Major League Baseball was going through an identity crisis in the late 1990s and early 2000s as Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds shattered home run records that had stood for decades.
Attendance at Major League parks was booming and a sport that had lost some some sizzle over a players' strike that interrupted the 1994-'95 seasons, was suddenly hot again.
But there were whispers about cheating, about how some of those home run records may have been fueled by performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Those whispers got louder in 2004 after Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, quoted leaked grand jury testimony linking Bonds to the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO) and PED use.
Then came former MLB star Jose Canseco's book, “Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big.” Canseco admitted to his own use of PEDs and named others who cheated.
A Congressional hearing was called, with some of baseball's biggest stars brought in to testify, including McGwire, Sosa and Canseco.
“Kids aren't just talking about their favorite teams' chances in the pennant race,” House Government Reform Committee chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) said. “They are talking about which pro players are on the juice.”
In the face of denials of PED use by several players, the House committee threatened to impose a federal drug testing program on professional baseball, something that had been part of the collecting bargaining agreement between the league and Major League Baseball Players Association.
MLB Commissioner Bud Selig knew the sport was facing a serious credibility crisis. The following year, he appointed George Mitchell, a former U.S. senator from Maine and chairman of the Walt Disney Company, to write an independent report chronicling the history of drug use in baseball, assess the effectiveness of the current drug-testing program and make recommendations for a path forward.
Mitchell wasn't entirely independent, having served on the board of the Boston Red Sox, which left him open to some criticism. But when he took the assignment, he pledged his report would be fair and unbiased.
When the Mitchell Report was released in December 2007, the most salacious content was the list of players who allegedly had used PEDs, based on evidence and information acquired from the many interviews that were conducted. But the most important aspect was a list of recommendations to strengthen drug testing on a collaborative basis between MLB and the players. Mitchell also recommended there be no punishments for past use of PEDs.
Ten years after its publication, Mitchell was asked by ESPN senior writer Jerry Crasnick about the Mitchell Report's legacy and whether it had a desired effect on the game.
“When we did our investigation,” Mitchell said, “the players' association was adamantly opposed and actively discouraged players from cooperating, and most of them didn't cooperate. I made the argument to the players that there were a minority who were cheating, and the principal victims were the majority who did not cheat.
“Not too long after the report was issued and the issues were debated and discussed, the players began what has turned out to be a complete transformation on the subject, to their credit. I give the players and the players' association enormous credit. They have completely reversed their position on the subject, and now they are strong proponents of meaningful and effective testing and related procedures as they apply. I think they've come to understand that the argument I initially made to them, which they initially rejected, is a valid argument.”
Horse racing needs a Mitchell Report, an independent, unbiased examination of everything related to the Thoroughbred from the time it is conceived and born until after it leaves the racetrack. The sport is in crisis. The ethics of the game and many of its practices and participants are being questioned and scrutinized like never before. Society is changing its views on how animals are treated. It's no longer a matter of making racing popular again; it's whether or not the sport is acceptable and ethical in the eyes of the majority of the public.
Many who participate in racing feel it's perfectly acceptable to surgically straighten legs of young foals to make them more commercially appealing, to push 2-year-olds to run a fast furlong to please auction buyers. Most of us think it's heresy to not have a Triple Crown for 3-year-olds, but is there a remote possibility the game might be stronger if we waited a year?
Are synthetic tracks really safer, not just in terms of fatal injuries but the type that end a horse's racing career? And then there's the question of medication and whips and whether claiming races should go the way of the dodo bird.
I have opinions, but that's all they are, and I'm sure many readers of this commentary do, too. We are part of the industry and may not see things the way the rest of the world does.
I'm more interested in how an outsider might examine these issues, someone with real world experience in business or major league sports who is given enough latitude to tackle these questions by relying on knowledgeable people inside and outside of the industry. Someone who will look at the science that can help answer some of these questions, but also look at the ethics and how they mesh with the outside world.
That's my view from the eighth pole.
New to the Paulick Report? Click here to sign up for our daily email newsletter to keep up on this and other stories happening in the Thoroughbred industry.
Copyright © 2019 Paulick Report.