doping.

"People buy the whole 'nutty professor' thing that people portray him as, the used-car salesman, and they miss the point," the longtime Selig ally says. "He's not just smart, he's wicked smart."

To some, though, Selig often has come across as naïve, if not disingenuous, on the steroids issue. He regularly insists he didn't become aware of the problem until he learned about androstenedione -- a steroid precursor that was legal then but has been banned since -- which was found in Mark McGwire's locker during the 1998 season. This, despite several earlier articles in the media addressing steroids' growing place in the game, as well as a 1991 memo written by former commissioner Fay Vincent.

Even at the 2005 hearings, Selig told the politicians he didn't believe the sport had a serious problem with performance-enhancing drugs.

Nevertheless, the commissioner has shown himself to be savvy on many other issues in the sport. How else to explain that Selig, dismissed in the early 1990s as a puppet of Jerry Reinsdorf and other owners who sought to topple then-commissioner Vincent, not only rose to power but also accumulated authority possibly unmatched since the game's first commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis himself. He certainly is the most powerful commissioner since players unionized in 1965.

One club executive who said he opposed the Mitchell investigation says it gradually became clear to him that while Selig himself might take a beating for it, there was almost no way baseball could lose with the report. Embarrassing stories were likely to keep breaking in the press; but with MLB setting an attendance record for the third consecutive season in 2007, it was obvious fans weren't turned off. Baseball believed that Mitchell's report, no matter what it turned up, would be the "line in the sand" DuPuy had described, and more than enough to placate the average fan.

"Let me tell you something: No offense, but you guys [the media] care a lot more about this than the average fan does," the executive says. "Bud could have taken a beating, yes. I think the owners recognize that he stuck himself out there for the game, and I think they're all grateful."

Polls conducted by ESPN.com, albeit not scientific, indicate fan sentiment isn't as clear as record attendance and revenues. On the one hand, for example, href=" http://polladmin.go.com/pollstg/sz/images/poll51118_0.gif">68.5
percent of respondents
in a poll taken before the Mitchell report was released said the report wouldn't change their rooting interests or they wouldn't care what revelations it included. Yet after the report came out, href="http://proxy.espn.go.com/chat/sportsnation/polling?event_id=3286&a
ction=2">86 percent said they care
if players use performance-enhancing drugs, and 64 percent said the report would have a big impact on MLB. More than half, 55 percent, said they would describe Selig's tenure as "mostly negative."

The commissioner says he wasn't worried about his legacy when he got religion on the steroid issue, nor did he think about whether he would be remembered as the steroids commissioner no matter what he did. He had a responsibility, he says, to do whatever it took to preserve the game's integrity.

"If you ask me today what should I have done differently, do I accept the responsibility? You bet I do," he says. "And remember, this is a subject of collective bargaining; but of course I do. I'm the commissioner of baseball. I'll accept the responsibility."

DuPuy, Manfred and Fleischer insist that baseball could have been hurt by the report and believe the risk to both the commissioner and the industry were real.

"I think the allegations of a whitewash, the allegations of a sham, allegations of complicity, would have dealt a body blow to our sport," DuPuy says.

While Fleischer says there was a risk of damaging the game, he agrees with the club executive who says fans are inclined to forgive.

"Throughout the whole steroids issue, there has been a fascinating disconnect between fan interest and media interest, and Congress responds very quickly to media interest because it generates coverage for those members of Congress," he says. "It doesn't motivate fans. Fans are more sophisticated. They recognize a minority of ballplayers are doing something, but they love the sport and they still buy their tickets and bring their families."

More than 76 million fans did just that last season.

Even while he risked signficant embarrassment, Selig hedged his bet with his choice of inquisitor, similar to the way in which Clemens chose a self-described friend, Mike Wallace, to interview him about steroids allegations on "60 Minutes."

Mitchell is Selig's friend and a public servant with a sterling reputation. But Mitchell also was part of Selig's "Blue Ribbon" economic study in 2000, which concluded that the game faced a financial crisis and needed to make significant changes. He also was an executive with the Boston Red Sox. Numerous critics dismissed the "Blue Ribbon" report as a lopsided argument for the owners that overstated the game's economic jeopardy.

Selig says that, if anything, he was concerned that Mitchell might come down hard on MLB to prove his independence.

"He wasn't going to besmirch his career just to please me or the Red Sox or anyone else," Selig says.

Fleischer says government pressure clearly influenced Selig's decision to order the investigation, but he never thought it likely that Congress would take legislative action to implement a more stringent testing policy. Two Congressional sources tell ESPN that the White House made it clear to members of Congress at the time that any steroid legislation introduced would meet immediate resistance. If a bill made its way through both houses, the sources said it would not have been signed by the president.

But while the prospect of legislation might have been -- and remains – remote, the idea of facing another personal auto de fe before a congressional committee is unbearable to Selig, his friends say.

During the 2005 hearings, the criticism was sharp and personal.

That hearing was titled "Restoring Faith in America's Pastime: Evaluating Major League Baseball's Efforts to Eradicate Steroid Use." Selig walked into the room offering some of the same tokens he will offer Tuesday, such as tougher penalties and money for research. (Back then, it was $500,000 for a reliable test for human growth hormone.)

He was met with comments such as, "I hope that you realize your position has deteriorated substantially on this panel, and we were progressing along thinking we were kind of moving to the same page. In fact, you have upset me and most of the other members." That was from Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind.

"Imagine what it was like to be on TV for that long period of time, being grilled and grilled and grilled," says Milbourne, Selig's friend. "I think that had a real impact, that he knew something major had to be done, that while maybe other sports hadn't been expected to do as much, he felt that pressure was so great that he had to do something."

Then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was lauded by the committee for his sport's "gold standard." At the time, however, congressional members were not aware that the NFL did not test players from the end of their seasons until the start of mini-camp, a two-month stretch for teams that did not make the playoffs. Players were tested only at the stadium and never on game days. (Those gaps were revealed in a 2006 New York Daily News investigation, and the policy has since quietly changed.) Tagliabue left the Rayburn Building as the hero, and Selig was the goat.

Still, the goat's corporation earned record revenues last year, making its stakeholders quite happy with their boss.

Selig says he deserves to be held accountable, although he doesn't say what that means beyond the description that he is partially responsible for what went on during his watch. He implemented testing in the minor leagues in 2001; but after he raised the issue with the union for the major leagues in 2002, he dropped it in favor of economic concessions.

"I really believed another work stoppage would have been deadly for us," he says.

Of course, the Mitchell report and Congress' ensuing interest -- all stemming from Selig's unilateral call to launch the probe in the first place -- has created the very real prospect of reopening the labor wounds that caused regular work stoppages over the previous decades.

Selig relies on his belief that after he learned McGwire was using androstenedione in 1998, he did all he could to create and strengthen the game's testing program. And, he says, if he hasn't been able to implement Olympic-level testing, it's because he has to bargain with a union. The International Olympic Committee does not.

Whatever Mitchell found, Selig says there are no circumstances that would have led him to resign as commissioner. Whatever anyone says to him Tuesday in Washington, no matter what muscle Waxman's committee flexes, that won't change.

"The thought never crossed my mind, nor is it crossing it now," the commissioner says. "And if everybody understands the history of that, it's beyond absurd."

Mark Fainaru-Wada, co-author of "Game of Shadows," and T. J. Quinn, formerly of the New York Daily News, are reporters for ESPN. Fainaru-Wada can be reached at markfwespn@gmail.com. Quinn can be reached at tjquinn31@yahoo.com.