Mitchell report has flaws, but MLB, players need to pay attention

Ten months ago I wrote that Major League Baseball ought to adopt an amnesty program for players who admitted to using steroids, HGH or other assorted performance-enhancing substances. The reasoning was simple enough: Why depend on an inherently flawed investigation to uncover, in some instances, the uncoverable?

Thursday afternoon in a New York City hotel ballroom, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, author of the well-intentioned but mostly toothless and useless Mitchell report, essentially proposed the same thing -- except that he offered a sweeter deal to the cheaters.

In short, Mitchell recommended that MLB commissioner Bud Selig take no disciplinary action against players named in his report, whether those players were best friends with the working end of a syringe needle, whether they were flaxseed oil addicts, or whether they were human test tubes for the latest testosterones and designer steroids. For baseball to heal, it had to quit picking at the steroid scab.

"The commissioner should give the players and everyone else the chance to make a fresh start," Mitchell said, "except where the conduct is so serious that he must act to protect the integrity of the game."

Yes, Mitchell did attach an "integrity of the game" provision for Selig, but it was obvious he hoped the commissioner wouldn't use it. To give a mulligan to the offenders, Mitchell said, "would be a tangible and positive way for [Selig] to demonstrate to the players, to the clubs, to the fans and to the general public his desire for the cooperative effort that baseball needs to deal effectively with this problem."

Selig responded several hours later by strapping a rocket launcher to his shoulder and firing away at Mitchell's recommendation relative to sanctions. Selig said he would review the revelations on a "case-by-case" basis. "So if action is needed, action will be taken," Selig said in a respectful but almost defiant manner.

Selig, who strangely enough admitted that he hadn't read the full report, was marking his turf. He showered Mitchell with thanks and compliments, but make no mistake about his message. Selig wanted everyone to know that baseball remains his kingdom, that Mitchell was a temp, and that he doesn't necessarily share Mitchell's stance on conciliation.

So instead of an uneasy and unprecedented peace between MLB and the players association, there is now a heightened sense of distrust. The baseball cold war resumed Thursday.

The Mitchell investigation was doomed from the beginning. The report itself is 409 pages of cotton candy -- wisps of truth teased into a Don King hairdo full of air, hearsay and perhaps wishful thinking. Blow softly on it and it bends and rips apart.

I don't fault Mitchell for its failure. He was asked to dig into the steroids era without being given a shovel. Had he not piggybacked onto several ongoing government investigations, the Mitchell report might have been the length of a Del Taco menu.

I don't blame the union for building 10-foot-high speed bumps for Mitchell's investigators. The players' association protected its members, probably too well. But it adhered to its core mission, which is to keep its players' -- and not baseball's -- best interests in mind. It succeeded, but at a cost.

Nor can you criticize Selig for pushing hard for the investigation (though, we could do without his constant, self-congratulatory reminders that he was the only one to do so). Selig said he wanted the truth, that he wanted the investigation to go wherever it needed to go. Had he taken the time to read the report (weird, since he got it a full day before its public release), Selig would have known that however many millions of dollars MLB paid for the investigation, it paid too much. The investigation couldn't go where it needed to go because the union and players wouldn't follow the same map.

In a utopian world, the investigation was an admirable idea. But in the world of collective bargaining agreements and zero subpoena power, the investigation never had a chance. Its report? I believe the phrase is, "Garbage in, garbage out."

The most provocative portion of the report is obvious: Did Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte do the needle-puncture deed? If they did (and Clemens has denied the allegations made by his former strength trainer in the report), they deserve the same scrutiny and condemnation as Barry Bonds and other cheaters. If true, Clemens' pitching records become as compromised as Bonds' career home run total. Clemens then belongs in the Hall of Fame only if it opens a separate wing for juicers.

But the Clemens/Bonds drama is a subplot to the greater issue. What's next for baseball?

A few days ago I spoke with a former, high-ranking major league team executive who spent years learning the mentality and culture of MLB. Baseball, he said, will "cleanse" itself and then, after Selig imposes whatever sanctions he sees fit, the business of the game will move forward.

The game always moves forward, propelled by some mysterious, unseen force. Baseball romantics will say the game is intrinsically American, part of what and who we are. And maybe there's some truth to that "Field of Dreams" thinking. Maybe we actually need baseball. Or maybe we just don't want to sweep the garage on a July afternoon.

If the game is going to cleanse itself, it will need more than the Mitchell report to be the washcloth and bar of soap. Even with the names, the suspect details and allegations, you get the feeling baseball is rinsing itself with the same dirty water as before.

The report tells us what we already knew, what whistle-blower Jose Canseco told us long before Mitchell's investigators went to work: Players cheated. The only difference is that Mitchell's report clumsily added players' names to the equation.

We won't know if this is a good or bad day for baseball until weeks and months from now. Union executive director Donald Fehr said as much during his Thursday night presser.

"I hope that I will conclude down the road, after we've had a chance to look at [the report] and whatever happens happens, that it was not detrimental," he said.

Baseball will survive this latest crisis, just as it survived the Black Sox scandal, racial discrimination, labor strife, a canceled World Series, mushroom cloud-sized salaries and Pete Rose's lies. And it will survive whatever happens between the federal government and Bonds.

Somehow baseball keeps shooting itself in the foot, but never seems to run out of toes. It's the Wile E. Coyote of sports; it prospers in spite of itself.

Mitchell didn't offer my particular brand of amnesty, but he did offer hope. His report is dangerously flawed, but his desire to see baseball recover from its steroids era is sincere and pure.

Now it's up to Selig to put down the rocket launcher and for Fehr and his constituency to find a common ground with the owners. Otherwise, it will be a long, cold winter.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. He co-authored Jerome Bettis' autobiography, "The Bus: My Life In and Out of a Helmet," which is available now.