Curve balls for Mitchell

Mouse man on hot seat

NEW YORK — A week after Major League Baseball chose Disney chairman George Mitchell to lead its steroids investigation, pundits and insiders continue to hammer the former senator over issues of experience as well as an apparent conflict of interest.

Major League Baseball had expected to earn wild praise for its choice of Mitchell.

Criticism has centered on Mitchell’s involvement as a director of the Boston Red Sox and his chairmanship at Disney. The Mouse House owns 80% and controls all of ESPN– and the sports cabler has huge financial stakes in baseball and baseball ratings. ESPN nets broadcast numerous games and news programs on the sport as well as the new skein “Bonds on Bonds.”

How, many wonder, can Mitchell report objectively on baseball while he still has such a prominent role governing ESPN?

“There are so many levels of concern on this issue,” said Seton Hall U. professor and former CBS Sports exec Rick Gentile. “The conflict of Mitchell, and the whole commission, is a big one.”

Disney has maintained that Mitchell, a former senator from Maine, will remain on as chairman. Objections, however, have led to calls for Mitchell to step down from the Mouse House board.

Gregory Taxin, an exec at proxy advisory firm Glass Lewis, calls Mitchell’s role “an open wound” and says the baseball developments are proof that he should step down.

“It’s just time for him to go,” Taxin said. “He’s a lame duck at Disney, and he seems to be entangled in more than a few things which conflict with the interest of Disney shareholders.”

Mitchell was fiercely loyal to former Disney topper Michael Eisner, and in January, several proxy firms called for the chairman to resign after he withheld from the board a report critical of Bob Iger.

Taxin added, “The board ought to have enough sense that Mitchell is hurting the company.”

Making matters worse is the fact that Mitchell did not retire last year at the mandatory age of 72. He has said he will retire by the end of this year, but some, like Taxin, are skeptical.

The board could use the baseball position as an opportunity to remove Mitchell now. But an absentee chairman could actually work in the board’s favor since it would delay a battle over the chairmanship and its inevitable kicking up of pro- and anti-Eisner sentiments — until the end of the year anyway.

A Disney spokesperson did not return a call seeking comment.

The talkshow world also has been abuzz that Mitchell’s appointment will have no legal teeth. And pundits have decried the choice of Mitchell as a political fig leaf — especially since Mitchell is known as a mediator, not an investigator, which this situation would seem to call for.

In a scathing interview last week, John Dowd, the Washington lawyer who investigated the Pete Rose gambling case, told ESPN2’s Stephen A. Smith that he thought baseball had greatly erred in choosing a politico like Mitchell. Many have suggested that Mitchell was chosen simply for his clout on Capitol Hill — and his ability to head off another congressional investigation into steroids, which Major League Baseball fears.

Mitchell has received poor marks as a Disney chair, making few strategic decisions that experts consider bold or important.