A Yankee, a Senator, and Gnarly Bud

Baseball commish Selig's morality play deeply impresses a confused sports press

Last Thursday, we were informed of the terms under which sidelined Yankees problem child Jason Giambi will speak to Major League Baseball's head steroids investigator, former senator George Mitchell: Giambi will be, in his own words, "candid about my past history regarding steroids," without naming any names. What else will be discussed? Who knows? Angelina's drastic weight loss? Did Tony really get whacked in the last episode?

Aside from Commissioner Bud Selig's assurance that the interview will be "scheduled promptly," we don't know when the historic meeting will take place. While we wait, let's outline the known facts, starting with the essential one: Mitchell, no matter what weight he brings to MLB's "independent investigation" as a former U.S. senator, has no subpoena power. Whatever Giambi tells Mitchell, it will be what he wants to tell him, not what he can be coerced into telling him. And as yet, no one has a clue as to what is motivating Giambi.

Second, that Bud Selig is running a bluff is something not yet apparent to the sports press. "Selig," wrote Selena Roberts of The New York Times on June 20, "has all but delivered Giambi to Mitchell's interrogation room by wielding the penalty of suspension or fine to coerce the gabby Yankee's cooperation. . . . For months, the union bully Don Fehr has beaten Mitchell in a game of keep away by instructing all players to screen calls from the steroid patrol. Not one active player has been known to talk to Mitchell. Giambi would be the first." Aside from setting the reporting of labor relations back a good 90 years by calling Players Association executive director Fehr a "bully," Roberts has attributed powers to the commissioner of baseball that he does not come close to having.

Roberts is right about one thing: Giambi is definitely gabby. What he has not been is specific. If one takes his statements last month to USA Today as an admission that he used steroids—and he did not say that, merely that "I was wrong for doing that stuff"—there is still no hint that he used anything after the 2003 Basic Agreement (the first to restrict the use of performance-enhancing drugs), and whatever he used before then is, legally speaking, his business and no one else's. If Giambi decides to admit to the use of banned substances after 2003 (which seems unlikely, but who knows at this point what is going on in Giambi's head), Selig may penalize or punish him in accordance with the Basic Agreement. But he cannot use the threat of arbitrary punishment to force Giambi—or any other player—into anything, let alone a suspension (which would make no sense in any event, since Giambi is not due off the disabled list any time soon and may not even be back before the end of the season).

Whether or not the press is aware of it, Selig surely does know that any punishment he tries to put on Giambi will result in a showdown with the Players Association that will ultimately be decided by a neutral arbitrator—and no arbitrator is going to overturn a clause in the Basic Agreement in the name of what Selig is fond of calling "the integrity of the game of baseball."

What, then, is all this smoke and mirrors really about? Again, no one knows exactly why Giambi opened this Pandora's box, but since the sit-downs with Mitchell won't touch on other players who have used steroids—and Selig's bosses, the other major-league owners, wouldn't want that, as it might result in the suspension of some of their star players—why is Selig pressing the issue?

Andrew Zimbalist, author of the just-released In the Best Interests of Baseball? The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig, thinks that "as early as 1995, Selig has shown that he has an interest in cleaning up drugs in baseball—but the threat of punishing Giambi strikes me as PR finesse." Surely that PR isn't directed at the media, which is toothless, or the fans, who apparently are going to watch their team on TV and buy tickets regardless of the headlines about steroid users.

Clearly, the show that Selig is orchestrating is meant for Congress. Mitchell's investigation has now lasted more than 15 months and cost a rumored $30 million (a figure unconfirmed by the MLB) and has produced nothing. Selig's and the owners' worst fear has always been congressional interference in their affairs, especially when it comes to the possible removal of their coveted antitrust exemption. (The last rumbling came in 2005, when Representative Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, threatened a bill to remove MLB's antitrust exemption in a controversy surrounding the ownership group of the Washington Nationals.) To appease Congress, Selig doesn't have to beat the Players Association on this issue; he merely has to put up what looks like a good fight, shrug his shoulders, and say, "Hey, what do you want from me? I tried."

 
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