Baseball’s dirty big secret is now out there, exposed through the 409 pages of the Mitchell Report, which spells out in exacting detail the significant impact performance enhancing drugs have had on the game.
But aside from the 88 names of current or former players in the report, the ones that will generate all of the headlines, the hope is that the report will change the culture of the game.
“That’s the best thing about the Mitchell Report—naming names is just one thing, but raising awareness, especially to the next generation of players about how bad taking these things can be for you—regardless of your results—it’s huge for the game,” a National League scout said. “It’s changing the culture that’s been out there for a long time.”
The Mitchell Report spells out how pervasive that culture has been, and it goes beyond just the big leagues. As the report explains, the problem extends well into the minor leagues and amateur baseball.
The report included information that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, members of the Double-A El Paso team regularly would drive across the border into Mexico to purchase steroids. Many of the 88 players cited in the report are minor league veterans who spent much of their careers in Triple-A. And at least one unnamed minor league player was sent home after a trainer found a package that contained a steroid had been mailed to him.
While it appears MLB wants to move forward with tougher tests and with little punitive measures for those players who abused performing-enhancing drugs in the steroid era, clubs face a whole new set of challenges as a result of the report. For example, what do clubs do about former players named in the report who are now coaches in the minor leagues? Tim Laker, now the Indians’ roving catching coordinator, and Ricky Bones, who was the pitching coach for the Mets’ Double-A Binghamton affiliate in 2007, both were named.
It’s especially difficult to gauge the report’s effect in scouting and player development, where the continued stain of performance enhancers would most likely rear its ugly head under more thorough, aggressive testing measures.
Before the arrival of new testing rules, scouts and player-development officials across the game have managed through the steroid era, trying to guess which players were using and having to evaluate players whose performances changed from year to year.
“If a player showed big tools or a power arm as an amateur, sure, you had questions (about possible drug use),” said one scouting director from an American League club. “But if he came up clean on tests, there was no real reason to doubt it. You’d hear things in the background that maybe gave you some pause to go after and sign a player, but the bottom line was always the tools and projection—this player could help your club.”
And there were always players who drew suspicion, but without testing, it was always a case of speculation. One area scout mentioned the name of a player who was in the Mitchell Report whom he’d suspected as a steroids user since he was drafted in the first round.
“There are guys you suspected that you tried to stay away from,” the scout said. “When you see a player make a jump in performance these days, the first thing I think is, ‘He must be using.’ “
It’s not that such little attention was paid to a player’s makeup, but rumors and innuendo about a player possibly using steroids or human growth hormone were often tossed aside because of the potential of his performance.
But once mandatory testing for major league players was included in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2002, scouts became more skeptical, following up those rumors that before they’d have checked at the door.
“You had to get deeper into that if you heard it,” a National League scout said. “That came down directly from our GM. You’d hear about some guys who took some kind of performance-enhancers as amateurs to get that bonus check, but if we had one of those players, it became a question of, how do we manage this? It was extremely delicate. Even then, there was little emphasis on the health of the player and how it would affect his body.”
The problem still hasn’t gone away. As recently as 2005 and through this year at the Arizona Fall League, several scouts expressed concern about seeing players change either in body type or performance, driving all kinds of suspicion.
Before the 2004 draft, one scout was looking at two righthanders, trying to determine which had the higher ceiling. His club wound up not taking either one, but scouting both pitchers served as an ominous sign of things to come.
“I remember seeing those two guys in college and then saw them the next year; each lost 3 to 5 miles an hour in one year,” the scout said. “It was a real eye-opener. MLB really needs to put something into their overall testing policy where guys can be tested before they’re drafted.”
The suspicion of performance-enhancing drugs is likely to continue to cloud the scouting world, particularly when signing current free agents or players from Latin America or elsewhere internationally. Those free-agent decisions became tougher than ever at the annual GM meetings this year in Orlando, where there was little movement in advance of the Mitchell Report. And if the report changes anything right now, it’s how it affects decision-making among clubs at the highest level.
“It’s definitely is a factor that is being considered by both ownership and management,” said another AL scouting director. “Some it will affect their decisions on player acquisition. Some may look at it like the Royals have with (outfielder Jose) Guillen—accept the punishment and move on. You’ve made a mistake; you’ve admitted it, and you won’t use the body enhancer again. Other players may never be forgiven, especially if they broke some major league records. Guys that are on the public record as lying will be looked at as what they are—liars.
“I’m sure if a team is going to sign a player that isn’t charged or one that is—the club will now choose the player that has been clean. Also, some players who are guilty may have to deal with pre-juice numbers—especially if the improvement was drastic in numbers—since players are being paid for their overall numbers.”
But the Mitchell Report could end up having a larger impact on the game. If new, more effective testing comes in the aftermath of the report, it could end up changing the game in terms of style as well as substance.
“I definitely think there will be more of an emphasis on speed and range and defense versus the gorilla ball that we’ve had the last few years,” another American League scouting director said. “There could be a shift in the profile, more emphasis on well-rounded players. But you’re still going to have to hit.”