Steroid Users and The Hall of Fame

Posted by Kurt Smith on Sunday, January 13, 2013
I have been reading many posts from baseball bloggers and writers chastising the BBWAA for not voting anyone into the Hall of Fame this year, many of them making the argument that at the very least, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens deserve entry.

I respectfully disagree.

After reading Barry Larkin’s quote that steroid users do not belong in the Hall of Fame, I thought I would try to make the case why Larkin is right as effectively as I could.

I recently had a discussion with a co-worker about whether or not players like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, or Mark McGwire deserve to be honored with the all-time greats of baseball. He wasn’t disagreeing with me, but he played devil’s advocate plenty, saying that PEDs have been around for years, there’s no way of knowing who used them, and that there are other cheaters and every imaginable type of misfit in the Hall. So goes the argument of many a blogger.

The first name that pops up when people have this discussion, at least from people making the case that writers should consider letting users in the Hall, is Gaylord Perry. Perry, who won over 300 games and is enshrined in the Hall, was well known for doctoring baseballs…especially when his book “Me And The Spitter” appeared on bookshelves.

So, the person on the other side of my argument reasons, baseball has permitted cheaters like Perry to be in the Hall, so it doesn’t have a moral standing to deny someone like Bonds or McGwire, who in fact were using before baseball began to crack down on PEDs. What they did, in fact, was legal at the time.

Permit me to attempt to poke some holes in that argument.

First, here’s an interesting statistic about Gaylord Perry: he was caught greasing a ball with Vaseline and ejected from a game a grand total of one time in his 21-year career. Of course he threw more spitballs than that. But he was only caught once. It’s hard to imagine that he depended entirely on illegal pitches for his success. A player getting caught with a corked bat once in his career probably wouldn’t be denied entry into the Hall if he still hit 700 home runs. There might be a few dissenters, which is fine, but not a full-blown denial of entry based on one or even a few incidents.

And allowing cheaters in, to an extent, happens precisely because players throughout the history of the game have bent the rules looking for an edge, even a psychological one. Middle infielders often are a foot away from the bag avoiding being slid into on a double play and still get the benefit of the doubt. Groundskeepers adjust the field to thwart speedy teams or bunting teams. Derek Jeter once faked being hit with a baseball to get on base, in a well-publicized move that was supposed to shock people given his general reputation.

So the argument goes that if anyone with a propensity for cheating does not belong in the Hall, there are a lot of already enshrined players that need to be removed.

The difference is that with the combination of PEDs and weight training, suddenly long-standing records were being shattered, and formerly reliable statistical analyses of players has been blown out of the water. In the “steroid era”, good players became great players, mediocre players became good ones, and players at an age where they should be well past their prime, like Bonds and Clemens, were having some of the best years of their careers.

Another argument is: well, baseball ignored it for years, because they liked the increase in offense and the McGwire-Sosa home run race of 1998, so it is baseball’s fault, not the players who were within the rules at the time.

It’s possible that baseball did ignore the explosion of PED use. I don’t know for sure. But here is what I remember about 1998.

Thanks largely to Cal Ripken Jr. being one of a handful of millionaire athletes who didn’t consider himself above signing autographs for free, baseball had somewhat recovered from the anger and loss of attendance caused by the despicable 1994 strike. The McGwire-Sosa home run race was a great thing for baseball at the time…two likable players with great respect for each other battling to be the first to replace Roger Maris as the single season home run king.

The story came out during the season that Mark McGwire was using a PED called androstenedione, commonly called andro. Andro was legal and available over the counter, and while it seemed possible and even likely that it was helping Big Mac knock balls into the third deck, it wasn’t considered to be something that would seriously affect the integrity of the game or the home run record, as it is today.

There were other factors believed to be involved with the offensive explosion at the time. McGwire was a power hitter long before 1998, with a reputation for moon shots. A big season for him didn’t surprise many people. There were several new ballparks in baseball by then since the building of Camden Yards, and these were smaller, hitter-friendly places. With the increased offense, there were also plenty of viable theories abounding about balls being juiced, not players.

Most significantly, 1998 was an expansion year, as baseball added the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks. It didn’t seem inconceivable that, with the dilution of pitching that occurs in expansion years, home run totals could threaten records. Roger Maris set his record of 61 in an expansion year.

So it’s my assertion, and I could be wrong but I’ll still make it, that not too many baseball people or fans gave much thought to the usage of PEDs to spike home run totals. That changed three years later.

Up until 2001, Barry Bonds had never hit more than 49 home runs in a season. When he hit 73 home runs at the age of 37, twenty-four more than his highest ever single season total, it may have been a tipping point. It didn’t go unnoticed that his body doubled in size, either. By 2001, there was no denying how huge the impact of PED use was.

There were gamblers in baseball before the Black Sox scandal who are in the Hall; there are players who were known racists in the Hall. But gambling wasn’t considered a major problem before 1919…even though it was. Racism was a part of life in baseball before and during Jackie Robinson’s career; a known racist would absolutely not make it into the Hall of Fame today.

This is not a reason for their removal. As the sport evolves, and learns from its mistakes, there is an expectation that Hall candidates know better about the ramifications of their behavior.

We now know that PEDs make a world of difference in a player’s performance. We know it made a difference with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Andy Pettitte, among many other players. Does that make them bad people? No, not in itself. They are in an extremely competitive arena and took a chance. Does it make them unworthy of the Hall? Yes. Here is why.

Let’s say for a second that baseball allows a known user into the Hall. The first player that might be considered for that distinction would almost certainly be Bonds, whose numbers on their own are undisputedly Hall-worthy.

So Barry Bonds makes it into the Hall. Now baseball cannot disallow Roger Clemens. Or Sammy Sosa, or Mark McGwire, simply because of their numbers. If one steroid user is allowed into the Hall simply because baseball cannot deny the stats, then the message would be essentially that usage of PEDs doesn’t matter in a player’s evaluation. And we know from looking at Bonds’ numbers that it does.

Is that position fair to current players playing under a much tougher standard, who might be better players than users who would now be in the Hall? Suppose Justin Verlander has a subpar season next year. Because baseball has rightly cracked down on PED use, he won’t have the option of “juicing” to get his form back, or extend his career into his later years like Clemens and others did.

Baseball should exclude steroid users from the Hall for the same reason it should exclude them from current participation in the game: it cannot send the message that PEDs are okay. Steroids may be useful as a healing tool. They are also, when abused, dangerously destructive to bodies. If baseball does not crack down, and this includes disallowing users into the Hall, it will be considered to be tacit approval. If baseball does not lay down the law and deal with cries of hypocrisy, it should certainly not expect players to do it.

If players are allowed to use PEDs, they will all have to use in order to stay in the game. This isn’t putting a nick in a baseball to cause it to drop out of the strike zone or a batter using a corked bat to get a few extra feet on his hits. It’s artificial human body enhancement beyond its limitations.

Despite the price of a ballgame today, there are still families going. Kids today still idolize athletes, whether Charles Barkley thinks they should or not.

When we discuss how tolerant baseball should be of artificial body enhancement, not to mention cheating in general, we shouldn't forget about that.

Tags: baseball hall of fame steroids 
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