BALCO legacy stymied Mitchell

BALCO legacy stymied Mitchell
By Jonathan Littman, Yahoo Sports
December 16, 2007

Jonathan Littman
Yahoo Sports
Ninety to one.

That's the ratio to chew on. Proportions matter. Perceptions count. Ninety current and former players named in the Mitchell report and only one in the dock, the government's certifiable scapegoat, Barry Bonds.

The slam-dunk case against Roger Clemens – better than anything the government has mustered so far against Bonds – makes one wonder. Where was the grand jury and perjury trap for Clemens? Why didn't the government set him up for a fall?

Unlike in the case of Bonds and the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, the government has the syringe in hand with Clemens. Brian McNamee, his personal trainer, told George Mitchell that he literally stuck the superstar pitcher in the rear. But Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and the other prominent players named in Mitchell's report will likely only be humiliated and perhaps suspended.

What's the purpose in all of this? Do we need to string more misguided athletes from the nearest tree? Is that the path to enlightenment in baseball's darkest hour?

The BALCO case began in 2002, and it's main achievement has been to distract baseball from what it should have done long ago – implement a testing program with teeth. The goal should be clean players and clean teams. Criminal witch hunts and multi-million dollar commissions are just another name for delay, distraction and obfuscation.

Today, the Mitchell report is following in the tired path of BALCO. In front of the cameras, Bud Selig is trying to get one over us with that old Claude Rains line from Casablanca, "I am shocked, shocked, that there's gambling going on here."

As for Mitchell, he bemoans that no one of significance from the BALCO investigation would talk to him, but his report reveals a larger problem: When an Inquisition reigns, reason fails. Barry Bonds' supposedly secret testimony was plastered on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, sending the 750 Major League Baseball players an unmistakable message.

Talking to a grand jury or a federal official or a former Senator is going to get you nothing but trouble. Nothing you say will remain confidential.

BALCO's fascination with finding scapegoats instead of solutions helps explain the massive failure of the Mitchell report to get to the bottom of the pervasive cheating in baseball. Why did Mitchell only get one fallen towel boy and one needle-ready strength and conditioning coach to talk when dozens populate the league? Because that's all the feds would hand him.

Why did no other significant witness come forward? The heavy hand of the feds struck the fear of felony into anyone who might have thought about coming clean.

BALCO became a symbol of inaction, of leaked testimony, of promises unkept. When the scourge of steroids couldn't be swept under the rug any longer, Selig turned to that tried and true stand-in for organizational change – the monolithic commission.

A large chunk of Mitchell's report is dedicated to BALCO, remarkable considering that Mitchell himself declared he learned virtually nothing new about the case. Most of the BALCO-related information included in his report could be found in a copy of Game of Shadows.

Is there anything fresh here about Bonds? You've likely seen the news that Bonds may have been tipped off to steroid tests in 2003. But advance news of tests was common knowledge throughout the league.

Yes, Bonds likely knew when he was going to be tested that year. So did many other ballplayers, I have to believe. That's why when nearly 7 percent of 1,438 anonymous tests that season were positive, those in the know joked that it was really an intelligence test. Only the dumb dopers were caught.

Mitchell did talk to Peter Magowan, owner of the San Francisco Giants, who asked Bonds in February of 2004, "I've really got to know, did you take steroids?"

But how much do we really learn? Mitchell mostly paraphrases Magowan. Why didn't he tape-record this interview? Maybe it's because when the Inquisition reigns, fear rules.

Let's look at what Magowan said, and what it might mean for the Bonds perjury case: "According to Magowan, Bonds responded that when he took the substances, he did not know they were steroids but later learned they were. Bonds said that he took these substances for a period of time to help with his arthritis, as well as sleeping problems…"

Magowan asked Bonds whether this was what he told the grand jury, and Bonds replied yes.

So far, this appears to match what is publicly known of Bonds' testimony. Nothing much new.

But two days after this conversation, Magowan seemed to have had a change of heart. His lawyer called Mitchell's staff to say his client "misspoke when he said that Bonds said he later learned he had taken steroids." The lawyer said Magowan could only recall with certainty that "Bonds had said he did not knowingly take steroids." And the lawyer added that it sounded like something Magowan had read in the newspapers.

Neither Magowan's statement nor his lawyers' waffling is particularly relevant to a charge of perjury. This criminal case is not about whether Bonds took steroids – but what Bonds knew, when he knew it, and what he said to the grand jury.

Nor are prosecutors likely to gain much from Mitchell's other interview with a BALCO subject, Harvey Shields, who was Bonds's trainer from 2004 to 2006. Shields told Mitchell that Bonds took the cream, which Shields "believed was an over-the counter arthritis cream. "

Shields also told Mitchell that both he and Bonds took the "clear," which he said he believed was flaxseed oil. The statements match Bonds' grand jury testimony.

Reading these statements and the hundreds of footnoted historical pages clouding the Mitchell report makes one point abundantly clear. The only people talking now are those trying to avoid jail. The Inquisition begun by BALCO and the smoke added by the Mitchell investigation have just further clouded the solution that was clear a decade ago.

The blunt instrument of criminal law is unsuited to the unique problem of performance enhancement in sport. Is it really productive to arbitrarily target a few athletes for jail? Why not try something that works? They've been testing Olympic athletes for decades, and while it's not perfect, it’s pretty darn good.

Baseball is not a doping competition. Here's a radical concept that would not have cost millions of dollars. Set stringent rules enforced by an independent body, and when the athletes break the rules, don't let them play for a long time.

Jonathan Littman is a veteran journalist and author of seven books. As a Contributing Editor for Playboy, he has written about the Masters, Super Bowl ticket scalpers, track and field and the undercover steroids operation targeting Barry Bonds. His books include The Fugitive Game, the story of a notorious computer hacker, and The Beautiful Game, a season of a competitive soccer team. Send Jonathan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Monday, Dec 17, 2007 12:34 am, EST

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