Baseball's steroid prober promises to deliver fair, comprehensive report
Despite the lure of the Maine coast, George Mitchell works on the investigation each day. (Globe Staff Photo / Stan Grossfeld)
CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine -- The steroid investigation isn't just a steroid investigation, says former Senate majority leader George Mitchell, the chief investigator into the use of performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball. And don't think his long-awaited report will be just a review of past abuses.
"It will not just look backward to see what has happened -- I hope to assist everyone in baseball to look forward in a constructive way," Mitchell says. "To learn from the past and improve the situation and make less likely the use of these substances in the future."
Cheaters, he contends, are getting better at cheating.
"Yes, of course, that's part of the difficulty of the entire performance-enhancing substance situation," Mitchell says in a rare interview. "For example, it's commonly called a steroids investigation and when this problem first developed, steroids were used, but at least some of them remain in the body for some time and they are difficult to mask."
Mitchell says drug manufacturers "began to develop other substances that aren't detectable by other current testing methods. The most common one is the human growth hormone. So, of course, you've seen a shift to human growth hormone because it is not detectable by a urine test.
"MLB right now and others have devoted substantial funds to accelerate research to develop a test for detecting human growth hormones through a urine test that's now in the process of research, and you can be certain that when that is developed, some new substance or combination of substances will appear that will not be detectable by urine testing. It's managing an ongoing problem."
Mitchell says there always will be cheaters in baseball. "The notion that if you have one form of cheating, that all forms of cheating are the same, would be like saying stealing a loaf of bread is the same as killing six people," he says. "We all know of course that it isn't."
So nobody is going to jail for using performance-enhancing substances as a result of his investigation?
"Any players? Oh, no," Mitchell says. "The practices of the prosecuting authorities, including the US attorneys for Northern California, which has been the center of this [BALCO investigation], has been to pursue the manufacturers and distributors of such substances, not the athletes. There have been many, many cases of athletes being identified publicly as testing positive. No professional baseball player has been criminally prosecuted and convicted for these performance-enhancing substances."
Mitchell adds that federal authorities "tend to go after the manufacturers and distributors and not the individual athletes."
Should a player go to jail?
"That's not for me to decide."
He's up at 6 each day and works at least a half day every day on the investigation, despite being the chairman of a law firm that has 70 offices worldwide. Mitchell's credentials are impressive. He brokered the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland despite incredible odds, and he told a pious Oliver North that "God doesn't take sides in American politics" during the Iran-Contra hearings.
But since being appointed by commissioner Bud Selig in March 2006 to run the investigation, he's taken more heat than Jason Varitek catching Jonathan Papelbon.
He has no subpoena power, and baseball's unions have advised players they don't have to talk to him.
On a nationally televised Fox baseball game, his investigation was called a public-relations ploy. It's been written that he has less power than a parking lot attendant, and he's been attacked as being biased because he is a director of the Red Sox. Even John Dowd, who conducted the gambling investigation into Pete Rose, says Mitchell's investigation has "no teeth." Now he's even being called a "human piñata."
Mitchell just laughs.
"Yeah, sure, you get a lot of flak," he acknowledges. "If you do anything meaningful, it's likely to be difficult and it's likely to attract criticism. That's just the reality. I served for six years as the majority leader of the US Senate. I know of no other position that can be as frustrating as that."
In the midst of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, Mitchell says he was asked every day when he was going to resign.
"It was the same type of criticism in anticipation," he remembers. "We had 699 days of failure and one day of success, and it taught me a lesson. Don't be deterred by criticism while you are engaged in a task. Concentrate on the task. Concentrate on doing the best you can using all the energy and effort to do the job right."
Mitchell sips some tea with milk and looks at the horizon of the sparkling Casco Bay from his longtime friend and associate Harold Pachios's oceanfront estate.
Pachios says Mitchell is unflappable: "If you'd done all the things he's done in his lifetime, [the investigation] would not have taken a toll on you, either."
Mitchell insists he is not frustrated, and that the Red Sox will not get special treatment. "Yeah, I understand the basis of their concern, but I'm not affected in any way," he insists. "I don't see the need to defend myself; people are entitled to their view. And my response is I'm fully capable of acting with independence on matters before me. I think I've demonstrated that as a federal judge, as Senate majority leader, in negotiations in Northern Ireland and the Middle East."
He prides himself on impartiality. He's a man of humble roots: His mother could neither read nor write and his father, a janitor, was adopted out of a Boston orphanage that used to be on the corner of Massachusetts and Huntington avenues, near Symphony Hall.
Mitchell's three brothers were all-star athletes. "I was a hell of a second baseman," he says with a laugh. "Except for the fact that I couldn't hit, couldn't field, couldn't throw, and couldn't run."
"When I went to Northern Ireland, many opposed me because I'm Catholic," says Mitchell. "They said I couldn't possibly render a fair judgment. But you go back at the end of the process and you find that nobody said that anymore. When I went to the Middle East, many said I couldn't do it fairly because my mother had been born in Lebanon. At the end of the process, nobody said that anymore."
Mitchell says it doesn't bother him that people take home run swings at him.
"In Northern Ireland, I went to a lot of funerals," he says, staring out at the ocean, his smile fading. "As people died, that bothered me."
Mitchell says the investigation is in "its final stages" and will be released in the "coming months."
Of media reports about the investigation, he says, "Some of it is accurate, some of it is not accurate." He did not want to clear up the inaccuracies.
He acknowledges not having subpoena powers has made his job more tedious.
"It makes it more difficult, obviously, to get information and it means that the investigation will take a lot longer," he says. "We've interviewed hundreds of witnesses. We've examined thousands of documents, we have received a great deal of information and are in the process of gathering a lot more. So I think we will be able to produce a good report that is thorough, that is fair, that is independent, and objective."
Mitchell challenges a reporter to wait two weeks after the report is released and then interview all the naysayers. "That's a good story," he says.
How does a parent respond to a 9-year-old who asks why Barry Bonds is allowed to play when he apparently cheated?
"I'm not going to swing at that pitch," Mitchell says.
What three questions would he ask Bonds?
"If I answer that question, the interview, if it occurs, would be irrelevant, so I'll wait," he says. "I don't believe in conducting investigations or negotiations through the newspapers."
"I don't have to comment on that, but if it was true, I mean, what does that prove? It proves that the players won't cooperate. The criticisms -- and I absolutely defend people's rights to say whatever they want -- are basically anticipatory in nature. They are assuming what will or won't be in the report and judging it. I can tell you the report is not complete and so it's impossible for anyone to judge it at this point."
Giambi won't be tape-recorded, Mitchell says.
"No, he's been before a grand jury. Why does the government need me? The US attorney's office has subpoena power, they have grand juries, they have documents and testimony. The notion they need me is obviously unfounded."
As for the report, "I haven't written it yet," he says. "I will write a lot of it myself, but I'm not going to write all of it myself. I've got very capable people helping me, particularly people expert in this particular field -- physicians, medical experts, sports medicine experts, all of whom are providing advice and counsel."
Mitchell feels bad for the ballplayers who got to the big leagues through hard work and talent without resorting to cheating.
"The principal victims . . . are the players who don't use those substances," Mitchell laments. "Their careers and livelihood are put at risk.
"There's a lot of discussion in the media of the integrity of the game, the effect on the fans and sports generally. All of which are important. But to me, the real issue is the effect on the competitors and the competition, and those who play by the rules and don't use these substances.
"They are the real victims."