New drug policy lets cheats off the hook

George Mitchell has not completely rewritten baseball's drug policy, a fact that won't be lost on advocates for a separate governing, testing and disciplinary agency, but he did keep the Kansas City Royals' cleanup hitter eligible, along with the Washington Nationals' catcher, the New York Yankees' No. 2 starter and plenty of others linked to performance-enhancing drugs during a steroids-soaked winter.

So, technically, Jose Guillen walks, as do Paul Lo Duca and Andy Pettitte. If Roger Clemens has the inclination to pitch again, he can start tomorrow. By the letter of Friday's amended agreement, clemency arrived for dozens of players – most outed in Mitchell's report, some not – in return for the broader objective of a more savvy, transparent and farther-reaching program.

But, in reality, you'd be pressed to convince Clemens he's gotten away with anything. I spent 40 minutes talking to Cleveland Indians pitcher Paul Byrd this week, and he didn't come off as a man who'd evaded the consequences of his decision to take HGH, no matter how innocently intended. Pettitte arrived at spring thin and weary, saying the previous months had been incredibly taxing. He won't miss a start over his HGH use, but he might miss his good name. They all will.

It took commissioner Bud Selig a while, but he's been acting on the steroids dilemma with conscience and conviction for a few years now. You could argue it was "Game of Shadows" that gave him the conscience and Congress that loaned him the conviction, and he has finally accepted some of the responsibility for the game going sideways on him. The fact is, Selig's desire to suspend as many Mitchell Report players as the evidence would allow was for months unyielding, and only recently did MLB's negotiators pry his hands off that particular conviction in the name of compromise.

His own guy – Mitchell – set up the contradiction; MLB could hardly stand by the report on every issue but one (two, counting total independence, to which they were mutually opposed), that being Mitchell's leniency appeal for the players unmasked. MLB and the union have now opened two collective bargaining agreements a total of three times, that ball rolling pretty well for ownership, and the owners succeeded in advancing all of Mitchell's recommendations and meeting them in most. It's progress, for the owners, for the union, for the players, for anyone who'd love to start believing in the game again.

In the meantime, Guillen and Jay Gibbons have their 15 days back, and the rest of the Mitchell-ites can breathe again. Selig settled for imposing a cumulative fine and community service, which probably means a lot of low-level union members who've never seen a syringe will be honing their public-speaking skills at the nearby elementary school.

While it played against Selig's instincts (fresh as they might be) and the gritty details of Mitchell's findings, and while it dishonors the few who competed clean in a dirty game, perhaps a compassionate conclusion is best. In return, the game gets a more authoritative and autonomous program administrator. It gets more tests for more substances. It gets an annual report. And it gets a truer influx of talent, given new testing for the draft's top 200 prospects.

"We're certainly pleased it went that way," union chief Don Fehr said.

Rob Manfred, MLB's chief negotiator, called the drug agreement "a living document," one that will bend and sway with the next generation of cheats. We'll see. At the conclusion of every negotiation, baseball and the players have arrived at a similar opinion. The agreement is forever improved upon and fixed and the gold standard … and then it is not. That said, George Mitchell ultimately served baseball well, Selig and Fehr responded as they should have, and even their resistance to outsourcing the whole works – WADA is a frequent volunteer – is understandable.

"I think with this set of changes, not only do we have the best program in professional sports, there are aspects with regard to independence and transparency that are unique," Manfred said. "It is also important that this is an ongoing process."

Selig rightfully kept his foot on the necks of Barry Bonds, Clemens, Miguel Tejada and others who might become entangled with the law, stating, "A criminal conviction for perjury, obstruction of justice or similar matters is a serious offense, and will be dealt with accordingly."

That leaves the rest of them, crowded into that pale blue report, most guilty of crimes against the game, some having admitted as much. They ducked Mitchell's investigators, ducked their public and finally, in a meeting of investigator's compassion and negotiators' concessions, ducked the hard consequences they certainly had coming. They're all out on a technicality.

They walk. The rest of us wonder, and hope it is for the greater good. They'll recognize the feeling, probably, getting something for nothing.