Baseball Shoots Up


After the George Mitchell–Bud Selig show last week about baseball players and needles, what was it, exactly, that we learned? Beyond, I mean, the rather shaky evidence in support of rumors which everyone has been hearing for the last two or three years and an explanation, finally, for the incredible performances of players like Chuck Knoblauch and Rondell White?

First, we learned that among the more than 5,000 major league players who potentially fell under the scope of Mitchell’s investigation from the early 1990s through 2007, approximately 90, or about 1.8 percent, could be said to have any connection with performance-enhancing drugs. As the ever-refreshing former Philly and current ESPN commentator John Kruk said after Mitchell’s press conference: “I’m really surprised there weren’t more names.”

Second, as Selig himself noted at his own post-Mitchell press conference, the drug-testing plan implemented in 2003 seems to be working quite well—only a third of the players named in the report, perhaps 30, are active. So, we’re back to first base. Why did the commissioner’s office release all this with fireworks?

The obvious reason has been mentioned by only a handful of skeptics but ought to be reiterated: Selig, who has been spooked for years about possible congressional interference in baseball’s exemption from antitrust laws, had to come up with something substantial to wave before the media. He was saying in effect to Congress on Thursday, “We are trying to do something about this issue—we even got one of your own, former senator George Mitchell to head the investigation.”

That Selig can’t do anything to prosecute any of the players mentioned in the report has largely gone unnoticed. About 60 percent of the players named are retired and beyond the jurisdiction of MLB; the alleged transgressions of about 30 others happened before the 2003 agreement and are likewise unpunishable. And of the remainder, any violations can only be disciplined under the guidelines clearly specified in the 2003 Basic Agreement. In other words—no positive drug test, no foul.

Beyond placating Congress, though, it was evident that Selig had yet another motive for releasing the report: union bashing.

Major League Baseball and the Players Association have had a long, acrimonious history over the subject of drugs, beginning in 1984 when Peter Ueberroth was commissioner. A program worked out at the time was regarded by former union head Marvin Miller as “humane and largely successful.” However, the next year Ueberroth declared that he was implementing mandatory drug testing. The Players Association told him in polite but legal terms exactly where he could get off. Rather than negotiate with labor, Ueberroth continued to attempt to force the issue—ignoring union officials and sending letters urging each player to submit to a drug-testing plan that had not been even presented to the union, much less accepted.

On the subject of drugs, relations between MLB and the Players Association have never recovered from that debacle. Thus the 2003 Basic Agreement seemed like a giant step forward, but after hearing Selig grandstanding last week—”This report is a call to action, and I will act”—union head Don Fehr must be wondering whether Selig is trying to pull another Ueberroth. At his press conference, Mitchell took repeated jabs at the union, accusing chief operating officer Gene Orza of “tipping” a player when he was about to be tested. (Fehr’s perfectly reasonable response was that the player in question had not yet been tested, his time was due, and Orza was doing his job by reminding him.)

Mitchell and Selig refused to give a copy of the report to the Players Association until about an hour before the press conference, three days after Selig got his. More seriously, six times during his press conference Mitchell mentioned that the union had “failed to cooperate” with his investigation. But as John Kruk astutely observed, “It’s not the union that didn’t want to cooperate with Mitchell, it was the players.”

Surely as experienced a negotiator as Mitchell understands that it’s not the job of a union to coerce its members into cooperating with a management plan that could result in undermining their civil liberties. Many players asked why they should be expected to cooperate in any investigation which went beyond the boundaries of the Basic Agreement their union had negotiated with the owners back in 2002. That question has yet to be answered.