BASEBALL Commissioner Bud Selig will have to excuse me for holding my nose.
But that's what I had to do when I heard him say that George Mitchell's report on the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs in baseball is a "call to action" and that he will "discipline" the accused players on a "case-by-case" basis.
Selig emerges as the biggest hypocrite in this most recent chapter of "Steroidgate," especially when he talks about his responsibility to "preserve the integrity of the game."
But if the offending stars are actually to be made accountable, the baseball writers who vote on their immortality will be the ones to do it. They will have to set the standard for future players, not Selig or the Players' Association or Mitchell.
Selig is deluding himself if he believes the report will erase years of inaction under his watch. Baseball has known about the abuse of anabolic steroids since 1991, when then-Commissioner Fay Vincent issued a memo banning "all illegal drugs and controlled substances, including steroids." That was the same year the federal government declared steroids illegal and some club officials estimated that 10 to 20 percent of major league players were juicing.
But Selig insists he wasn't aware of the problem until 1998, after Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa revitalized the game with their quest to break the single-season home-run mark.
I guess I'd play ostrich, too, if I were overseeing a $6.5 billion industry with record attendance and huge profits. Still, baseball didn't have an agreement to ban steroids until 2002, or testing with penalties until 2004.
The only reason Selig and the Players' Association reached those agreements is because federal agents had raided the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO), which had Giants slugger Barry Bonds among its clients. Now the feds were involved. (Gee, I wonder if Selig and union director Don Fehr were concerned about the game losing its anti-trust exemption?)
Despite mounting evidence against Bonds, most notably Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams' book "Game of Shadows," Selig looked the other way during Bonds' pursuit of the home-run mark. He even attended the record-breaking contest.
I guess tainted records don't have anything to do with preserving the integrity of the game?
Now we have the Mitchell report, which not only fingers Bonds, but some other heavy hitters (Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro, Mo Vaughn, Jason Giambi) and some top pitchers, most notably Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte.
Selig has promised to investigate each case to determine any disciplinary action. That is, if he ever gets around to reading all 409 pages of the report.
BUT THE report has a shaky foundation. Its identification of 76 players, active and retired, is based on a lot of hearsay and innuendo that wouldn't stand up in a court of law.
Even if Selig went ahead and disciplined the most supportable cases, the players' union will be quick to challenge him on the basis of his acting on circumstantial evidence and violating the collective-bargaining agreement.
So, who exactly is responsible for preserving the "integrity of the game"?
The only party that comes to mind is the baseball writers. Ultimately, they are the ones who exposed this scandal and the ones who wield the most influence in determining those players fit for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.
Few, if any of the writers have any brief for the cheaters. That's been made clear in their collective rejection of McGwire's candidacy for baseball immortality. Hopefully, the same judgment will figure into their assessment of Bonds, Clemens and other star juicers when their candidacies arise.
In the process, the writers can set a standard for future stars and deliver the message that the game is bigger than any one player or any one record, especially if it's achieved by abusing performance-enhancing drugs.
Their immorta;ity in baseball terms will be nothing less than a matter of integrity - something Selig, Fehr and the juicers know very little about. *