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Performance Anxiety 

Maybe now baseball will do something about drugs

A few years ago, I was in the company of a handful of Yankees fans when the subject of steroids in baseball came up. The topic was dismissed by the Yanks fans with a shrug: They were all juicing, obviously.

Not so fast, my cosmopolitan friends.

Even before George Mitchell held his press conference to unveil his report on performance-enhancing drug use in Major League Baseball, I was confident in naming one clean club — your very own Pittsburgh Pirates. Sure enough, there are no current Pirates players named in the Mitchell report. They just weren’t good enough to have any chemically enhanced players. They don’t do anything like the marquee clubs do, not even cheat.

Somewhere, deep inside PNC Park, maybe a member of the Pirates’ front office smirked while downloading Mitchell’s Dec. 13 report. “The team is bad, largely irrelevant, and lacks proper star power,” he might have thought, “but at least no one can say we’re cheaters.”

Maybe that’s why the Mitchell report made a bigger splash in places like New York and Baltimore, while here it was treated more like a sideshow, more akin to the latest chapter of Lindsay Lohan’s antics.

Roger Clemens used steroids? But he’s such a stand-up guy! I never saw that coming.

In blogs and on television, the debate rages as to whether the fans care. It’s hard to tell if they do, or if they should. The more important question is: What does Mitchell’s lengthy investigative tome portend for the future?

After all, the report did little more than confirm what most of us already took for granted. Was anybody surprised to see names like Gary Sheffield, Miguel Tejada or Jason Giambi? We’ve been following the Barry Bonds saga for a long time, and most savvy fans have raised an eyebrow at Roger Clemens’ performance for the past few years. Mitchell’s findings merely put the official stamp of taint on the two best players of this, the steroids generation.

But some of the players have surprised me, a little. Some of those named in the report are fretting about their reputations and crying foul over being tried in the court of public opinion, a court with no jury charges or rules of evidence. But Yankees’ pitcher Andy Pettitte, for one, admitted to drug use once the report became public. At least he had the sense to not stonewall any longer. Still, he and the others had 20 months to speak to Mitchell about performance-enhancing drugs. It’s a bit late to go public: Doing so now may just be damage control.

The most interesting thing we’ve learned is what we’ve learned about Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. I’ve been critical of Selig, but he didn’t have to open this can of worms. He had to have known he was prying open a Pandora’s box when he retained George Mitchell to investigate drug use. He did it anyway. That took some stones.

I didn’t realize it when the investigation started 20 months ago, but retaining Mitchell could be the opening shot in what might become very public warfare with the players union. Neither side likes or trusts the other. And it’s clear that Selig is ready to fight less politely than before: ESPN reported that Donald Fehr, the head of the players union, was not given an advance copy of Mitchell’s report. That sends a bit of a message, although Selig shouldn’t expect the union to be intimidated.

Where does baseball go from here? We can expect some melodramatic posturing from both sides. But I’d be surprised if Selig doesn’t take a hard line, and do it right now, while the issue — or at least the latest report on it — is fresh. He says he’s got a plan for cleaning up drug use. If the players balk at a substantive, preemptive drug-testing policy, Selig can point directly at the union. For the first time in a long time, he’s holding all the cards.

The Mitchell report could be Selig’s first salvo in a battle to define his legacy. He can be remembered as the commissioner who oversaw a strike. Or, he can be remembered as the one who saved baseball from drug cheats.

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