It’s been four years, and the point’s been made.
We all probably wish there hadn’t been a Steroids Era in baseball. (Some of us don’t care. Some days I’m one of them.) But there was.
It’s time to start putting its best players into the Hall of Fame.
Mark McGwire is one. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens almost surely are too. And Sammy Sosa. And a lot of other guys we suspect, and a lot of others we don’t. Not all users of performance-enhancing drugs developed Thanksgiving-balloon muscles. You can’t tell a user from a non-user just by looking at him.
McGwire has received between 21.9 and 23.7 percent of the votes in his four years of eligibility. It’s fair to say that without the clouds of suspicion (confirmed by McGwire, minimally, in January), his 583 career home runs and seasons of 58, 65, and 70 would have made at least two years of voting unnecessary.
What’s the point of keeping him out? To take a stand against “cheating”? Gaylord Perry’s reliance on the spitball didn’t keep him from making the Hall; he got at least 68 percent of the vote in each of his three years on the ballot. Jim Bouton told us in Ball Four that Elston Howard used to doctor the ball for Whitey Ford, who could make it “drop, sail, break in, break out and sing ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.’”
The time to take a stand against steroids users was during their careers. Baseball looked the other way, had no testing program, embraced and exploited the power hitting that followed. You can’t blame the players for taking advantage, just as a hitter would if someone was tipping his pitches, or a pitcher would if the ump gave him strikes a foot outside.
What are you going to do if someone is voted in, and then admits he was a user? There’s no clause in the Hall constitution covering impeachment.
They did what they did when they did it. Judge them in the context of their era, but the era itself can’t be undone.
Every record in baseball is affected by its time and place. Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA in 1968 was aided by the ballparks, the mounds, and the strike-zone definition. Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs would not have been possible without the livelier baseball put into play in the '20s. Mel Ott hit 63.2 percent of his 511 homers in the Polo Grounds, which measured 257 feet down the right-field line and 279 to left. Ted Williams was the last .400 hitter, but even in his .406 season he benefitted from Fenway Park, batting .380 on the road versus .428 at home.
The great players on teams of the past took advantage of the huge disparity between the good teams and the bad in the days before organized farm systems and integration. When the minor leagues were independent, there were undoubtedly several teams in the Pacific Coast League or the American Association that were better than the St. Louis Browns, or the Chicago White Sox, or the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1920s and '30s; there were surely several better teams in the Negro Leagues as well. This, too, is part of the context we ignore when we enshrine players on the basis of supposedly pure performance.
A lot of people took performance enhancers. Most of them did not do extraordinary things; some did, and the Hall of Fame exists to honor those who do. Did performance enhancers help them? Yes, probably – but the same is probably true of players who took the amphetamines (greenies) that were rampant in baseball from at least the 1950s on. The players who took them certainly thought they were getting an advantage. If they didn’t take steroids, it’s because the collective wisdom of baseball was opposed to weight training, believing it would reduce a player’s flexibility. It’s not because they were morally opposed.
Four years is long enough for this sanctimonious charade. There are a lot of people in the Hall of Fame you may not like or admire, except when they were batting, pitching, fielding, or running. So what? It’s baseball’s pantheon, not a calendar of saints. If Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens – seven-time MVP and Cy Young winners, respectively -- aren’t Hall of Famers, the term is meaningless.
Besides, it’s fun to think of Ty Cobb and Barry Bonds in the same room, if only in bronze.
POSTSCRIPT: For the record, this is not an argument in favor of admitting Pete Rose. The rule against gambling must be upheld; players must know this is a line they cannot cross, and that no one is exempt.