Major League Baseball owes it to the game and its fans to make its investigation into illicit use of steroids aggressive and thorough. For new violations, the league's rules already, if belatedly, have the teeth of 50-game suspensions; for earlier use, fans deserve clarity even if players elude punishment.
The penalties for player use of performance-enhancing drugs got tougher when threats of congressional action mobilized MLB leaders. Commissioner Bud Selig's announcement of a new investigation follows publication of a ring-of-truth book by two San Francisco reporters describing the alleged use of such drugs by homer-hitting superstar Barry Bonds beginning after the 1998 season.
The league started drug testing three years ago, after reaching an agreement with the players' union late in 2002. Penalties followed in 2004, and were toughened last year and again for this year. Those dates may set the parameters for penalties for any drug use uncovered by this new probe, which will be led by former Maine Sen. George Mitchell, who helped broker peace in Northern Ireland and will need all his diplomatic skills here.
Despite some potential conflicts -- he's a director of the Boston Red Sox -- Mitchell brings to that task solid credentials, but little real power. That was starkly evident in his declaration that he will "request cooperation" from people his investigators want to talk to and give them "an opportunity to be heard." For all Selig's promises that Mitchell can "follow the evidence wherever it may lead" and expand the investigation as he wishes, Mitchell needs more than the power to ask for voluntary compliance. Isn't that what too many players ignored in this realm in the first place?
There is more than individual reputation at stake, and the asterisk that may eventually follow some baseball records -- an asterisk that in this case should stand for sunshine -- isn't the biggest deal, either. What's at stake is the conduct of the game, and the integrity of a sport that combines team play with individual talents and capabilities that should not be artificially enhanced.
Baseball needs to level its playing field, so that more future players aren't pushed into using career-enhancing drugs that could devastate their future health, or unfairly forced to compete against those who do. But it also needs to save itself, even if the tough road toward doing so leads briefly through the Hall of Shame.