When former Senator George J. Mitchell unveiled his scathing steroids report on Dec. 13, Bud Selig looked on the bright side. The baseball commissioner was almost defiantly upbeat about the chance to draw a curtain on the era of performance-enhancing drugs. "Do I believe it's a setback?" he told reporters. "No. The sport will be better off."
Not yet, Bud. And maybe not for years to come. True, it's early to judge the impact of the Mitchell Report, which cost Major League Baseball $20 million for juicy new details of a steroids crisis that had hardly been a secret. Yet there are signs that Mitchell's 20-month investigation might cause as many problems for baseball as it was supposed to solve. Rather than buying its way out of a messy situation by investing in Mitchell's investigation, MLB opened the floodgates to more questions about how the league intends to handle the pervasive problem of performance-enhancing drugs.
"They are still very much in a crisis situation," says Christopher Lehane, a partner at crisis-management firm Fabiani & Lehane. "All this has done is...beg the elephant-in-the-room question, 'Do you have a policy in place to close the book and move forward?'"
One of Selig's most lauded achievements as commissioner has been a warming relationship between MLB and the powerful Major League Baseball Players Assn. That détente has been all but obliterated. Some player agents even are questioning MLB's agenda, suggesting that a report by a respected former senator should help owners fend off oversight from an impatient Congress and provide leverage in upcoming collective bargaining negotiations. But what really salted the wound was Mitchell's decision to link 89 players to drug use. "We've turned hearsay accusations into a finding of guilt," says Scott Boras, the mega-agent who represents dozens of big-league players.
Tempers are also short about the manner in which facts were gathered and reported. Even one of MLB's own, Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, has expressed concern. In a statement, the Orioles owner, who is a plaintiff's attorney, cautioned readers of the Mitchell Report "to resist the temptation to accept collective judgment based upon unsubstantiated allegations."
Former Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent thinks Selig and Mitchell have mostly made the right calls. He predicts that Selig will accept Mitchell's recommendation and not lower the boom on active players named in the report. "I don't think there is any point in punishing anyone for what happened in the past," he says.
Selig's decision, of course, is key to repairing relations with the players. And while the commissioner isn't talking, ESPN has reported that he is likely to investigate further 14 of the 89 players. (Selig declined to speak with BusinessWeek for this article.)
To not discipline players would make the costly study and the attendant publicity an utterly useless exercise, says Eric Dezenhall, CEO of crisis-management firm Dezenhall Resources. "One of the problems in professional sports generally is there are these anemic attempts to institute laws of right and wrong, but bad behavior is rarely punished in a serious way," he says. "When you set aside all the rhetoric, in the eyes of an athlete it pays to cheat because the rewards are enormous and the risks are minimal."
So what has MLB accomplished? It spent $20 million, tarnished itself, engendered hard feelings among players, and set off an uproar that it seemed ill-prepared to manage. Surely it hasn't put the steroid scandal to rest.
"Closure? I don't think so," says longtime agent Barry Axelrod, who represents a former big-leaguer, Wally Joyner, mentioned in the report. "I don't think baseball will ever go back to normal. Or as normal as we once knew it. Baseball people tend to have long memories."