At The Ballyard ... with Steve Weissman

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Selig Launches Drug Probe: Sings the Right Song but Sounds the Wrong Notes

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig today announced that MLB will launch a formal investigation into the past use of performance-enhancing drugs by major league players. Former Senator George Mitchell will head the effort, which apparently was catalyzed by the new book Game of Shadows, which details alleged steroid use by San Francisco Giants’ slugger Barry Bonds, among others.

Selig’s announcement was prefaced by a series of statements that seemed designed to extract teeth from the probe even as it gets underway. The likelihood that players may find themselves in the position of having to incriminate themselves, the inability of MLB to offer legal immunity to anyone who cooperates, and the risk of running afoul of an ongoing grand jury proceeding all were cited as possible limitations on the effort. While all of this is strictly true, one was left with the distinct impression that MLB already has prepared its lifeboats should it find itself in deeper water than anticipated.

This sense of tentativeness was only reinforced by the commissioner’s reading of baseball’s roll of anti-drug measures dating back to 1994, and his recounting of Mitchell’s qualification to lead the investigation. No doubt, Selig’s intention was to impart a suitable sense of seriousness about, and commitment to, the task at hand. But it left this observer feeling he simply protesteth too much, and it certainly wasn’t helpful to have been reminded that baseball is in this mess even after a decade’s worth of his best intentions and efforts to clean it up.

Perhaps most telling was Selig’s comment that “the unique circumstances surrounding BALCO [the organization through which Bonds is said to have received his substances], and the evidence revealed in a recently published book, have convinced me that Major League Baseball must undertake this investigation.” This suggests that had there been no book, there would be no investigation. And this worries me, for he can’t possibly believe that all the newspaper columns, talkradio commentary, and blog entries on the subject would simply have then petered out, taking him off the hook in the process. Or can he?

The point the commissioner seems to have missed is that practically everyone who loves the game is on his side in terms of wanting to restore the luster to baseball’s reputation, and they already know it’s not going to be easy. But rather than tap into this vein of shared emotion, Selig painstakingly pointed out why the findings could turn out to be incomplete, over-explained the background and context of the investigation and its principals, and intimated that for all the history – including an uncomfortable appearance before Congress – he’s still only reacting to outside stimuli. In so doing, he’s set the effort up to be second-guessed even if names actually do get named. And that may be the greatest shame of all: to finally get to the bottom of this ugly thing and to have no one then believe it.

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