Are you Hearings What I’m Saying?

You know you are going to have a strange day when you turn on the television and flip to ESPN then have to recheck the channel because you are positive that you fat-fingered the remote and were now watching CSPAN. For the second time in three years Major League Baseball finds itself visiting Capitol Hill to speak with Representatives and Senators about performance enhancing substances. Shortly after former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell released the Mitchell Report Congress decided it would be in the public’s best interests to bring some of baseball’s decision makers to Washington DC to discuss the report and what the next steps would be. Today was the first day of these hearings and would include guest appearances by commissioner Bud Selig, player’s union head Donald Fehr, and of course former Senator George Mitchell. This had all the makings of must-see television especially considering that this was about as close as we were going to get to seeing baseball in January. I popped a bag of popcorn and settled down into an easy chair to catch a few minutes of the proceedings.

It’s funny, sometimes you go to a baseball game and it may take a few innings for both teams to really get a feel for the game. Once one team finds that groove it is usually followed by a significant play that turns the momentum of the game. There are other times when a team comes out and establishes the flow of a game immediately. For example, last season Arizona Diamondbacks center fielder Chris Young seemed to have a propensity to lead off an inning with a home run immediately putting an opponent on their heels to try and recover. Congress took a similar stance to begin these proceedings when committee spokesperson Karen Lightfoot released a letter from the House Committee to the U.S. Attorney General Michael B. Mukaskey requesting an investigation into possible false statements made by Houston Astros shortstop Miguel Tejada during the Committee’s probe into the testimony of Rafael Palmeiro subsequent to the 2005 hearings when Palmeiro claimed he had not taken a performance enhancing substance then subsequently failed a test for said substance which he claimed he had received from teammate Tejada. I have to imagine that Tejada’s day just took a significant downturn upon hearing that statement from Ms. Lightfoot. I am not really a conspiracy theorist but I do find it incredibly coincidental that the Baltimore Orioles traded Tejada to the Houston Astros on December 12 which was one day before the Mitchell Report was released naming Tejada as potentially a user of performance enhancing drugs. Some may say that was pretty lucky except for the fact that Major League Baseball officials were allowed to see the Mitchell Report a day before it was released. Perhaps Peter Angelos who had adamantly opposed trading Tejada had a change of heart after realizing his star employee might not be available if convicted of lying to Congress.

The hearings centered mostly on the Mitchell Report and its findings. After wading through all the words of encouragement and gratitude by the Congressmen towards former Senator Mitchell we really got down to the questions that everyone wanted to hear. Did former Senator Mitchell feel as if he got the amount of support and help he needed to find out the size of the problem of performance enhancing substance usage? It was no surprise to hear George Mitchell lament that he did not receive the cooperation that would have quantitatively defined the depth of usage. With the exception of a few current players such as Jason Giambi that were coerced into talking with Senator Mitchell most players through the player’s union declined the opportunity to speak. From a fan’s perspective this gives the impression that the players have a lot that they are still hiding eroding what little credibility they did have on the subject. That is not to say that I believe the players are the only ones to blame for this mess. I believe both sides share equally in allowing this mess to occur. From the sheer number of players who were identified just from two sources it is evident that the use of performance enhancing substances was rampant and I am not completely satisfied that the problem doesn’t still exist. Although the penalties are much stiffer now, the rewards still seem to outweigh the consequences if you are caught. Drug testing and the type of testing is just inadequate to suggest that players have not just changed to a different type of substance that is less likely to be identified with the current testing methods.

The most interesting part of these Congressional hearings occurred during the questioning by Representative John F. Tierney from Massachusetts. Representative Tierney had obviously done his homework and wanted to utilize his time wisely when talking to those responsible for Major League Baseball. Mr. Tierney questioned why baseball had substantially increased the number therapeutic-use exemptions for attention deficit disorder from 28 in 2006 to 102 in 2007. There are many within the medical community who believe the greatest benefits to amphetamine use are to increase concentration. The implication is that Major League Baseball may be masking an amphetamine problem or covering it up by providing exceptions where possible. Mr. Tierney put both commissioner Bud Selig and player representative Donald Fehr on the spot asking why the sudden increase and how these exceptions were being justified. Neither Selig or Fehr had valid answers in my opinion which again leads the fans to question exactly how willing baseball is to police itself when it comes to performance enhancing substances. While I am sure no one wants to give up power, it would seem that the only way to ensure that baseball is actually becoming cleaner is to institute a third-party organization responsible for testing the players. This should not be a baseball specific recommendation though. All major sports would benefit from an objective third-party leading this effort. What was most interesting about this line of questioning was that nowhere in the 311 page Mitchell Report is there a mention of therapeutic use exceptions so we have no way of knowing how pervasive their use is. This I think will be the next front that the media should begin to look into so that we can try and reduce this potential loophole.

Overall the Congressional hearings made for some interesting television. I hope that Donald Fehr and Bud Selig came away with an understanding of how important baseball fans feel this subject is. This is not something that anyone takes lightly and baseball is still reeling from this problem with no one feeling that the problem is yet fully identified or dealt with in an appropriate manner. This is not a subject that will be gone with a few more penalties or the institution of another test. There appears to still be a culture within baseball that suggests drug use is still a problem and condoned by many as a way to stay competitive.

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