Each year, the Baseball Writers Association of America elects players to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. And this weekend when they induct their new class, once again, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa will not be enshrined.
But they should be.
I realize that last statement is going to anger a few people. And, to be fair, I completely understand your emotional response. Bonds, McGwire and Sosa were among my favorite players of all time. And I admit that I feel duped, swindled, and even ashamed for being so proud of their various home run chases and records. The fact that they probably took steroids to achieve those moments I cherished in the late 90s and into the next decade bothers me.
But it’s no reason to treat them unfairly, relative to their peers.
And therein lies the rub, as they say; because all of the arguments commonly made as to why they should be kept out of the Hall are emotional, illogical, and inconsistent with those already elected to the Hall.
Let’s take this step by step:
The eligibility requirements as to whom the writers can vote for are sparse. The only concern in regards to character is the last requirement, which reads: “Any player on Baseball's Ineligible List shall not be an eligible candidate.”
Baseball’s Ineligible List has been tinkered with over the last thirty years, but the long and short of it is that the last person who has been deemed permanently ineligible is Pete Rose, for gambling on baseball. Others have made the list since him, but they’ve all been reinstated for one reason or another.
Bonds, Sosa and McGwire have never appeared on that list, meet the other requirements, and exceed the statistical requirements for consideration, and so they are eligible for the Hall of Fame.
Obviously that’s not the major reason people believe they don’t belong there. But if all three of them did something so vile that they would be kept out of the Hall of Fame, why aren’t they also on the Ineligible List?
It’s very simple: because they did not break the rules.
At some point, it has been revealed that Bonds, Sosa, and McGwire either tested positive, or admitted to using, steroids. But the problem—and the reason why none of them were ever suspended, disciplined, or put on that Ineligible List—is because baseball didn’t begin testing for steroids punitively until 2004, and didn’t strengthen their policy until the 2006 season. All of their alleged abuse took place before that. Bonds alleged and admitted positive tests were from 2000-03, McGwire admitted to using in the 90s, and Sosa allegedly tested positive in 2003. So, like it or not, what they did was within the rules of the game at the time.
After that argument is immediately debunked, the anti-HoFer argument becomes a moral one: “Well, it doesn’t matter if it wasn’t part of the rules. They took drugs that helped them cheat.”
In order for that to be true, several things would have to also be true: 1) you have to define the word “cheating” in an era where it was literally fair game for everyone—including pitchers like Roger Clemens—to have also taken steroids. 2) You have to consider that, if everyone is afforded the same edge, it’s no longer an edge. 3) You have to explain whether or not all three of their careers’ were Hall of Fame-worthy prior to the moment when you believe they began “cheating.” 4) You also, then, have to go back through the history of baseball and apply your new standards to all the players we now know took substances that have been made illegal (in the game) since their abuse: People like Mickey Mantle, who took steroids and speed in 1961, and Hank Aaron, who once admitted to taking amphetamines.
Oh, and you may want to take away the no-hitter Doc Ellis pitched while admittedly under the influence of LSD.
And we’re going to have to abandon the also-illogical idea that somehow steroid abuse is immoral, and that rewarding these abuses with accolades is somehow bad for children and bad for the game. If we did that, you’d have to thin the herd of Hall of Famers in every sport down to practically zero. Football is littered with Hall of Famers you could make drug connections and moral judgments about (Lawrence Taylor did enough cocaine to impress Pablo Escobar, and I don’t want to even get into what we think OJ Simpson did), and so is basketball (Michael Jordan once refered to himself as a “compulsive” gambler-- and go ahead and explain Wilt Chamberlain’s exploits to your kid).
And the first person who would go from baseball for moral “abuses,” ex-post-facto, is Babe Ruth. Oh, how Babe loved those hookers.
So you can’t get into the gray area of morality when arguing against these three. Obviously it’s never been a precedent set by anyone in charge of electing athletes to any Hall of Fame anyway.
Finally, there is the size and scope of the steroid scandal in relation to the history of the game to examine. Baseball, unlike any of the other sports, is defined by changes in the way the game is played. Umpires make judgment calls on every pitch. The fields all have different dimensions. In certain eras, there were no home run fences, the season was shorter, the mound was a different height, the ball was wound differently, pitchers would use the same ball until it was literally lopsided, players were allowed to sharpen their spikes and gut a fielder’s leg trying to break up a double play, etc. etc. etc.
Oh, yeah... and at one time, they didn’t even let people of color play the game.
All of these things affect the way a game is played, and the statistics of not only single games, but the careers of everyone who plays, and the statistical relationship amongst each of them.
Thus, as those who would probably agree with me say, we should just declare this “the Steroid Era,” as baseball had “the Dead Ball Era,” “The Live Ball Era,” and “The Expansion Era.” The competition between all players of this era is simply a reflection of the time and rules under which they played the game.
And once you decide that, everything Bonda, Sosa, and McGwire did is fair game.
It’s time to let these men in. They’re been punished. What they did was wrong, and we are right to be emotionally hurt by them. But relatively speaking, they didn’t do anything either against the rules, or that any other player from the era could not have done on the same field. They just did it better.
Which, like it or not under these conditions, is why we elect people to the Hall of Fame anyway.