Because the era when baseball was in denial about steroids is a few years past, and because George Mitchell knows his list of implicated players is nowhere close to comprehensive, he tells baseball to look forward, not back. “The recommendations I make are prospective,” says his report to the commissioner. “Spending more months, or even years, in contentious disciplinary proceedings will keep everyone mired in the past.” It’s a way of saying to Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, and every other player who showed up in his report, “Go forth and sin no more.”
Besides, Mitchell identifies far too many culprits for baseball to punish. “Obviously the players who used performance enhancing drugs are responsible for their actions,” he wrote. “But they did not act in a vacuum. Everyone involved in baseball over the past two decades–Commissioners, club officials, the Players Association, and players–shares to some extent in the responsibility for the steroids era. There was a collective failure to recognize the problem and to deal with it early on.”
One group was conspicuously omitted by Mitchell from any responsibility for the “collective failure.” That’s the media. According to Editor & Publisher‘s Joe Strupp, the seminal coverage of steroids in big league baseball was a story by Bob Nightengale in the Los Angeles Times in 1995. But there was no follow-up. “Sportswriters essentially left the story alone,” Strupp reported. “For several years, even through the home run derby summer of 1998 when McGwire and Sammy Sosa shattered the long-held 61-dinger mark, barely a word was printed about the illegal substances that were likely helping to boost home runs and endangering long-term health.”
If today some sportswriters feel embarrassment over the blown story–and I know some do–the local coverage I saw of Mitchell’s report didn’t reflect it. The writers who weighed in sounded a lot more punitive than reflective. It’s in their power to punish the most notable miscreants, and they intend to.
“If he is guilty,” wrote the Sun-Times‘s Jay Mariotti of Clemens, “his numbers . . . should be accompanied by an asterisk and a vigorous debate on whether he should be in the Hall of Fame (my vote: no.)” The Tribune asked all its Hall of Fame voters if the Mitchell report would affect their ballots. Yes, it will, replied Mike Downey, Teddy Greenstein, Phil Hersh, Dan McGrath, Phil Rogers, and Paul Sullivan, who went on, “I think the best solution is to open a separate wing for Baseball’s Hall of Fame villains and include players such as Clemens, McGwire, Barry Bonds, Pete Rose, Gaylord Perry and Shoeless Joe Jackson. It would be quite a popular exhibit.”
It sure would, especially if in addition to the injectors, the gamblers (Rose), the spitballers (Perry), and the fixers (Jackson), the wing honored the players and club executives and veteran sports scribes culpable in baseball’s most whopping evil–the covenant that kept black players out of the big leagues until 1947. Lots of blame to go around for that one.
And possibly more for the one involving steroids than most commentators on the Mitchell report have chosen to acknowledge. I urge the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to do its collective duty. There’s a writers’ wing in the Hall of Fame. It’s occupied by scribes chosen by their peers to receive the annual J.G. Taylor Spink Award, named for the publisher of the Sporting News from 1914 to 1962. The Sporting News in Spink’s day was the so-called bible of baseball, though while the Negro Leagues existed Spink’s bible pretty much ignored them. Times changed. Wendell Smith of the old Chicago Herald-American became the first black member of the BBWAA in 1948, and the baseball writers gave him the Spink Award in 1993. This year’s Spink winner, the late Larry Whiteside of the Boston Globe, was also a black writer. So one of the things the Spink award can be said to stand for is the ability of the press box to come around.
Here’s another opportunity for the press box to put its house in order. Today’s baseball writers can be as tough on themselves as they promise to be on Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire. They can assert that they have no intention of giving a future Spink award to any of the writers who credulously celebrated the exploits of baseball’s pumped-up Herculeses, thinking of steroids, if they thought of them at all, as a sleeping dog they should let lie.