Steroids, Baseball and the Hall of Fame

The Hall of Fame will have to accept the steroid era.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Today is baseball's Hall of Fame induction day, with Rickey Henderson, Jim Rice and Joe Gordon taking their places among the sport's celebrated greats. Rickey was a slam dunk, but Rice's credentials remain the subject of debate and Gordon played on the great 1940s Yankees teams and so too was apparently not a no-brainer inductee. The Hall of Fame debate is going to achieve a new level of sporting contentiousness, however, as the steroid becomes eligible. Mark McGwire has been eligible for a couple of years now, without making the cut. But he's the leading edge of a generation that will, in 15 or so years, wind down when Alex "A-Roid" Rodriguez becomes eligible. In between we'll have to worry about Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and many other great players who have been linked to performance enhancing drugs.

So how should Hall voters handle the steroid era?

We got four answers to that question from diverse perspectives: Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning, baseball pro-turned-announcer Steve Lyons, designer Marc Ecko, who famously bought Barry Bonds' record-setting home run ball and branded an asterisk into it and attorney David Ezra, who wrote a book defending Bonds.

Bunning takes the hard line against:

Major League Baseball must set an example so that children and young athletes don't see steroids as a way to get ahead of the competition. If a player is caught using banned substances in an effort to break records set by players who achieved them through honest hard work, I think those numbers should be expunged from the record books. There is no place for cheaters in the Hall of Fame.

A strong argument, to be sure. And yet ... aren't there cheaters in the Hall of Fame? (The answer: Yes.) Bunning himself acknowledges that "I did know of ballplayers who sharpened their spikes, corked their bats, and even scuffed some balls. They all broke the rules, and when they were caught they were punished." And some are in fact with Bunning in the hall.

My own view is closer to Lyons'. He started by observing that the steroids scandal is a bore. An important bore that has put a black eye on the sport, to be sure, but a bore nevertheless. He recounts the various ways people have cheated over the years (Ty Cobb sharpened his spikes in order to hurt opposing players, for example, not to mention all the players who have corked bats or popped greenies over the years). Cobb is in the hall. So is Gaylord Perry. Lyons' answer to the hall question:

Ten years from now when we look back on the "Steroid Era," I believe we'll have to recognize the accomplishments of all the players that were proven users, suspected users, and all the other players that we weren't sure of. How can we not?

Indeed. Baseball has gone through different eras: The dead ball era, the era when the pitcher's mound was several inches higher and ERAs were a corresponding measure smaller ... there was a time when walks were counted as base hits. And so the steroid era will be remembered as well. (Does anyone remember when it was, apparently naively, called the live ball era?

And who can presume to have enough of the facts to pick and choose which players to punish vis a vis the hall? Mike Herz from the Pride of the Yankees blog has a good take on the question (as well as a good summary of the Jim Rice debate):

For those writers who draw a clear line in the sand and proclaim they will not vote for any player linked to steroids, I say you're being delusional and ignorant. What you fail to realize, or perhaps accept, is how pervasive use of performance enhancers has clearly been in baseball over the last 15-20 years. The line you draw is only that of exposure and you will almost certainly vote for players who did in fact try, if not regularly used performance enhancers at some point in their careers - they just weren't outed before you voted. What are going to do when you help elect a player and it's subsequently revealed that they did use something at some point?

In addition, are you positive you haven't already contributed to the election of PED users?

He goes on to list a number of players who had abnormal (steroid-fueled) production late in their careers. The bottom line? Steroids are bad, but their use was a fact of the sport.