A true fan of the game
On the morning of April 11, 1998, I walked into the sleepy lobby of the Stormont Hotel in Belfast to meet George Mitchell for a cup of tea.
The previous day, Mitchell had presided over the official end of the longest, most stubborn war in European history, the one between the Irish and the British. If Mitchell was aware that he had just completed a Herculean diplomatic task that would guarantee people will speak his name centuries from now, he didn't show it.
Instead, he greeted me as any New Englander would another.
"Hey," he said. "How'd the Sox make out yesterday?"
The day before, on Good Friday, on the day the British and Irish agreed to bury the hatchet some place other than in each other, the Red Sox played the Seattle Mariners on Opening Day at Fenway Park. Randy Johnson baffled the Sox for eight innings, and by the time Johnson headed for the showers the Sox were down 7 to 2 in the bottom of the ninth.
But in one of the greatest comebacks in the team's long, convoluted history, the Red Sox pounded a bevy of hapless relief pitchers. The Mariner bullpen failed to record a single out, and the Sox scored seven runs, the final blow coming on a walk-off grand slam by Mo Vaughn.
Peace in Ireland, and an improbable victory on Opening Day. Mitchell and I sat there on a couch, savoring the moment, remarking on the importance of believing that anything is possible, in politics, in baseball, in life.
I remembered that heady moment this weekend, having digested a lot of the commentary that has followed the release of Mitchell's report on the use of performance enhancing substances in Major League Baseball. Mitchell has been criticized for having conflicts of interests, investigating all teams while having sat on the Red Sox board, while he has business ties to the all-sports network ESPN. He's been criticized for his methodology, releasing the names of players implicated in taking steroids or human growth hormone, without regard to due process.
Mitchell has been described as a former prosecutor, a former judge, the former Senate majority leader, a stellar diplomat. But nowhere has he been described as what made him especially qualified to weigh in on a scandal that threatens the credibility of baseball: a fan. He loves the game, and he holds it above any individual, any special interest. In doing so, he is, in effect, us.
Suggesting he couldn't investigate baseball because he has financial interests in the game is as specious as claiming Globe sportswriters cannot report honestly on the scandal because this newspaper's parent company owns 17 percent of the Red Sox.
Mitchell's legacy was firmly established long before he took on what at this point looks like the thankless task of saving professional baseball from itself. He held up a mirror to the national pastime and what was reflected back was an indictment of our culture as much as the players who were juicing and the executives who looked the other way. What turned up in the mirror was a vast, widespread conspiracy to win, to excel, at all costs.
Mitchell did what the ordinary fan knew in their hearts was necessary. He exposed cheating. People who make millions for playing a game were doing whatever they could to gain an advantage. Not surprising, but not tolerable, either.
If Mitchell's position on the Red Sox board was somehow supposed to protect the team from scrutiny, that would come as a surprise to general manager Theo Epstein. Included in Mitchell's report are e-mails showing that Epstein knew reliever Eric Gagne was a suspected steroid user but that the Red Sox acquired him anyway. We all know how well that worked out.
We owe George Mitchell thanks, not a series of questions about his integrity. The man who put a line under the steroid era is many things.
But most important, he is, like many of us, a fan.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.