Mitchell steroids report stirs swift response

President Bush says owners and players must take drug issue seriously.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

From the men in the dugout to the man in the Oval Office, reaction to former Sen. George Mitchell's report on performance-enhancing substances in baseball has been both swift and intense.

The report – which documented widespread use of steroids and others drugs – may or may not force widespread changes in drug testing and other aspects of the game. But at the least, it now serves as the semi-official history of a shadowy side of America's pastime.

"The players and the owners must take the Mitchell report seriously," said President Bush at an appearance Friday in the Rose Garden. "I'm confident they will."

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For his part, baseball commissioner Bud Selig vowed to take action. Any recommendation within his power to unilaterally implement would be embraced, he said.

For instance, Major League Baseball has already ended the practice of giving teams 24-hour notice of surprise tests. Mr. Mitchell's report suggested it was possible that even this short notice could serve as a tip-off to doping athletes.

Mr. Selig also said that, on a case-by-case basis, he would consider punishments for active-duty players named in Mitchell's report. He acknowledged that Mitchell himself had made a plea to refrain from such action, except in egregious cases.

"Senator Mitchell acknowledges in his report that the ultimate decisions on discipline rest with the commissioner, and he is correct," said Selig.

The baseball commissioner added that he would continue to search for new ways to detect use and rid the sport of banned substances. Many drug cheats have moved away from steroids to human growth hormone (HGH), which is much more difficult to detect. In conjunction with the National Football League, baseball is funding research into more reliable tests for HGH, said Selig.

"We will announce shortly an HGH summit to bring together the best minds in sports and science whose mission will be to fight and detect this undetectable substance," said Selig.

Summits are all well and good, but the commissioner surely knows he cannot institute any new testing regimen without the consent of the powerful players' union. That is not out of the question – twice in the recent past, the union has agreed to open its collective bargaining agreement for the purpose of tighter tests.

But so far, the response of Donald Fehr, executive director of the players' union, has been more subdued than that of Selig.

In the aftermath of the report's release, Mr. Fehr complained that he had not been given an advance copy of Mitchell's work, as had the commissioner's office. He defended the current testing system as effective.

"The report does not suggest that the program is failing to pick up steroid use, which it is possible to detect," said Fehr.

Using a measured tone, Fehr also said that his office would continue to defend players against anything it judges to be an infringement on their rights. "Many players are named. Their reputations have been adversely affected, probably forever – even if it turns out down the road that they should not have been."

Indeed, in the wake of the Mitchell report release many commentators noted that its evidence against specific players was largely circumstantial.

Orioles infielder Brian Roberts drew a mention, for instance, because a former teammate, Larry Bigbie, said that Mr. Roberts had once admitted to him that he had tried steroids. Yet Mr. Bigbie said that he had never seen Roberts use performance enhancers, though they shared a house in 2001, their rookie year on team. When Bigbie used steroids himself, Roberts did not participate.

Through his lawyer, Rusty Hardin, star pitcher Roger Clements vehemently denied the steroid charges against him in the Mitchell report. The report contains testimony from Mr. Clemens's personal trainer that he administered steroid shots to the pitcher at least 16 times. But Mr. Hardin claimed that the trainer had been told by federal authorities that he had to produce names, or face prosecution himself.

"He has thrown a skunk into that jury box, and we will never be able to remove that smell," Hardin said.

In Washington President Bush urged that no one jump to conclusions about individual players named in the Mitchell report. (Bush, a former managing partner of the Texas Rangers, remains an intense fan of the game, if not a prescient one – at one point last season he insisted that the Detroit Tigers would surely win the American League. They didn't.)

Two members of Congress who have been at the forefront of legislative interest in the issue have already scheduled a hearing on the Mitchell report. Reps. Henry Waxman (D) of California and Tom Davis (R) of Virginia asked Mitchell, Selig, and Fehr to appear before their House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

A second Congressional panel has also set a Jan. 23 hearing on steroid use in professional sports.

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