One year ago, you wrote an open letter to baseball's fans. And it read like textbook crisis management. Start with the positive – attendance, pennant races and popularity, working in the ever-present "golden age" talking point – before backpedaling into the reason you penned the letter in the first place.
About a week earlier, the feds had pinched Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Jason Grimsley with human growth hormone, the latest performance-enhancing drug embarrassment in a long line for Major League Baseball. With such uncertainty in a time already pocked by it, you promised the fans you "will not tolerate" hGH use and, implicitly, asked them for something.
Now, a year later, in one of the seminal moments of your tenure as commissioner, they are asking: Do you deserve it?
The latest steroid controversy makes me wonder. New York Yankees designated hitter Jason Giambi recently became the most prominent player to publicly acknowledge his steroid use. He showed contrition for it. His reward? You threatened to suspend him this week unless he cooperates with former Sen. George Mitchell's investigation into performance-enhancing drugs.
How short-sighted, counterproductive and hypocritical. For years, steroids were as common in clubhouses as chewing gum, and even though you and everyone in baseball knew that, nothing was done. Only in 2004 – after Giambi's grand-jury testimony in which he allegedly admitted using performance-enhancing drugs – did baseball adopt testing that could lead to disciplinary penalties.
The current mess stems from Giambi telling USA Today he was wrong for using steroids. Actually, he said "that stuff," which has been baseball's way of treating steroids: avoid invoking their name for fear that Pee-wee Herman will pop up and announce that it's the word of the day.
Well, it's the word of the day, the week, the month, the year and the decade. The duplicity of asking for the public's trust while bullying Giambi reeks like a landfill in the summer sun.
And it's sad. You've done so much good for baseball. In your 15 years as commissioner, you have enlivened the game with interleague play, the wild card and the World Baseball Classic, built baseball into a $5 billion-a-year workhorse, overseen the growth of MLB.com into an Internet force and helped the Baseball Channel prepare for the largest launch in cable history when it goes live in 2009. You have seen turnstiles swing in record numbers and merchandise fly off shelves.
Yes, you have earned trust – from the 30 owners whose pockets grow fatter every day.
Your Kryptonite, though, comes packed in a syringe. The greatest mistake in the Steroid Era was making the use of performance-enhancing drugs a moral issue pinned on the players when the real consequences – records falling and the game's perceived sanctity vanishing – came because baseball's caretakers declined to intervene.
Instantaneous apologies might have averted the Congressional hearings and the fallout that continues today. In the USA Today interview, Giambi suggested that all of baseball was responsible and should have asked for forgiveness – "players, ownership, everybody," he said.
His was not a novel idea. It was not a brushstroke of brilliance. It was the mea culpa of a man wracked with guilt and an attempt to speak for those too cowardly to do so earlier.
For that, you plan to suspend Giambi this week unless he talks with the task force that is costing the owners upward of $1 million per month. I understand that you want to send a message to the players' union, which tries to block the investigation at every turn. But come on.
Without subpoena power, Mitchell's digging seems to have dissolved into little more than a reunion of the local bar – meetings usually include lawyers from Mitchell's office, lawyers representing MLB, lawyers representing the players' association, lawyers representing the team and sometimes lawyers representing the person in question.
How can anyone expect honesty?
"Discipline for wrongdoing is important," you said recently, "but it is also important to create an environment so players can feel free to honestly and completely cooperate with this important investigation."
Maintaining such a balance is harrowing, and it's easy to criticize your missteps. Yet at this point, you can afford no more. The most honest part of your letter was also the most difficult to stomach: "(T)here will always be a few players who seek new ways to violate the rules, no matter how many we have and how often we toughen them."
Given that, the search for definitive answers about the past deserves a bold, clear plan and not the playground harassment Giambi faces. With just over 2½ years remaining before your target retirement date, you have time to fix this. There still isn't an hGH test, and Don Catlin, the doping doctor charged with finding one, said last week there is a new designer steroid he is trying to ferret out. Performance-enhancing drugs are not going away.
So reach out to past users with the promise of forgiveness, not looming suspension. If it takes amnesty, so be it. Spare them the indignity of harboring this secret the rest of their lives.
Allow baseball fans – the ones whose trust you need – to learn how deep the steroid problem ran so they can make judgments for themselves. But please don't play Sheriff Earp with Giambi when you were happy to be Deputy Dog during the crisis itself. Baseball doesn't need a tough guy. It needs a commissioner who can shepherd the game into the future with a policy of honesty and trust above scare tactics and feckless hunts. You are still the person most capable of doing so.
"I am committed," you wrote a year ago, "to protecting our game."
We want to believe you.
- Major League Baseball