Mitchell's best source was a towel boy

Jonathan Littman

The towel boy squawked.

About 85 players were named in the Mitchell Report – the bulk of them as a result of information supplied by one locker room attendant, Kirk Radomski.

The guys in the suits – the money, as Victor Conte so aptly put it – got a get-out-of-jail pass. George Mitchell, arguing contrary to the evidence of his 400-plus page report, wrote: "With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that baseball missed the early warning signs of a growing crisis."

That line won't sell. If there's one thing this multi-million dollar whitewash demonstrates overwhelmingly, it's that Major League Baseball – commissioner, owners, managers and coaches – knew they were creating a steroid-friendly league many, many years ago.

Mitchell concedes he let commissioner Bud Selig review the report two days in advance and assures us: "No material changes were made as a result of that review."

Translated, that means that some changes were made, not to mention the awful self-censorship that comes naturally when you let someone you're writing about read your every word before publication.

Mitchell deserves credit for being the first to name dozens of current and retired offending players – even if perhaps hundreds more offenders, by the luck of the towel boy, were spared the humiliation of having their names in print.

Mitchell also handed the Barry Bonds defense an early Christmas present. Remind me again why Bonds is on trial? For lying about what Mitchell tells us was a league-wide plague.

Why then was Roger Clemens, the best pitcher in the game, protected for so long by Major League Baseball while Bonds has been vilified?

Can anyone spell scapegoat?

But let's put this in perspective. Millions of dollars and nearly two years later, what's the scorecard?

Did Mitchell produce an investigative coup? Radomski pleaded guilty in April to distributing steroids to dozens of players, and as part of his deal he agreed to cooperate with Mitchell's investigation.

That is Mitchell's A-No. 1 source – a towel boy handed to him on a silver platter. That's it? One towel boy, one strength and conditioning coach, and existing government investigations out of Albany, N.Y., and BALCO.

Not exactly Sherlock Holmes. Or Sam Spade.

Which leads to the $20-million question. What if 10 towel boys had squawked? Or 20? Another 10 strength and conditioning coaches? Would Mitchell's All-Steroids list number in the hundreds instead of the dozens?

Mitchell's report comes up short. But the federal government deserves a heap of blame. By focusing on trying to ensnare Bonds, the government, wittingly or not, managed to delay exposing baseball's steroids scandal – and long-needed remedies – for many years.

"Throughout this investigation, a federal criminal investigation related to BALCO was ongoing," wrote Mitchell. "The ongoing criminal investigation, and the resulting unwillingness of many participants to cooperate with me, limited my ability to gather information that was not already in the public record about the involvement of major league players with BALCO."

Let's forget the huge section of Mitchell's report devoted to history for a moment. Who actually agreed to talk to Mitchell about today's problems?

What about the five current players who had previously spoken out about steroids? Four declined, with only Frank Thomas of the Toronto Blue Jays agreeing to talk. That plus Jason Giambi, makes two players out of 750.

Who else shut out Mitchell?

• The Players' Association rejected all requests for relevant documents.

• The Players' Association refused a request to interview the director of MLB's drug-testing lab.

• The Players' Association rejected a request to interview its chief operating officer, Gene Orza.

• The players alleged to be illegally using performance-enhancing drugs? "Almost without exception, they declined to meet or talk with me," Mitchell said.

• Mitchell admits the report failed as an investigatory body because of a pervasive code of silence. "A number of witnesses, for example, claimed that they knew nothing about steroids, never saw anything involving steroids, and had never even heard the word 'steroids' used in a major league clubhouse."

So, how did Mitchell get the names published in this report? By having the feds threaten Radomski with a stiff prison sentence. The 37-year-old has had his sentencing hearing delayed three times.

"During each of the interviews, the law enforcement officials warned Radomski that if he made any false statements he would forfeit their commitment to recommend a more lenient sentence and he would face further criminal jeopardy."

Similar story with Brian McNamee, the strength and conditioning coach who ratted on Clemens: "Federal law enforcement officials and members of my staff participated with me in all of the interviews," Mitchell wrote.

Does anybody else find it odd that the feds seemed to be sitting in on all the key interviews of this supposedly independent commission?

Mitchell notes that MLB officials weren't included in the interviews. They didn't need to be. Remember that advance copy of the report?

Mitchell does, however, appear to expose some of the hypocrisy.

He says in the report that St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa claimed that he had "exaggerated" in a CBS interview where he strongly suggested outfielder Jose Canseco was taking illegal drugs, "and that La Russa now told him that he 'had never confronted Canseco about his use of steroids'."

What about former commissioner Fay Vincent? Mitchell: "He told me that he failed to notice the emergence of steroids because he was focused on cleaning up the problem of cocaine use by major league players."

Oh, that's right. Remember what a great job Major League Baseball did cleaning up that scandal?

In the mid-1980s, a team mascot in a Parrot costume who was the middle man in drug deals revealed that the Pittsburgh Pirates were snorting coke like crazy. Funny how we choose to forget history. Outfielder Tim Raines revealed that he slid headfirst so he wouldn't break the vial of coke in his back pocket. Raines, Keith Hernandez and numerous other players were called before a Pittsburgh grand jury.

There was no perjury trap.

The ballplayers were granted immunity for their testimony instead of being charged with felonies for cocaine use. The dealers went to jail. Commissioner Peter Ueberroth suspended 11 players, seven for a full season.

The Players' Association intervened. Not a single coke-snorting ballplayer missed a game.

I can't wait to see how this one turns out.