With Ryan Braun’s fate sealed and Alex Rodriguez’s all but, the steroid controversy is back in the forefront of baseball’s storylines. It seems you can’t turn on ESPN anymore without hearing Curt Schilling and company rail against performance enhancing drugs as the worst thing that could possibly happen to the game. But the beauty of baseball is that it is a game of history, and if history has taught us anything, it’s that widespread steroid use is far from the worst thing that could happen.
The Greater Sin
I understand people’s qualms with steroid use, and I’m not saying it shouldn’t be thought of as cheating. PEDs, like corking a bat and doctoring a baseball, are designed to give the perpetrator an unfair competitive advantage over his opponents. While morally questionable, each illicit technique is at the very least done with the intention of trying to help the perpetrator’s team win a ballgame. What I don’t understand is why steroid use has been elevated to baseball’s ultimate faux pas in the eyes of many analysts. Original spitballer Ed Walsh and known ball doctor Gaylord Perry are Hall-of-Famers, celebrated as two of the greatest pitchers of all time. Why do Walsh and Perry get free passes over Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire?
Schilling and company talk about PED use as if it is the greatest baseball sin. Quite simply, it is not. Gambling is baseball’s Greater Sin, a sin that has been justifiably unforgivable in the past but has taken a backseat in the fallout of the Steroid Era. Betting on baseball games is the Greater Sin because, unlike the techniques designed to give players an unfair advantage, it sacrifices the well-being of the team in favor of a player’s or a manager’s self-interest. This excellent Bleacher Report article by Tom Mechin provides an example of how that pursuit of a big payoff can destroy teams and players in the short- and long-term.
The results of widespread prevalence of steroids and gambling illustrate how the latter problem would be far worse. In the event of a massive steroid scandal, you may see inflated offensive records, but the game would survive because each team would have two or three guys to counterbalance each other. Baseball would still look like baseball, albeit with players the size of professional wrestlers. In the event of a massive gambling scandal, however, baseball in essence would actually become professional wrestling. If two or three players on each team were trying to lose the game because they bet on the other guys, the game wouldn’t last two hours. It would become a farce, a circus act, and its legitimacy would never recover.
In the wake of Biogenesis, Bob Costas announced his support of putting Pete Rose on the ballot for Cooperstown. I have great respect for Costas, but I disagree with him entirely in that belief. By betting on his own team, Pete Rose committed the Greater Sin, and he earned the lifetime ban Bart Giamatti handed down to him in 1989.
The Steroid Era happened. Here’s how we deal with it.
As much as Commissioner Bud Selig and company want to, like Bono, they can’t “close their eyes and make it go away.” But for those wondering “how long must we sing this song” of steroid fallout, we can stop it all if we reach a compromise. We must acknowledge the Steroid Era’s existence and give those stars of the 1990s the chance to be recognized, if not vindicated. The most difficult reconciliation must be dealt with in Cooperstown, but with the following guidelines for dealing with PED users, I believe it can be done.
I present the following three rules the Hall of Fame and Baseball Writers’ Association of America should enforce when considering stars of the Steroid Era. First, any player caught using steroids starting in 2005, the year Major League Baseball started enforcing related drug policies, should be ineligible from the Hall of Fame ballot. Under the three strikes rule, he would not face a lifetime ban, but he would not allowed consideration for the game’s highest honor. Second, any player who admits to steroid use before 2005 enforcement should be allowed on the ballot. His fate would be at the mercy of the BBWAA, and if said player from pre-2005 were to be inducted it would be up to Cooperstown to determine how to deal with it (i.e. asterisks, a special wing in the Hall, etc.), but the player would be allowed some sort of recognition for his accomplishments. Third, any player who is suspected but never proven of steroid use must be allowed on the ballot without question. If the player’s steroid use is discovered at a later date, the Hall can react to the revelation in the appropriate way based on whether the player used performance enhancers pre- or post-2005, but such measures may only be taken should steroid use be admitted to or proven.
I realize this is a minority opinion, but I believe it is a justified compromise. This solution was crafted through the following three core beliefs. The first one is one of reasonable doubt, or the 12 Angry Men defense, and it applies especially to 1990s stars like Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, who have been unfairly judged to be impure despite no legitimate evidence against them. Piazza and Bagwell would be Hall-of-Famers without reservation if they played in the 1970s, but mere suspicion has kept them out of Cooperstown for at least one more year. Anyone who believes in the principle of innocent until proven guilty should be behind treating Steroid Era stars the same way as other stars until there is hard evidence against them. Reasonable doubt is a pillar of the American justice system, and it should be seen as the same in baseball’s justice system.
The second belief applies to any star who used steroids before drug policies were enforced in 2005: I do not believe in the ex post facto punishment of those who used performance enhancers before anyone cared enough to stop them. Major League Baseball turned a blind eye to steroid use in the 1990s to bring back fans it lost in the wake of the 1994 strike. Mark McGwire admitted to using steroids when they were found in his locker at the height of the 1998 home run chase, but baseball did nothing as the substances were not illegal. It was only after Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001 and was in hot pursuit of Hank Aaron’s 755 that Commissioner Selig started paying attention to the “steroid problem.” Selig dropped the ball on this one, and anyone who excelled under his neglect should not take the brunt of the punishment.
The third belief is a simple assertion that history cannot be changed. The Steroid Era happened. Records were broken, cleanly and otherwise. I do not believe in the kind of revisionist history that has become chic in the last couple years; you can erase record books, but you can’t erase people’s memories. Reggie Bush won the Heisman Trophy in 2005. Lance Armstrong won seven Tour de France titles in a row. The Penn State football team won all those games during Jerry Sandusky’s reign of terror. Barry Bonds hit seven more home runs in his career than did Hank Aaron. Unlike the first three records, the latter has not been scrubbed, and it should not be.
The Steroid Era was indeed a black mark on the illustrious history of baseball, but the game has survived. There are proper mechanisms in place to deal with PED use: Ryan Braun has accepted his punishment, and if Alex Rodriguez and others are handed similar sets of sanctions, they will as well. There may still be steroid use in baseball, but the Steroid Era is over, and the game is ready to move on. It cannot move on, however, until people accept the truth of how the game was played in the 1990s and early 2000s. The pitching records set in the 1960s, especially in 1968, are not delegitimized because the mound was higher and the strike zone was bigger: people celebrate these achievements because that was the way the game was played back then. The hitting records of the Steroid Era will eventually be seen in a similar light, and the sooner that happens, the better it will be for baseball.