Tuesday, December 18, 2007

“A call to action” is how Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig described former Sen. George Mitchell’s devastating steroids report, vowing, “I will act.” This must be the most disingenuous statement in the history of baseball. Mr. Selig should resign before the first pitch is thrown on the 2008 season.

Mr. Mitchell’s 409-page report, released Dec. 13, implicates or raises serious steroid questions about 88 current or former Major League baseball players, including Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Miguel Tejada — some of the game’s brightest stars. With receipts, phone records and testimony, the report lays out evidence for the long-suspected conclusion: “For more than a decade, there has been widespread illegal use of anabolic steroid and other performance enhancing substances by players in Major League Baseball, in violation of federal law and baseball policy.” This report was compiled even though Mr. Mitchell lacked subpoena power and much in the way of goodwill: He did not have the cooperation of the vast majority of people associated with baseball. For those reasons, we know that there is more to this scandal even if the full story is never unearthed.

Mr. Selig’s tenure as commissioner is a chronological twin of MLB’s steroids scandal. He assumed the top office in an acting capacity in 1994. He assumed it officially in 1998, the year of the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home-run chase. He was chief through Barry Bonds’ shattering of the single-season record in 2001, through the 2005 congressional hearings on the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Now this. More than Messrs. McGwire, Sosa, Bonds or any combination of the players implicated (admission or no), Mr. Selig epitomizes the steroid era — a decade of cheating. Mr. Selig’s role was not nearly as flashy and not at all dramatic. But his decisions were the ones that mattered decisively.

As of Thursday, the former Milwaukee Brewers owner felt sufficiently comfortable in his offices as to admit not yet reading the 409-page report in its entirety. That was true in spite of a 48-hour period of prior review afforded to MLB. Mr. Selig did not avail himself of that period to read the whole report. This tells us most everything we need to know about Mr. Selig’s cavalier attitude.

For Mr. Selig to pretend that Mr. Mitchell’s findings constitute actionable “news” is to insult the intelligence of every American who salutes the national pastime — and still others.

On every American taxpayer’s behalf does Congress bestow MLB a uniquely advantageous antitrust exemption. Ostensibly on the behalf of ordinary Americans do cities and counties the nation over use tax dollars to finance stadiums. That form of corporate welfare is a gift to MLB. It requires taxpayers who favor bringing the game closer to home to trust the stewards of organized baseball. This goodwill shown to MLB by taxpayers and their representatives seemingly knows no bounds. And yet it is met by Major League Baseball’s collective shrug, outstretched palm and willful deception. A resignation by Mr. Selig, this scandal’s chief enabler, would be a first and small down payment on our collective investment.

Interestingly, there are comparisons to the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox” scandal, in which eight players conspired to fix that year’s World Series. But there is no comparison. The steroid mess is significantly worse. For reasons of scope, complicity and willful abdication, the steroid scandal’s boundaries do not end with a conspiracy of a few players which evaporated once it was exposed. The Mitchell report came nearly three years after a Republican Congress threw down the gauntlet with its steroid hearings in which Mr. McGwire infamously said, “I’m not here to talk about the past.” The congressionally protected cocoon of baseball has grown too comfortable. Its inhabitants think that there are no consequences for cheating.

The latest “action” is a move toward effective human-growth hormone testing regime. But “too little, too late” does not even begin to describe this response.

Mr. Selig must go. He should take MLB Players Association Chief Don Fehr with him. Mr. Fehr’s whining this week included an awful dodge on the Mitchell report: “Many players are named and their reputations have been damaged, possibly forever” — as if that were somehow George Mitchell’s fault. Mr. Fehr, too, has been a key enabler.

Any player credibly implicated in the steroid scandal should not expect Hall of Fame consideration. They have cheated. There is no hall for such players, only infamy. Asterisks all around.

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