President Obama is hoping former Senator George Mitchell will bring the same sort of patient, tough diligence to his role as special envoy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that he did with the crisis in Northern Ireland more than ten years ago. Let’s hope so. And, more to the point: Let’s hope he does a better job than he did with Major League Baseball’s Mitchell Report, the “investigation” into steroid abuse that came out in December 2007. He couldn’t do much worse.
If the goal of the Mitchell Report was not to provide a definitive chronicle of baseball’s steroid epidemic, but to give the public a few names, slap them with the scarlet steroid letter, and hope everyone moves along and forgets about it, then it succeeded splendidly. (Which could be why it’s been suggested that Mitchell’s been brought in not to solve the Middle East crisis.) A year ago, I talked to Bob Bowman, president and CEO of MLB Advanced Media about the day the Mitchell Report was released online. It was a media sensation, with news reports playing it up as the steroid era’s smoking gun. Two million people downloaded it that day. I asked Bowman how many people had downloaded it a week and a half later. “Five,” he said. Five million? Five hundred thousand? “No,” he said. “Five.”
The Mitchell Report lost purchase so quickly because it was a shoddy, haphazard, shockingly scattershot document that used sources like Jose Canseco’s Juiced and trumped them up into sacred fact. To be fair, Mitchell was faced with an immediate problem: Players were not required by the players union to talk to him, so, obviously, they didn’t. Ultimately, he interviewed a total of two players: Frank Thomas--a noted anti-steroid advocate who named no names--and Jason Giambi, who was forced to talk by the commissioner because he made the mistake of coming clean about steroid abuse under oath. (With Mitchell, he was not under oath, and said very little.) Beyond that, Mitchell had two major sources: Former Mets batboy Kirk Radomski, who only recently claimed to have more than scant information and had barely spent any time in the clubhouse, and Brian McNamee, a Zelig lookalike who had trained Roger Clemens and was facing a federal indictment. McNamee is the only reason anyone remembers the Mitchell Report at all, because he fingered Clemens, who became the Report’s highest-profile causality and, in effect, its reason for being.
Pity poor Roger, who had the misfortune of receiving his steroids--as opposed to the hundreds of other players who had steroid sources--from a guy facing prison. So McNamee sang about Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Chuck Knoblauch--while baseball (and Mitchell) had the pelt to nail to the wall. Of course, this told us absolutely nothing about steroids, or their prevalence in baseball, or what the game was doing or had done to stop them. It just gave the sporting media a villain, a role that Clemens played to the hilt, in front of Congress, fans, media, and whoever else might have stumbled across him. And then we were expected to all move along, no more steroid problem in baseball here, please disperse.
And it worked! When the report was released, President Bush said, “My hope is that this report is a part of putting the steroid era of baseball behind us,” and, for one of the few times, he was absolutely right. A vengeful commissioner Bud Selig vowed that the report was “a call to action, and I will act,” and that’s totally true, if you consider “act” to mean “release a sloppy report with little evidence right before Christmas, let everyone label bad guys, and then forget it ever happened.” And Mitchell just waltzed away, looking like the wise auk--which is an affront when you consider the Report’s five conclusions, all so obvious that even the dullest observer of baseball would have been aware of them before Mitchell spent a reported $20 million and 20 months putting them together. (My favorite is: “The use of performance enhancing substances by players is legally and ethically ‘wrong.’” Oh, you think so, doctor?)
Mitchell’s main failure is that he gave the report the illusion of definitiveness without actually addressing any of the underlying problems that led to the steroid problem in the first place (and that could lead to another one). You rarely hear much talk about steroids in baseball anymore, other than to re-try and re-convict names from the past like Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Clemens. Andy Pettitte, one of the few players plausibly fingered in the report, was weighing competing $10 million-a-year free agent offers this offseason, until he signed a $5.5 million deal with the Yankees Monday that, with performance bonuses, could be worth as much as $12 million.
So, what does this mean for Mitchell’s work as Middle East envoy? Well, if he does the same job he did with the Report, he’ll show up in Gaza, find one guy who fired a weapon, give his name to the press, and--voila, you’re welcome, world--declare the Middle East crisis solved. One hopes President Obama is a tougher boss than Commissioner Selig.
Will Leitch is a contributing editor at New York, a columnist for Sporting News and the founder of sports blog Deadspin. His book God Save The Fan is out in paperback next week.
By Will Leitch