Why should this report be considered credible, or fair, or instructive, or educational, or even especially helpful? There are four reasons that leap immediately to mind.
1. There were no sacred cows. As soon as you saw, for instance, the name of Roger Clemens in the report, you knew that gloves were off. It is one thing to assemble the names of a variety of utility infielders and middle relievers, and bemoan their use of steroids. It is another to place in the same category one of the greatest pitchers of this generation or any other.
Clemens' representatives immediately and vehemently denied the allegations, and you would expect no less. The point is, this was not a report that rounded up the usual suspects, the usual, safe, convenient, and, for the public relations health of the game, harmless subjects.
2. The blame was spread around to all of the parties involved. Baseball management would not be completely happy with these conclusions. Baseball labor would not be happy with these conclusions. You know what? Good. Everybody had an oar in this water. At the end of the day, the individual players made decisions to cheat by using illicit substances, but it wasn't as though the entire baseball world rushed in at the first possible moment to make them stop.
"The use of steroids in Major League Baseball was widespread," Mitchell wrote. "The response by baseball was slow to develop and was initially ineffective."
No serious person could argue with that conclusion, although some people who are pretending to be serious probably will.
3. Mitchell knew what he knew, but he also knew what he didn't know. He was astute enough to point this out in his news conference on Thursday, saying that he understood that he had not uncovered the full range of steroid abuse in baseball.
This was not surprising, particularly given the lack of cooperation offered to the investigation by the players union. Mitchell was tolerant enough to say that this lack of cooperation was "understandable." The point is, this was a report that could not pretend to know everything. And its author did not pretend to know everything.
4. This reason is last, but it is the opposite of least. Mitchell used the occasion of this report, not as simple rehashing of past sins and shortcomings, but as a vehicle for eliminating the problem in the future.
Much of the media attention on this report will focus on the "names," the names that were made public. But the core of this report may very well be its 20 recommendations for the future.
"While the interest in names is understandable," Mitchell wrote, "I hope the media and the public will keep that part of the report in context and will look beyond the individuals to the central conclusions and the recommendations of this report."
That's the way the Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig saw it. "His report is a call to action," Selig said. "And I will act."
Reasonable people can reasonably conclude that there were more steroid-using players than the ones named in the report. What Mitchell essentially said was that, having demonstrated at least a portion of the past problem, the real issue now was turning the page and figuring out what to do to eliminate this problem for the future.
There had been concerns in some quarters that Mitchell, a director of the Boston Red Sox, would turn out a rather bland, conventional, business-as-usual report. That clearly didn't happen.
This is, after all, the man who was a leading figure in brokering peace in Northern Ireland. In the broad scope of human activities, that might have been just a little tougher than figuring out which baseball players were juicing.
In his own press conference, the Commissioner was asked about the cost of the Mitchell investigation. Rumors have been rampant on this subject, and again, that may be understandable. The Commissioner, while deflecting the question, put the proper perspective around it.
"The only thing I'm going to tell you about the cost is that there was a higher cost in not doing it," Selig said.
With the public release of the Mitchell Report, baseball has confronted a significant portion of its steroid past. And within the Mitchell Report, there are directions that point the way toward a future free of performance-enhancing substances.
The people who support baseball deserve a game in which all the players are playing by the same rules. The Mitchell Report states clearly that this wasn't always the case. That's painful for baseball to hear. But the fact that an honest look at steroid use in baseball has been taken, along with recommendations for avoiding this mess in the future, that's progress.