Re-Thinking Zero Tolerance For Steroids

What if they had a Hall of Fame and no one was enshrined in it?

As we lope through another Year of the Pitcher — MLB-average ERA is under 3.80 — more and more fans and writers are reaching the conclusion that the Steroid Era is over. If that's true, I'm sure there are numerous factors in play, but one of the most obvious is Cooperstown. Hall of Fame voting has not been kind to suspected PED users, and for elite players, that has to be a serious factor in their decisions.

I've written about steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs before, and I think my strong position against them has always been pretty clear. Zero tolerance for steroid cheats sounds good. A player throws someone through a window, runs down a traffic cop, uses ethnic or homophobic slurs, tortures dogs, even commits a double murder ... you can still put that guy in the Hall of Fame. You're not saying he's a good person, just a great player. But someone who took steroids or hormones is a cheater. Was he really great, or did he just look that way in comparison to guys who played by the rules?

So yes, zero tolerance for steroid cheats sounds good. But I feel kind of weird about how this Hall of Fame thing is playing out. The way HOF voting has gone recently, it looks like the only Hall of Famers who had their primes in the '90s could be Roberto Alomar, Ken Griffey, Jr., Barry Larkin, and Greg Maddux. When I think about the issue that way, it doesn't feel like justice any more. It feels like changing the past, pretending that what happened didn't happen.

Barry Bonds was one of the 10 greatest players in the history of baseball, probably top-five. Roger Clemens won seven Cy Young Awards, most in history. Mike Piazza is the best-hitting catcher ever, a 12-time all-star with 11 Silver Slugger Awards. Ivan Rodriguez, also a suspected user, one of those implicated by Jose Canseco, is among the greatest defensive catchers ever. Subtract the steroid accusations, and they're all first-ballot to Cooperstown.

Canseco was the first player to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same season. Andy Pettitte won more games in the '00s than any other pitcher, and went 19-10 in postseason play. Mark McGwire broke the single-season home run record. Alex Rodriguez is the greatest shortstop since Honus Wagner. All of them have admitted using PEDs.

Manny Ramirez hit more postseason HRs than anyone else in history. Rafael Palmeiro is one of only four players with 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. Sammy Sosa hit 60 homers three times. All of them tested positive for 'roids.

Suspected or confirmed PED-users who have won MVP awards, in chronological order: Roger Clemens, Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Barry Bonds, Barry Bonds, Juan Gonzalez, Ken Caminiti, Juan Gonzalez, Sammy Sosa, Ivan Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Barry Bonds, Miguel Tejada, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Alex Rodriguez. That's 19 MVP Awards we're wiping out, including 13 of the 20 winners from 1996-2005. Nine different players, and it doesn't even include guys like Piazza and McGwire who have obvious HOF résumés. It doesn't include 1994 NL MVP Jeff Bagwell, though he apparently is guilty until proven innocent.

When Jeff Pearlman voted against Bagwell last year, he wrote several increasingly odious columns defending his right to consider Bagwell guilty even in the total absence of anything that could be considered evidence. Bagwell never tested positive. He's not in the Mitchell report, or the infamous 2003 list that was supposed to be anonymous. He hasn't been implicated by Canseco or accused by a teammate. But his muscles got bigger over time, so he might have juiced. Come to think of it, my muscles are bigger than they were when I was 22. Maybe I shouldn't have let Tejada give me that B-12 injection.

I think this is the fundamental public misunderstanding about steroids. THEY ARE NOT MAGIC PILLS. Steroids can help you work out longer, or recover faster — basically, they help you train more efficiently. They don't turn you into the Hulk. Lots of guys start off small and then get big. Michael Jordan and Bob Pettit couldn't make their high school basketball teams. Bagwell hit 15 home runs as a rookie, which actually is pretty good. He improved less as a power hitter than Hank Greenberg or Ernie Banks or Ryne Sandberg or a dozen other players with no connection to steroids. But Bagwell played in the '90s, so we'll just assume he's guilty. I suppose Bags should be glad he didn't live in Salem in the 1690s.

Pearlman — who has also accused Craig Biggio, for whatever that's worth — claims to have evidence against Bagwell, though he won't make it public. Remember that scene in Field of Dreams where Kevin Costner sticks his finger in his coat pocket and pretends it's a gun?

"What the hell is that?"
"It's evidence, what do you think it is?"
"It's your finger."
"No, it's not, it's evidence."
"Yeah, well let me see it."
"Get outta here, I'm not going to show you my evidence."

That's kind of how Pearlman's "evidence I can't show you" strikes me. To be fair, two hundred other voters rejected Bagwell, too. He got only 41.7% of the vote, well short of the 75% required for induction. This isn't just about one McCarthyist voter.

What if they had a Hall of Fame and no one was enshrined in it? Not Bonds, the 7-time MVP. Not Clemens, the 7-time Cy Young winner. Not A-Rod, the best shortstop in a century. Not McGwire or Bagwell or Palmeiro or Giambi, all of whom hit over 400 HRs. Not two-time MVP Juan Gone. Not the two best catchers since Johnny Bench. Not Sosa, the fifth player to reach 600 home runs. Not Manny, whose 165 RBI in 1999 were the most in a single season since Jimmie Foxx in 1938. What are we, pretending the last 15 years never happened?

I love that we don't have to worry about steroids in baseball as much as we used to. But if zero tolerance for PED-users means this is what Cooperstown is going to look like, I think that's too high a price to pay. It seems like white-washing the past. Barring the door to Cooperstown in this way makes me feel like a liar, not a guardian of truth. It makes me feel dirty, not clean. It makes me feel judgmental, not righteous.

I celebrate what appears to be the decline of steroids in baseball. But Cooperstown, more than anything else, is our window to the past, and when I look through that window, I want to see what really happened in the '90s, not a cleaned-up version in which Bonds and Clemens and McGwire and the rest weren't great players. And certainly not one that keeps out great players based on unproven suspicions and innuendoes. We don't have to accept steroid use in baseball, and we probably shouldn't accept it. But there has to be a line. And I think zero tolerance is too strict a standard.

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