'Roid rage: The Mitchell Report is the biggest black eye America's game has suffered, worse than the Black Sox.
Anybody heard of Ben Johnson?
Most of you probably haven't, which is as it should be.
Johnson was a Canadian track athlete who 20 years ago became what was thought to be the fastest man on the planet. In 1988, he won a gold medal in the 100-meter dash at the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, besting American Carl Lewis and setting a world record of 9.79 seconds.
Johnson's name may not ring a bell because soon after that race, he tested positive for the performance enhancement drug Stanozolol, a steroid. The gold medal was rescinded, the record erased. It was as if Johnson never existed, never set foot on the track.
And so it should be with Major League Baseball if it wants to rid itself of the stain exposed by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell on Thursday following his 20-month investigation into the prevalence of cheaters in the national pastime. We're not talking about people getting vision-correcting eyeglasses here — leveling the playing field — but those who tilted it chemically, swelling their heads (literally) and inflating their muscles to sometimes freakish proportions.
The Mitchell Report is the biggest black eye America's game has suffered, worse than the Black Sox — at least Shoeless Joe wasn't juiced — and Pete Rose gambling scandals, if only for the number of athletes alleged to be involved. Nearly 90 representing every club were specifically identified, among them seven Most Valuable Players. Besides the already suspected Barry Bonds, the biggest star accused was pitcher Roger Clemens, heretofore considered among the best to ever occupy the mound.
Mitchell cast a wide net of blame, specifically condemning the commissioner's office for looking the other way — though for all of his perceived faults, current Commissioner Bud Selig at least initiated this overdue investigation — and the players' union, which fought testing until it virtually had no other choice and has remained uncooperative. A shakeup in the leadership of the latter should begin immediately. We would add team management, which did nothing so long as the exploits of these players filled the seats of stadiums.
Interestingly, Mitchell favors amnesty for those he has named — we'd suggest it's not a complete list — arguing that baseball must look forward now. The case could be made that the evidence gathered by Mitchell, a former prosecutor, is wholly circumstantial and would not hold up in a court of law. In the previously mentioned Johnson case, the link was direct, undeniable. Certainly the players identified should get the chance to clear their names, perhaps through hearings conducted by the commissioner's office or some third party. It's not like baseball can just drop the matter now.
If it is determined that they are guilty, get out the eraser. The MVP and Cy Young trophies, returned. No names in the career record book, no asterisks. Certainly no Cooperstown. No further employment in the sport. We are rather unforgiving on this score. Mitchell referred to the "Steroids Era," but in fact it's the "Cheating Era." The apologists can spare us the "they weren't aware" and "there were no rules against it at the time" defenses.
Indeed, it's the cheated fans who should have 'roid rage, as they pay plenty not only for a seat but for the right to expect a contest between human beings, not test tubes. Also cheated were the greats who earned the game's most hallowed records honestly — the real home run king, Hank Aaron, comes to mind — the innocent players who have been tarnished, and those who were denied their chance to compete at this level because they insisted on getting there the right way, through their natural talents and work ethic.
Ultimately, these athletes allegedly cheated themselves and their families by compromising their reputations and perhaps their long-term health.
It's impossible to muster any sympathy for the cheaters in a sport where the minimum salary next year will be $390,000, and where the average annual pay approaches $3 million. The only way this kind of cheating will be reduced — it won't be eliminated — is if the potential punishment trumps the rewards. That could take some doing. Don't expect conscience to kick in.
Indeed, already some have moved on from steroids to human growth hormone because it's more difficult to detect. If baseball wants its integrity back, it must consistently test — without forewarning — and enforce potentially career-ending penalties for those who fail. That and the Ben Johnson treatment for the most egregious past offenders can make baseball right again. This is an opportunity; baseball shouldn't blow it.