Should PED users gain entrance into Cooperstown?
Few stories have captured the attention of the sports media over the past calendar year (indeed, the past fifteen years) than performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. While the latest such scandal, centering around the Biogensis anti-aging clinic in Miami and featuring Milwaukee Brewers star Ryan Braun and New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez, has been the primary focus of sports fans, the PED story interests me most occurred on January 9th. On that chilly winter Wednesday the Baseball Writers’ Association of America announced that they had elected nobody for entrance into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
The announcement struck me for two reasons. First, it was the first time the BBWAA had not induced anybody since 1996 and only the ninth time in the Hall’s seventy-seven year history. Second, and more important, was that the ballot featured a bountiful crop of great players. The problem? Many of those players were associated with PEDs, earning them the scorn of fans and BBWAA voters alike.
Election into the Baseball Hall of Fame works as follows: once a player has been retired for five years, he becomes eligible. Each BBWAA voter can name up to ten players on his/her ballot and a player must be named on at least 75% of all ballots to be inducted; meanwhile, all players who appear on less than 5% of ballots are removed from consideration the following year. Players have fifteen years of eligibility before being removed from consideration by the BBWAA.
This year, in their first year of eligibility, Roger Clemens received 37.6% of the vote, Barry Bonds received only 36.2%, while Sammy Sosa received a paltry 12.5%. These are absurd totals for the second best pitcher since 1970, the career home run leader, and one of the best power hitters since 1990, respectively. Additionally, other PED-connected players are languishing on the ballot without any chance of induction: Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmerio.
Upon examination, the numbers speak for themselves. Clemens, Bonds, and Palmerio should have been first-ballot inductees, McGwire (on his eighth year) should be in by now, and Sosa could easily make an argument for first-ballot status as well. The stain of PED usage hangs over these players and does not bode well for recently connected players. Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, and Andy Pettitte all have Hall of Fame credentials but face an uphill battle, while it remains to be seen if Braun—still early in his career—will put together a Hall of Fame resume. The BBWAA is willfully ignoring that statistics of these players and instead voting on their own personal beliefs.
PED usage is cheating, yes. Players who used them gained an advantage over their clean counterparts, but they still had to throw and hit the ball. PEDs did not turn Rodriguez, Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, or Ramirez into superstars; they already were great players. The proof of this is in the list of players implicated in the Biogenesis scandal and the players named in the Mitchell Report, written after a twenty-one month long investigation into PED usage in Major League Baseball and released in 2007. Well over half of the names belong to journeymen or nobodies. If simply using PEDs turned regular Joes into He-Man, everybody would know the name Dan Naulty.
Not putting these players in the Hall of Fame is tantamount to baseball ignoring twenty years of its own history while cherry-picking inductees from the “Steroid Era.” Should Ken Griffey Jr. be praised for his ability to cleanly hit 630 home runs? Absolutely. But those home runs carried the same impact on baseball between 1989 and 2010 as Barry Bonds’ 697 home runs over the same period. The solution to the problem is easy: put it on their plaques. It would only take a few words. “Suspected PED user.” “Named in the Mitchell Report.” “Confirmed PED user.”
Every generation of baseball statistics and history has some sort of asterisk hanging over it, but that does not mean those numbers should be ignored. Sandy Koufax pitched from a mound 20 inches tall; current players throw from mounds 10 inches tall. That incredible height disparity is undeniably a factor in why Koufax struck out 2396 batters over just a twelve year career. But also undeniable is the fact that if Koufax were to pitch on today’s mound, he would still be one of the best pitchers in baseball. The mound helped, but he still had to have the skill.
Walter Johnson is arguably the greatest pitcher of all time. He won 417 games and struck out 3509 batters. But he earned all those wins and strikes while facing exactly zero (0) black players. Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs while facing zero (0) black pitchers. Ty Cobb stole 897 bases while outrunning the arm of zero (0) black catchers. It is lunacy to suggest that every single one of the best players from 1888, the beginning of the baseball color-line, to 1947, when Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers, was white. Every generation of players, every era in baseball history has asterisks.
Put the players in, engrave their plaques with the words “PED user,” create a special section discussing the “Steroid Era” (the Hall of Fame already has special sections on women’s baseball, Babe Ruth, the Negro Leagues, and international players, so this is not an unprecedented suggestion) and allow the fans to make up their own mind. Pretending that the past never happened serves no purpose.