At 2 p.m. this afternoon, former Senator George Mitchell will release his report, serving up the results of his lengthy investigation into the use of performance enhancing drugs in baseball. Everyone is talking about the Mitchell report, speculating on what players’ names might be revealed and what new details might emerge. Frankly, I don’t understand the fuss. I don’t need to know which player wrote a check to which clubhouse attendant to understand the big picture. Baseball has had a steroid problem for almost two decades, everyone knew it, and we all ignored it because we enjoyed the benefits that it brought. Attendance (and revenues) soared, the record books were re-written, and baseball bounced back from a devastating strike to enjoy a golden era.
Steroids were at the forefront of the public conscience in the late 1980s, particularly after Ben Johnson’s world record performance at the Seoul Olympics was tainted by a failed drug test. In 1991, when Lyle Alzado revealed how years of steroid abuse ravaged his body, the NFL was forced to begin confronting the problem within their ranks.
Baseball was not immune to the problem, nor were they unaware of steroid use among players. Commissioner Fay Vincent proposed a drug policy in 1991, issuing a memorandum to all teams and urging them to confront the issue. (view the memo as a PDF) He specifically mentioned steroids, and warned about the damage that continued use could do to the game, to players, and to those who looked to ballplayers as role models. Both the owners and the players’ union balked at the idea, and within a year, Vincent had been run out of office.
Over the next fifteen years, the issue of steroid use in baseball continued to force its way to the forefront. During Mark McGwire’s record-setting 1998 season, he acknowledged using a steroid called androstenedione after reporters wrote about seeing bottles of it in his locker. Former MVPs Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti later revealed not only that they had used steroids, but said the use of the substance was rampant in major league locker rooms. Canseco named names in his book, while Caminiti told Sports Illustrated that he estimated up to fifty percent of major league players were using steroids.
Padres General Manager Kevin Towers admitted that he suspected Caminiti was juiced, but kept quiet about it. “The truth is, we’re in a competitive business,” Towers told ESPN, “and these guys were putting up big numbers and helping your ballclub win games. You tended to turn your head on things.”
Federal authorities made it a legal issue in 2003 when they raided the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, or BALCO, near San Francisco. The facility was alleged to manufacture performance enhancing drugs and distribute them to some of the world’s top athletes. A series of reports by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada revealed the details of grand jury testimony, and began to reveal the names of some of the baseball players alleged to have received steroids from BALCO. Among them was Barry Bonds, the Giants slugger who was poised to break Henry Aaron’s all-time home run record.
Still, despite all of this evidence staring everyone in the face, Commissioner Bud Selig and Players’ Association chief Don Fehr both remained steadfast in their refusal to take action. It took Congressional hearing to get Baseball to institute a drug policy. In March of 2005, a House committee summoned players and executives to testify, and grilled them mercilessly on their failure to act.
That brings us to today, I suppose, when Mitchell will present a report that formally addresses the problem… sixteen years after Vincent’s steroid memo. It’s a necessary step and one that’s long overdue. After all of the hype over the details of the report subsides, all that Mitchell has really done is to acknowledge what the whole world already knew. “Steroids in baseball? I’m shocked, shocked!”
Of course, the real issue isn’t documenting what has happened in the past. What’s really important is for the folks in Baseball to step up and do something. Let’s hope they view this as a first step, an opportunity to get better, and not simply a final chapter to end the discussion.