- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
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Two weeks before Christmas 2007, baseball commissioner Bud Selig gambled an estimated $40 million that the Mitchell report -- the massive, 409-page investigation into performance-enhancing drug use in baseball, 20 months in the making -- would provide salvation both for him and his sport.
The stakes in such an unprecedented move -- no head of an American sports league had ever launched such a high-profile, sweeping probe into its own conduct -- were improbably high. And over the first few days of the report's release, it appeared that Selig had lost. The report was being dismissed in some quarters as damning but incomplete, heavy on press clippings and law-enforcement investigations centered on evidence from former clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski and personal trainer Brian McNamee, but painfully light on new information.
The players launched an immediate counterassault against former Sen. George Mitchell, the report's author. David Justice, the former All-Star outfielder, and -- most aggressively -- Roger Clemens, the seven-time Cy Young Award winner, used their considerable star power to publicly attack Mitchell's methods and the veracity of the information in the report. The players' union criticized the document as horribly one-sided and said Mitchell, who had held the title of director of the Boston Red Sox since 2002, as too conflicted to lead an impartial investigation. The front offices of many of the 30 clubs had never been especially enthusiastic about the report, and were even less so when they learned the commissioner's office had inserted a secret clause that held the clubs responsible for Mitchell's legal fees if baseball were sued over the contents of the report.
The game's ground floor -- trainers and strength coaches -- felt compromised and unprotected, both from players who already viewed them as management pawns and from general managers who, the report revealed, showed little interest in their concerns about preventing drug use and did nothing to defend or protect the trainers and strength coaches who did come forward with information about steroid issues in the clubhouse.
Even inside the commissioner's office, the report wasn't considered a triumph. Perhaps the most important characteristic of Selig's 15-year tenure had been a nearly total lack of dissent from his staff. But in this case, the commissioner hadn't enjoyed unanimous support for the idea of the investigation in the first place.
Yet, in the year since the report was released, the perception of it has morphed. Many now believe it succeeded where the anti-doping community and even Congress had failed: It provided the catalyst for the commissioner's office to move toward real reform. Baseball in 2008 wasn't besieged by civil war. Rather, the game accomplished something it hadn't since the first term of the Clinton administration: It enjoyed a season in which the happenings on the field actually came first and news about illegitimate offensive numbers or steroid investigations or congressional hearings faded.
Instead of enduring another year of criticism that baseball had not adequately responded to its drug issues, Selig enjoyed, at least for one season, a surprising vindication.
How, within one calendar year, baseball was able to push an issue into the background that had vexed its leadership for more than a decade is a story about how Selig engineered a cultural shift within the commissioner's office, an institution historically high on rhetoric but low on real reform.
But it is also a story about the way in which management and the players' association took the most difficult issues raised by the Mitchell report and negotiated them away; about how, despite baseball's best efforts to claim confrontation with and closure to the steroid era, the report provided cover for the sport to declare a victory for reform while it left the hard part -- restitution and conclusion -- to others. The players and the game kept their money. Because no players were punished for their inclusion in the report, accountability, especially for the highest-profile stars implicated for steroid use -- Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro and Roger Clemens -- was left to congressional investigation and law enforcement without a definitive stance from the commissioner. And finally, neither baseball nor the Mitchell report addressed the steroid era's impact on the record book, leaving those judgments to history, the murky miasma of public opinion and members of the Baseball Writers of America, the body that votes for the Hall of Fame.
As one source put it: "Baseball and the Mitchell report removed the bullets and bandaged the patient, but they took a total pass on holding the shooters accountable. They left that stuff to everybody else."
On Dec. 13, 2007, George Mitchell stood at a podium at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York to announce the report's release. Ironically, Jose Canseco, one of the most public faces of steroid use, was standing outside the door to the ballroom, denied entry to the press conference. As hundreds of bound copies of the report were being passed through the packed room, Mitchell spoke about baseball's need to look forward, as if he was already attempting to blunt the rising expectations about the report's contents. He offered more than a dozen recommendations that he believed would begin to build a new baseball infrastructure for combating drugs, calling for stronger independent drug testing, better communication, more stringent enforcement avenues, and awareness on the part of a baseball culture that had been feigning ignorance about a runaway drug problem since home runs began flying out of parks at a record pace following the 1994 players strike.
Dr. Gary Wadler, a member of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and a fierce critic of baseball's steroid policies, literally rolled his eyes at the document. To Wadler and many other anti-doping crusaders, few of Mitchell's recommendations seemed original. Why, Wadler wondered, would baseball listen to George Mitchell now when it hadn't listened to any of them since the late 1990s?
Mitchell said he did not believe the players mentioned in the report should be suspended, which almost immediately gave rise to a fear among some anti-doping experts (as well as more than a few people in baseball) that the fix was already in.
"I urge the commissioner to forgo imposing discipline on players for past violations of baseball's rules on performance-enhancing substances, including the players named in this report, except in those cases where he determines that the conduct is so serious that that discipline is necessary to maintain the integrity of the game," Mitchell wrote on page 307 of the report. "I make this recommendation fully aware that there are valid arguments both for and against it, but I believe that those in favor are compelling."
In the following weeks, as Selig worked out of his Milwaukee office, Rob Manfred, baseball's vice president of labor relations, began quiet but pointed negotiations with the union. But Selig was conflicted. He needed to respect the recommendations of Mitchell, his friend, especially after the time and money invested in the report. But he also felt the players should face punishment. He had already imposed 15-game suspensions on outfielders Jay Gibbons and Jose Guillen for their inclusion in the Mitchell Report, but now the union -- in pressuring Selig to be consistent with Mitchell's recommendation for complete amnesty -- wanted those suspensions rescinded.
Selig had spent the first part of the decade minimizing the prevalence of performance-enhancers in the game. But now, the Radomski and McNamee investigations, detailed in the Mitchell report, revealed just how widespread the problem truly was, and just how many signature players had battered the integrity of the game. Sources across baseball, from team executives to union officials, told ESPN.com they believed Selig was intent, at first, on suspending and fining the players mentioned in the report. His reasons were simple: He wanted to give the report teeth, and he was piqued about the players' unwillingness to cooperate with Mitchell. With the exception of first baseman/designated hitter Frank Thomas, none of the 750 major league players spoke with Mitchell's investigators.
"Now, it is true that the union did not cooperate," Mitchell told ESPN.com in late November. "And had I been in a punitive or vindictive state of mind, why, I suppose the last thing I would have done is suggest that no player should be punished for what was revealed in my report. But that was not my mindset nor my intention. My intention was to find out what's the best way to deal with this problem."
For years, the commissioner had been criticized by the press, the fans and the community of anti-doping advocates and medical experts who were convinced that his public commitment to eliminating performance-enhancing substances in baseball amounted to little more than grand theater. A report that ultimately produced no disciplinary action threatened to undermine his legacy.
During meetings, Selig listened to the arguments. Manfred disagreed that accepting Mitchell's recommendation and forgoing punishment undermined the commissioner's efforts. He believed being mentioned in the report produced a level of public shame for players that represented perhaps the sternest sanction: loss of reputation.
He had a point. Since the seminal congressional hearings on March 17, 2005, the reputations of players connected to steroids -- even players such as Jason Giambi, who won the Comeback Player of the Year award in the season following those first hearings -- had been damaged. The names in the Mitchell report, from Fernando Vina to Miguel Tejada to Paul Byrd to Eric Gagne (and others), provided a proof of sorts of what the sport had lost. Those players were no longer viewed as they once were -- hardworking athletes who'd earned their place in baseball the honest way.
Manfred, whose primary responsibility is to negotiate with the players' association, also saw that punishing players for transgressions that might have occurred as long as five or six years in the past could be a litigious nightmare.
"We all acknowledged the desire to move forward," he said. "But it would have been difficult to say the report was to provide closure if we had a dozen suspensions hanging over our heads."
For his part, Mitchell took a statesmanlike position. The future was the important thing, rather than assessing blame for the past.
"I was the one who conceived and concluded in the report, with the support of [investigators] Charlie [Scheeler] and John [Clarke] and the others, the recommendation that they should look to the future," Mitchell said. "As I stated when I released the report, that grew out of my experiences in Northern Ireland. I believed it then and I believed it more now that it was a valid recommendation, and I'm pleased that the commissioner accepted the recommendation. Of course, some people were displeased, but I don't think that years of contentious litigation over events that now in some cases would have been 10 years in the past would have served the overall purpose of dealing with the use of illegal performance-enhancing substances in baseball."
But some baseball people believed privately that Mitchell had massaged his expectations for the report to reflect its shortcomings.
"The document was so limited, so incomplete, that he knew he couldn't possibly offer hard recommendations for punishment," said a baseball source. "He knew he only had a small sliver of the players who used, and so Mitchell positioned the report not as all-encompassing but as proof enough that a whole lot of bad stuff was going on."
Ultimately, Selig agreed with Mitchell's recommendations; and during the second week of April, the Mitchell report negotiations were complete. No players would be punished beyond their inclusion in the report. The Gibbons and Guillen suspensions were lifted. The two sides agreed to a dozen other compromises as suggested by Mitchell. It was over.
"There was a lot of discussion about [amnesty]," recalled Bob DuPuy, MLB's president and COO. "Obviously, [Selig] gave Sen. Mitchell free reign. But ultimately, it was the commissioner's decision. [Mitchell] was recommending an amnesty in large part because he could not identify every violator and he wasn't sure that recommending punitive measures was the appropriate course."
According to sources, Selig's decision ultimately was easy. The union made it clear that punishment could not be part of any deal. Baseball would not win that point. MLBPA executive director Don Fehr -- known for his lethal combination of erudition and toughness over his more than 20 years as the head of the players' association -- made the point that Selig would look vindictive if he authorized Mitchell's report and accepted all of its recommendations except the one that called for forgoing punishments for the players.
"We thought it would be very difficult for the clubs to accept Mitchell's recommendations and leave that one [no discipline] out," Fehr said. "And obviously, it was important to the players."
But Selig wanted something from the players. According to Manfred, Selig was adamant about a concept called "community service," under which the players would give educational talks about the dangers of performance enhancers. Baseball also believed it had the perfect community service vehicle in the Taylor Hooton Foundation, named after a 17-year old Texas boy who committed suicide after suffering depression perhaps caused in part by steroid abuse. The boy's father, Don Hooton, famously testified during the March 2005 hearings in front of Congress and called the commissioner's office, the union and its players "cowards" for not using their collective power to reach out to kids.
In the three-plus years since those hearings, baseball had partnered with Don Hooton and committed $500,000 annually to his foundation. Mitchell and Scheeler, the investigator, spent two hours with Hooton in a chic hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz., as part of their groundwork for the report.
But even an idea that seemed so basic and mutually beneficial -- who could be against big-leaguers talking to kids? -- was contentious. To the union, "community service" suggested guilt rather than amnesty. The term, players association officials said, gave the impression the players would be paying penance. In the justice system, community service is a condition imposed upon individuals in lieu of jail time. That did not sound like amnesty.
Don Hooton liked Fehr and respected his toughness. During the just-completed winter baseball meetings in Las Vegas, Hooton recalled a conversation with Fehr at a U.S. Olympic Committee function. The discussion, he said, began with some friendly talk.
"But as soon as I asked, even casually, if we were going to get any players to come speak, his face changed," Hooton said. "He went from affable to guarded. It was his negotiating face."
Ultimately, 47 players -- and in Milwaukee, Bud Selig -- participated in the community service programs. Whether player participation was voluntary or a concession by the union isn't clear.
"I guess the answer was, it was both," said a union lawyer. "They said it was something they wanted and we said they could have a few players do it."
From the perspective of the commissioner's office, the next question last winter was this: how to avoid another season in which steroids -- in particular, the 20 active players named in the Mitchell report as alleged users -- swallowed the events on the field.
In interviews with DuPuy in the weeks following the World Series, baseball's strategy for dealing with the aftermath of the Mitchell report became clear: rely on the power of the game. Officials believed fans would pay to support the game even if they did not believe the players were competing clean. (They apparently were right. Baseball reported $6.6 billion in total revenues in 2008.)
That thinking presented a powerful opportunity for baseball to distance itself from the players in the Mitchell report, and from the steroid era in general. In effect, baseball's officials realized they needed to focus on the future, even if that meant cutting bait with big-name players who for years had carried the sport.
DuPuy and baseball were also cognizant of another fact, an accidental success: The press, never particularly warm to the steroid story in the first place, seemed as ready as the fan base to put the game first.
Baseball was about to adopt a new strategy. Fearing rotten apples, it decided to pick its stars directly from the tree.
"Our fans reflected that they, too, wanted to think about our young players," DuPuy said. "Fans turned away from the last generation of superstars and more turned toward the future -- the Chase Utleys and Brandon Webbs and the two Ryans, Howard and Braun. We realized that was where we as a sport needed to turn our attention, as well."
The admission is stunning for the obvious cultural sea change it represents. DuPuy admitted what baseball for years would not: The sport was being hurt by the negativity regarding its established stars. In the past, Selig had consistently parried the suggestion that steroids were tainting the industry by touting the game's staggering revenue figures.
But now, baseball saw that Barry Bonds was gone for the first time in 22 years, and no one seemed to be clamoring for his return. (His absence appeared so conspicuous that the union ultimately filed a grievance claiming that all 30 teams were colluding to keep him from playing.) The same was true of Clemens. Sammy Sosa had retired twice without even a goodbye. For years, baseball had spent considerable time in fruitless defense of players who clearly, through their own actions, had lost much of their public support. Maybe, the thinking went, the game's survival would be easier without them.
Bonds had personally angered Selig when, according to sources, he assured the commissioner he had not used performance-enhancing drugs. The Giants' slugger owned the all-time home run record with 762 yet, despite periodic local appearances in San Francisco, Bonds' title as baseball's home run king didn't seem to carry much philanthropic currency. In November 2007, he was indicted by a federal grand jury on 12 counts of perjury.
Mark McGwire, too, had been in hiding for years, a pariah, unable to recover from his infamous March 2005 congressional appearance. McGwire hit 583 home runs in his career and earned 12 All-Star Game appearances; and yet, in neither of his first two years on the Hall of Fame ballot could he surpass 25 percent of the votes cast.
Palmeiro, who along with Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray are the only men in baseball history with at least 500 home runs and 3,000 hits, never officially retired. But Palmeiro did not play again after 2005, when he tested positive for steroids after famously addressing the House Government Reform Committee this way: "Let me start by telling you this: I have never used steroids, period. I don't know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never."
Some executives said the game's new emphasis on its young players represents a perspective regarding the Mitchell report rather than an orchestrated effort to summarily rid the sport of steroid era players. But it wasn't difficult to see examples of baseball's turning its back on its older stars during the 2008 season. When the Yankees hosted the All-Star Game in July, Clemens, winner of 354 games, was not part of the ceremony. Bonds spent the 2008 season virtually begging for a job, with no success.
So, post-Mitchell, the power of the game would sustain baseball. Even in conversational speech these days, baseball executives employ new words that position the Mitchell report as a line of demarcation. During an interview at the Bellagio during the winter meetings in Las Vegas this week, Manfred consistently referred to the past decade and a half as "that era," an unqualified acknowledgment that baseball considers itself to be in a different one now.
If baseball has been inconsistent over the years in presenting a cogent message on the drug issue -- Selig would proclaim ignorance of the issue one day, then claim he was the greatest, earliest champion in the fight against steroids the next -- one strategy has been consistent throughout: When in doubt, blame the union. One lesser-publicized exchange during the infamous 11½-hour congressional hearings in 2005 came after McGwire, Palmeiro, the cameras and many of the journalists had left the room. During the hearing, Selig had attacked the union's reticence to confront steroids; but in this case, the approach backfired. The committee members unleashed a withering scolding of Manfred, who sat inches from Selig, for the apparent loopholes in baseball's drug policy.
Last year, in the weeks before the report was released, both Selig and Scheeler, Mitchell's lead investigator, attempted to downplay the scope of the report by reminding the press and later the public that the union had refused to cooperate. The report, they said, would have been more substantive if investigators, who lacked subpoena power, had not encountered hostility from the players' association.
That was the old mantra. After the release of the report, pleasantly surprised by how deeply it had penetrated the game's and the public's consciousness, baseball officials determined to take control of the issue with concrete action. During the 2008 season, the sport changed.
"I think the document has held up remarkably well," Mitchell said. "And there is not anything I would have done differently."
Yet, the union still isn't exactly buying into Mitchell as the messenger for baseball's moment of clarity. The players' association holds the position that the relative tranquility of the drug issue in 2008 is not attributable to Mitchell as much as to programs and improvements that were implemented in the game's drug policies since the 2002 collective bargaining agreement -- back when Selig said he would never investigate his own sport.
"We thought we had an effective program which was working well," Fehr said. "To the extent that things were not tranquil in 2006 and 2007, in large part, were due to events that occurred long before then."
Added a union attorney: "Whatever one thinks of the Mitchell report, it obscured the fact that in 2006 we conducted over 3,000 tests and had two suspensions for steroids. In 2007, we conducted another 3,000 tests and had three suspensions for steroids. The Mitchell report had nothing to do with five positives over 6,000 tests."
But in the wake of BALCO, McGwire, Palmeiro, congressional hearings, the indictment of Bonds, the current congressional investigation of Clemens and a still-widely-available array of undetectable performance-enhancing substances, the union position has not gained much public traction.
"I don't say this often publicly, but we do have a difference of opinion on the significance of the Mitchell report," Manfred said. "We took specific actions on the recommendations, and I do see the document as a providing a road map."
The union and commissioner's office continue to view the Mitchell report decidedly differently. Selig, DuPuy and Manfred all agree it was Mitchell who provided the momentum for baseball to face up to its own failure to control the drug problem.
"This document certainly is significant, but Mitchell got lucky, too," said Manfred. "He didn't find a rock at rest. The institution was moving, and he gave it a push in the direction it was going."
"The sad truth," said a source, "is that the most important thing about the Mitchell report is that it's over. What would have happened if there hadn't been one? Who knows?"
The public focus of the Mitchell report was on the players who were named, but far more damning than steroid or growth hormone use by individual ballplayers was the refusal of the game's front offices to respond to the information they were receiving about those players.
The most egregious example took place in San Francisco. The report chronicled the Giants' trainer, Stan Conte, informing the team's general manager, Brian Sabean, and team owner Peter Magowan about clubhouse improprieties regarding Bonds. But the club did nothing. Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein also was mentioned in the report for his discussion with a scout about the possibility of steroid use by pitcher Eric Gagne, whom Epstein eventually signed.
DuPuy indicated that baseball took specific disciplinary action in those cases, saying, "My sense is that there was punishment, and the Giants weren't the only ones [punished]."
Those were embarrassing moments for Selig, who during the months of the investigation said he'd consulted three of the game's most powerful general managers -- Billy Beane of the A's, Brian Cashman of the Yankees and Epstein -- about steroid use. Selig said he had asked each "point blank" about the scope of the problem, and each said they knew nothing. Yet in the report, the Yankees and A's, and to a lesser extent the Red Sox, were all significantly mentioned as examples of front offices that had suppressed important information about steroids.
Perhaps baseball's most powerful statement in the wake of the Mitchell report was its adoption of another of Mitchell's top recommendations: a full-time investigative unit, overseen by DuPuy and independent of the league's security force. The structure resembles the internal affairs division of a police department. According to baseball and congressional sources, the department was created in response to another shortcoming highlighted in the Mitchell report: baseball's lack of cooperation with law-enforcement organizations.
According to sources, congressional and law-enforcement agencies had been long frustrated by what they saw as baseball's propensity to react to potential illegalities by blindly defending its product and stonewalling the flow of information. Now, the early returns on the league's 11-member investigative unit are positive. It has already been instrumental in uncovering a scouting-corruption scandal that may send White Sox senior director of player personnel David Wilder, and perhaps others, to prison.
The league also instituted an anonymous tip line for baseball employees at all levels who have information regarding anabolic substances but fear reprisals from their superiors, peers or fellow players. The tip line, baseball sources said, also has already borne fruit. It was the source for the exposure of an Atlanta Braves minor leaguer who tested positive for a banned substance.
"The commissioner should get a lot of credit for having fought, for having the fortitude, for engaging in a process that was very difficult," Manfred said. "It was difficult for us and difficult for the clubs and difficult, quite frankly, for Mitchell.
"But going through that process forced us to come to grips with shortcomings we hadn't recognized. When the institution came out the other side, it had changed. There was greater acceptance that we had a problem. It was a process we had to go through."
In the end, the league believes it has turned a cultural corner. A climate of fear exists in baseball now that wasn't there before: fear from players who don't want to be associated with a discredited era, and fear from trainers and strength coaches who don't want to lose their jobs by protecting players. On the first day of spring training, one trainer personified the new era by yelling out in the clubhouse: "You guys are on your own now. I'm not losing my career for anybody."
Many executives said fear can be a powerful deterrent, and the lack of it -- the absence of accountability -- created many of the elements of the steroid era in the first place.
"Listen," one baseball strength coach said, "There is hypersensitivity to this now. Trust me: You do not want to be the guy who was withholding information from anybody. Does that create a little bit of paranoia? Yes, but I guarantee [that] guys are going to respond to talk about HGH and whatever a lot differently than they did before."
Baseball officials estimate the sport pays as much as $3 million to $4 million for research and outreach programs; but in November, at a summit in California on human growth hormone, some of the world's top scientists concluded that an effective blood test for growth hormone is unlikely in the near future, as the prohibited levels of HGH remain detectable only within an hour of usage. Manfred, though, was optimistic that a urine test for growth hormone was "making progress."
Baseball is cognizant that an offshoot of its recent ban of amphetamines is new and creative ways for players to obtain legal stimulants from doctors, usually by receiving a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But baseball trainers and members of the medical staff said an elaborate tracking system is perhaps the best new addition to the sport's effort to combat drug use. The goal, one member of an American League training staff said, is to create a database of a player's medical history beginning in the minor leagues that would limit the loopholes once he arrives in the major leagues. Over the next 10 years, the source said, the desire is to have the first generation of players who participated in drug testing at every rung of the baseball ladder.
Next month, baseball expects to release its final drug-testing results for 2008. The consensus is that the numbers will be lower than they were pre-Mitchell; and if they are, it will be attributable in large part to the attitude change throughout the sport.
"We had to finally say we were allowing things to continue that were unacceptable," a club executive said as he walked through the Bellagio, flanked, ironically, by craps tables and slot machines. "Of course, all of this falls apart if your young players, the new breed of stars you're depending on, tests positive for something, or if we go through this again with some new undetectable [drug] we don't know about today and it turns out the GMs and trainers knew but didn't say anything, just like before. But barring that, yes, it was a good year."
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.