Baseball can step up to the plate
The Mitchell probe should have asked players who don't cheat to reveal their reasoning.
Last June, after hitting his 500th home run, White Sox slugger Frank Thomas said this "means a lot to me because I did it the right way" – without drugs. Long a critic of sports drugs, Mr. Thomas is one of a few players who speaks out. He shouldn't be. Baseball needs beacons of integrity.Skip to next paragraph
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Last week's Mitchell Report revealed a culture of drug cheats in Major League Baseball. Thomas stood out because he was the only player who volunteered to talk to investigators about performance-enhancing drugs in MLB. "His comments were informative and helpful," the report stated.
The report fingered 86 players and made 20 recommendations that may well push the league and its players union into better drug-testing and stiffer penalties. Congress will be on their back if they don't. The national pastime, after all, can't be a national disgrace.
But stronger enforcement will not be the complete answer after such an ethical collapse in baseball, especially when new designs of drugs can easily go undetected in the best of labs.
No, with a culture of deceitful athletic prowess, the league needs to reach the hearts of players, not their fears and wallets. And there the Mitchell Report is lacking. It focused mainly on the minority who cheat while largely ignoring the majority who don't. It chased the dark more than the light.
Investigators should have insisted on talking to clean players and then asked these questions:
By what moral reasoning did you decide not to artificially alter your body?
Why did you decide not to violate league rules and federal law?
What lesson did you learn that could help other players play cleanly?
The league needs to collect and share these tales of hard-fought lessons. Clean players must speak up in pre-game pep talks, in dugouts, and outside the clubhouse. Their reasoning must be on the backs of baseball cards and put in lights alongside stadium scoreboards. Sharing these narratives of personal triumph would do more to influence wayward players (and fans) than all the rules and testing in the world.
Drug users don't exist in a vacuum. Why, over the past 15 years of rampant steroid use in baseball, didn't many players, coaches, and managers stand up and say with outrage, "This isn't right"?
The league's culture of silence has contributed to these crimes. The quiet condoning of drug use put clean players at a competitive disadvantage and hurt MLB, the players union, and the game itself.
If clean players can now regularly tell stories of how they resisted drugs, they will be models that teach by attraction. They must have the confidence of knowing that the intrinsic virtue of competing honestly can inspire better behavior in other players – and also inspire young athletes not to resort to using sports drugs.
Character can be taught, especially in small groups like baseball teams, when those of stature speak from the heart about their victories – even to grown men who desperately want to break records and earn millions in contracts.
Baseball must change the idea of what it means to be a hero. It needs players like Frank Thomas to step up to the plate.