Sunday, December 16, 2007

Baseball's Red Scare...

A senator with a firm belief that something is not quite right in America. A list of suspects based on information gathered from insiders. A public spectacle that forever ruins reputations. Alleged perpetrators with no method of clearing their name. Welcome to baseball’s version of McCarthyism.

We awoke on Thursday morning to a world in which our baseball heroes no longer walked as tall. For some, such as Roger Clemens, the damage done by Senator George Mitchell may never fully be understood until the last Hall of Fame ballot is cast. Many observers, including baseball’s commissioner, are hailing the Mitchell Report as a triumph of good over evil. Yet, just as in the quest to unearth the “Reds” in the ‘50s, unearthing the “’Roids” often creates fuzzy distinctions between good and evil, let alone justice and injustice.

The flaws with the Mitchell investigation are myriad. First, the insiders questioned by the Senator and his crew of federal investigators were two former clubhouse workers for the New York Mets and New York Yankees, a notably limited pool of information. Aside from these two, the only other player names in the report came from the much-publicized BALCO investigation. The Senator would have you believe that this report is a decisive and thorough blow in baseball’s battle against performance-enhancing drugs. He would have you believe this in spite of the fact that, in essence, what the Senator “collected” was names from the CNN crawl about 20 months ago and the testimonies of two former employees, whose allegations might be suspect, given their status as former employees. Senator Mitchell has assured the American public that those involved in the investigations knew of the serious consequences awaiting those who did not tell the truth. Yet, nothing in the Mitchell Report can be proven—or disproven—by positive tests. Therefore, the same veil of secrecy that protects any real users also protects fact-creating “whistleblowers” with a bone to pick.

The damage done by these “informants” is similar to the effect of having one’s name “blacklisted” during the Red Scare. Today, players such as Clemens, Miguel Tejada and Andy Pettite are instantly cast as the bad guys because someone else said so. Publicly vilified and with no recourse to clear their names—after all, it’s difficult to clear your name from using a substance for which you never tested positive because your employer chose not to test you—these players have already faced conviction in the ever-swift court of public opinion. Pettite’s confession of guilt yesterday does nothing to change the injustice of making such allegations based on limited evidence. Instead, it reinforces the seemingly convincing aspersions cast by Mitchell, which remain built on shaky foundations. As more players come forward—which may be unlikely—it will simply cement the guilt of others in the minds of the public, whether their guilt can ever be proven or not.

The media, which ought to display at least a little hesitancy over jumping on Mitchell’s bandwagon given journalistic patriarch Edward R. Murrow’s brave stand against McCarthy’s methods and “conclusions in the 1950s, has instead pounced not just on the story but on the opportunity to play judge and jury as well. Newspaper headlines forsake all objectivity when they scream “Cheaters Revealed,” “Outed,” and “Ballplayers Busted.” Not surprisingly, many players have quickly and publicly denied their involvement in the scandal, as well they should, given the impossibility of proving either side of the allegations. Much as McCarthy banged on the drum of national pride while tapping on the cymbals of fear, Mitchell is simply using nostalgia for baseball “the way it used to be” to create an outcry from a public that still isn’t sure if it liked seeing records fall to men they’re not sure they like to see breaking records.

Another serious flaw in these proceedings relates to Senator Mitchell’s relationship to Major League Baseball. As a member of the Board of Trustees for the Boston Red Sox, a serious conflict of interest exists for the Senator. Perhaps not surprisingly given this relationship and the fact that the two insiders worked for other organizations, the list of almost 80 players named in the Report reveals few with ties to the Boston organization. Those who do have some tie to Fenway either played for the team in the distant past (like Clemens) or were spectacular flameouts not really considered one of the Sox (like Eric Gagne). In any other sphere, such a conflict of interest would preclude Senator Mitchell’s leadership in this type of project. But not under the twisted and often indefensible logic of Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. In Selig’s world, this arrangement makes sense. This is because, in Selig’s world, objectivity and true progress matter much less than the appearance of objectivity and true progress.

Selig represents a baseball ownership group that willingly turned its collective head during the so-called “Steroid Era.” These owners found a simple string of mathematical logic that helped them to do so. The equation reads: These suddenly enormous players = More home runs. More home runs = More people in the stands. More people in the stands = More money in our pockets. In response, these owners concluded—as the mathematically savvy are likely to conclude—that the suddenly enormous slugger was good for business. So as long as the home runs flew, the pockets grew, and everyone went home happy.

Where, in those days of record-setting performance and attendance, was the righteous indignation and clamor for change in the game that has accompanied much of the reaction to Mitchell’s report? In the owner’s box, lighting cigars with chemically-enhanced money. A strict and effective steroid testing policy at that time would have cramped everyone’s style. The outrage of the baseball owners who refused to insist on testing when it would have been unpopular instead rings of hypocrisy. Any ownership appeals for sanctions now are not unlike a parent taking the driver’s license of a teen for wrapping the family Mercury around a tree while driving to work to support the family finances. The damage is already done, the hypocrisy is obvious, and sanctions will do no good in changing the past.

The limited pool of informants, the blatant conflict of interest faced by Senator Mitchell, and the “too-little-too-late” false outrage of the owners driving this effort combine to form a significantly flawed product, one that leaves regular fans with a difficult choice. Fans can either turn their head and be thought ignorant rubes or they can join with the torch-wielding mob on a quest to punish the cheaters.

Did players use steroids throughout much of the 1980s and 90s? They certainly did. Did all of them named in the Mitchell report do so? We have no way to know for sure. And this is where this ugly episode leaves us: stuck in the 1950s, pondering whether the names we’ve heard are really guilty of the things we’ve heard. As Senator Mitchell should know from his Senatorial predecessor, this is a tricky road to travel down. Hopefully, the advantage of temporal perspective has created a public unwilling to blindly march behind a Senator with a mission of outing the subversives. If not, then the age of Mitchellism has just begun.