I can think of only one sense in which George Mitchell's report on steroids in baseball has any use.

Not as a legal or disciplinary document, goodness knows. No one is going to be punished or sent to jail because of it. No one's even talking about that.

Not as a blockbuster. It says little that was unknown before and holds few surprises even for those only distantly acquainted with the scandal. It's not going to change the face of the world.

It fails even as a call to arms. Is

anyone

inspired? Who's calling for heads to roll on all sides, whipped to moralistic fervor by this clarion call? It's just not happening.

Before I say what we

can

use it for, it's important to review all the problems that make the report pretty close to useless.

Complaints about the Mitchell report fall mostly into six camps:

1.

It's all rumor and innuendo; nothing in the report would hold up in court.

2.

In any case, the rumor and innuendo are old news - we know lots of players used steroids in the recent past.

3.

The report is a failure because it doesn't name

enough

steroid users, particularly from the ranks of star players.

4.

The report is unfair because it shouldn't have named

any

names.

5.

The owners - particularly Commissioner Bud Selig - are just as guilty as the players.

6.

With a price tag in the tens of millions of dollars, the report was a waste of money.

Each of these criticisms is valid. The most serious is the first: that it fails as a legal indictment. Absolutely true. The Mitchell report would hardly be determinative in a court of law. It rests largely on the testimony of a single source, Kirk Radomski, a convicted felon facing jail time. He names 53 players but says he himself managed never to witness a single one of them using steroids.

But legal standards are not social or historical standards. Mitchell tried his best to understand the story, and when sources such as Radomski gave testimony, Mitchell weighed it and then sought out the players for their side of the story. As Mitchell notes, "almost without exception" these players refused to talk with him. That's their right, of course. But having refused this chance to give their side, they have little grounds to complain later that the resulting narrative is unfair.

What about the names, then? Only 86 of the 5,148 players who have made it into a box score since 1985 are mentioned in the report. Mitchell says his list represents only a sample of what was going on. But now the report is getting smacked on two sides, one for failing to give more names, and the other for appearing capriciously selective, like pulling over one car from a pack of 20 speeding vehicles.

The point of the list was to give us a sense of the magnitude of steroid use in recent years. That it does. But it also reminds us that there is next to nothing - aside from indictments for perjury before grand juries - that can be done. As a legal matter, who did what when is ultimately unknowable beyond a reasonable doubt.

But a Fenway Park doesn't have to fall on you: Steroid use changed the game in ways that strike many as unfair and morally corrupt. If an outfielder averaged 15.5 home runs for four seasons, then showed up at training camp in the mid-1990s looking like Hercules, and then belted 50 home runs the next season, well, we can't send him to

jail

. But we're not wrong to draw conclusions about his transformation. You are innocent until proved guilty

only

in a court of law.

Few surprises here. A lot of players were on the juice; we will probably never know exactly who or how many. As long as the turnstiles kept whirring, the owners - and Commissioner Selig - were happy to turn a blind eye to steroids. The Players Association made it hard to create a drug-testing policy, negotiating the matter to death. And steroids weren't hurting any owners in the pocketbook. Yes, the Mitchell investigation did not give enough bang for the buck. But are we really weeping for the poor, poor owners of Major League Baseball?

Despite all these weaknesses, the report does have one important function.

All it really succeeds in being is a snapshot of this moment in baseball history. For those with affection for baseball (I am one), it's worth a read. It's a narrative of what may ever be known as the Era of Steroids. The Mitchell Report, if nothing else - and it is little else - is an historical document. And we should appreciate it as such.

One Last Thing |

To read the complete Mitchell Report on Steroid Use in Baseball:

Contact Jonathan V. Last at jlast@phillynews.com.