MLB Commissioner Bud Selig can be perceived as acting in the best interests… (Richard Drew / Associated…)
Whenever the questions turn to drugs, Bud Selig has two talking points.
First, Selig inevitably says that baseball has the toughest drug policy in American sports. This is true.
Second, Selig points out that he commissioned the Mitchell Report and implemented all of its recommendations. This is not true.
And, because of the one recommendation Selig refused to implement, all the good intentions fueling the latest crackdown on performance-enhancing drugs cannot obscure the perception of a commissioner acting in the best interests of his legacy rather than best interests of baseball.
Selig insists next season is his last. He often says that this is a golden age for baseball, and this too is true.
Baseball is awash in money, more and more of which is shared with lesser teams, enabling them to keep their stars rather than watch helplessly as the best players flock to New York and Los Angeles in free agency. Money still matters, but smart management increasingly withstands the sheer force of dollars. And money flows because Selig was smart enough to surrender on the idea of a salary cap, for the greater good of labor peace for two decades, a claim the NFL, NBA and NHL cannot make.
The purists might scoff at expanded playoffs, but the latest format properly rewards teams for winning their division while keeping baseball exciting and relevant into September, all over the place. Baseball has lapped other sports on the Web, and on mobile devices. And this year marks the 10th anniversary of the launch of baseball's drug-testing program, which now includes the first blood tests for human growth hormone in any major American sports league.
This is not good enough for Selig. He is about to turn his victory lap into an obstacle course.
Baseball investigators are compiling evidence that could enable Selig to levy 50-game suspensions against one to two dozen players, including Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers and Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees. Those might be the marquee names, but the sheer volume of the suspensions could affect the pennant races this year, or trigger a protracted appeal process that could drag into next year — or both.
Why would Selig risk that for his final act?
For all the good on his watch, he is extraordinarily sensitive to the tag that he knows will appear in the first paragraph of his obituary: "commissioner of the steroid era."
He has been lectured by Congress, several times. In 2007, when government investigators found that the Angels' Gary Matthews Jr. had been sent human growth hormone, Matthews said he had not used HGH. Selig couldn't do a thing about it.
That summer, when Barry Bonds tied Hank Aaron's all-time home run record, Selig grimaced from a luxury suite, then stuffed his hands into his pockets.
"I think he made a vow to himself, once he went through all that hell — Bonds, Congress, all of it — that he was going to leave no stone unturned," said a person who speaks with Selig regularly.
In 2011, Braun tested positive for excessive testosterone. He won an appeal, arguing that his urine sample had been improperly handled. Rob Manfred, Selig's right-hand man, issued a tough-talking statement saying the league "vehemently disagrees" with the arbitrator's decision. The league then fired the arbitrator.
Selig was furious. The league had vowed its biggest stars would be treated no differently from anyone else, and now he had to deal with the perception that baseball had backed off from suspending a player just named most valuable — and, no less, from the team Selig used to own.
The Mitchell Report, issued after the 2007 season, recommended that Selig establish his own investigative force. He did, and that is how he might end up with evidence to suspend Braun and Rodriguez and others who did not fail a drug test, the kind of evidence that could have been used to suspend Matthews had baseball been able to get its hands on it.
Mitchell also recommended that baseball outsource its drug program to an independent third party — perhaps an established authority such as the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, perhaps a new entity jointly funded by owners and players.
"Independence is the most important principle of an effective drug testing program," Mitchell wrote.
Selig resisted. That is not to say the players' union necessarily would have agreed to an independent authority, but Selig insisted baseball could best serve its needs by running its own program.
So, when ESPN reports that Selig might try to suspend players 100 games — 50 games for a drug offense and 50 more for lying about it — it is little wonder that a player as respected as Torii Hunter of the Detroit Tigers says the whole probe resembles a "witch hunt."
No one is condoning the use of performance-enhancing drugs. It is understandable that Selig thinks he cannot set up an investigative unit and ignore its findings, no matter how wide the stain might spread.
"You can't just say there's too many and it's going to get complicated," said another person who speaks with Selig regularly. "I don't think he is intimidated by that at all. I don't think he has an option.
"If there are not enough facts to support it, he won't do it. If there are enough facts that he should do something — even though it could be overturned — he will do it."
It would look so much better if Selig were the commissioner reacting to the findings of an independent agency, rather than a one-man grand jury empowered to act on information from prosecutors on his payroll. It is much more dignified to walk off into the sunset, rather than ride off with guns ablaze.