Were Steroid Era cheaters the first who mattered?

Jared Wickerham

So, yesterday we read Ken Rosenthal's piece about Hall of Fame voting these days, and I responded in this space.

Today it's Tom Verducci's turn, in which he explains "Why I'll never vote for a known steroids user for the Hall of Fame" ...

First, you must understand the voting process. A ballot is sent to me in the mail -- a personal ballot, just as it is sent to about 570 baseball writers eligible to vote. This is not an SAT test or a trivia contest. There are no "right" and "wrong" answers. This one ballot is my judgment. Yes, I am being asked to be "judge" or juror, in the parlance of some writers uncomfortable with responsibility, but I am only one of many hundreds.

Are there really not any right or wrong answers? Next year, a few guys won't vote for Greg Maddux. You won't tell me, off the record, that those guys were wrong?

Based on past statements, such a dismissal is also obvious to many former players, including Hank Aaron, who has said no steroid users should go into the Hall ("The game has no place for cheaters"), Andre Dawson ("Individuals have chosen the wrong road, and they're choosing that as their legacy"), Goose Gossage ("Cheaters should absolutely not be in the Hall of Fame"), Todd Zeile ("Why doesn't anybody see that it's cheating and it's wrong?"), David Wells ("To me, if you've cheated as a player, that's as bad as being a scab") and Dale Murphy ("Everyone understood that it was against the law . . . It was also against the spirit of the game. That's why everybody did it in secret. I have a hard time endorsing that, because there were a lot of guys who decided, 'I'm not going to do that.'")

Where are all the former players arguing for known steroid users to be in the Hall? Anybody?

In 2009, Bob Gibson acknowledged players have always cheated, admitted that he might well have used steroids if they'd been around when he played, and said steroids probably probably shouldn't keep players out of the Hall of Fame. So there's at least one former player, and a Hall of Famer to boot. I suspect there are more with the same opinion, although perhaps afraid to voice it publicly.

Verducci quotes Mark McGwire at some length, about how he cheated and how hard it was to tell his kids and how he knows he's not going into the Hall of Fame &c...

McGwire's rare words about understanding the impact of steroids on the voting process are admirable. Still, others outside the game offer excuses that McGwire himself doesn't touch. Here are the most popular rationalizations:

1. "It wasn't against the rules."

--snip--

2. "Everybody was doing it."

What if it was against the rules ... like, for example, throwing spitballs? Or corking your bat? There are a number of acknowledged spitball throwers in the Hall of Fame, beginning with Gaylord Perry and Whitey Ford.

Fortunately, Verducci does address this argument:

You have to understand how much steroids changed the game. In the rush to dismiss them, people have thrown out awkward analogies about petroleum jelly, sandpaper, cork, tacks, diet pills from the '70s, etc. under the catchall category of "cheating." Stop it. You know what steroids are like? Steroids. Nothing else rises to the level of steroids when it comes to anabolically changing the body so that it can do far more than it ever could do without them. Steroids took hold because they take a player well beyond his natural ability. Caminiti said he felt like "Superman" with steroids; they even improved his speed.

Wait, we have to understand what? Verducci does offer a number of first-person accounts, but the truth is that there is little actual, peer-reviewed evidence that steroids really did change the game.

But yes, I do believe drugs did change the game. It's the "how much" part that's difficult to measure. It's easy to say that steroids are like nothing else (true, literally) and that nothing else changes the body like steroids (I don't have any idea, but will allow it anyway). But did steroids have a larger impact on professional baseball than spitballs? Larger than amphetamines? Anecdotes are not evidence.

I have another, bigger issue with Verducci's argument. While he seems to acknowledge that amphetamines and spitballs constituted cheating, just like steroids, he seems to consider the latter far worse because of its impact. Why does the impact matter. I'm trying to imagine a player's thoughts here ... "Gosh, those amphetamines seemed to help a little, so even though it's cheating I think they're okay to use. But golly, these steroids everybody's talking about ... I'd better not mess with those, because they seem to help a LOT."

That just defies everything we know about human nature and, specifically, the nature of world-class athletes. If there's a small advantage to be taken, big-time athletes will take it. If there's a larger advantage to be taken, they'll take that. If the character of baseball players is somehow worse today than it was in the 1960s -- and I can't really argue it is -- it's only because the character of people in general is worse (which I don't really believe). Verducci:

The extrapolation of baseball before Caminiti spoke up was this: the trust in a fair game was being depleted as jobs and games were being decided by who had the best chemist. A parade of players pushed baseball in that direction, and many of the names on this Hall of Fame ballot were not just in the parade but, because of their success, the drum majors leading it.

Again, the notion that baseball before steroids was a pure game, a fair game, is (to use one of Verducci's words) a canard. I do agree with Verducci about this, though: It's really a shame that the sport devolved into a contest to see who could break the law the best. Last week, Bill James was on MLB Network's Clubhouse Confidential to discuss the Hall of Fame ballot, and Brian Kenny asked him first about Barry Bonds. James's response:

Bonds did more than any other player to make a farce of the game, during the Steroids Era, and I hold it against him ... I believe Bonds was engaged in a pattern of dishonest conduct, and I hold it against him. He was a great player, even before he got into using every steroid he could find, and I think eventually you have to honor him. But I'd make him wait.

I understand Bill's sentiment, but is it Bonds's fault that he was the most talented player who unlocked the secrets of performance-enhancing drugs? He certainly wasn't the first. By at least one account, he became a dedicated user after watching Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa grab the public's -- and the media's! -- fawning attentions in 1998. It seems to me that you have to start with McGwire and Jose Canseco. Unless we're talking merely about making a farce of the statistics of the game. That's Bonds, and his eight gazillion intentional walks. But again, it's not really his fault that he was the best hitter on the planet.

Okay, back to Verducci. After a long explication of the so-called "character clause" in the Hall of Fame voting guidelines, there's this:

Forget the racists and scoundrels comparison. Here's my issue with steroid users as it relates to the "character clause": it's about how they played the game between the lines, not how they conducted themselves outside of it. It's an issue of competitive integrity, not personal integrity. They bastardized baseball, eroded the implicit fairness of it and disadvantaged those who chose to play fairly to extents never seen before.

The character clause has never been used until now, with the arguable exception of Shoeless Joe Jackson. Nobody cared about Gaylord Perry throwing greaseballs between the lines, and nobody cared about hundreds and hundreds of players taking the field, between the lines, all hopped up on greenies. Competitive integrity, as defined right there by Verducci, has never been a factor in Hall of Fame voting. Until now.

Again, what Verducci and like-minded souls seem to be arguing is that cheating on the field and taking performance-enhancing drugs -- or drugs intended to enhance performance, anyway -- are perfectly acceptable, and should have no bearing on a player's Hall of Fame credentials or his standing in the community ... unless those things actually work well enough to blow up the statistics. In which case, you were a bad person and don't get a plaque in Cooperstown.

I don't want to paint Verducci with this brush, because I'm not inside his head, but I continue to believe that a lot of the hand-wringing over steroids -- which, by the way, I really wish hadn't happened -- is due to just two players: Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds. I believe that if McGwire and Bonds hadn't so utterly destroyed the home-run records, leaving first Roger Maris and then Hank Aaron in the dust, we might not be having this discussion at all.

And maybe that would be a shame. Most of us, I think, are glad that Major League Baseball is discouraging the indiscriminate use of illegal drugs. Maybe without McGwire and Bonds, MLB's drug policy would still be toothless. Maybe we simply have to take the bad (moralizing and rationalizing by Hall of Fame voters) with the good (fewer home runs, baseball players who look more like normal human beings).

In my opinion, Verducci answered one question (about amphetamines) poorly, and didn't answer another at all: What will he do in five or 10 years when he learns that players he helped elect to the Hall of Fame actually did use steroids?

Because that is going to happen. I have exactly zero-percent doubt about that.

But I guess we'll just have to wait. Should make for an interesting column.

P.S. Verducci voted for Jeff Bagwell, but not Mike Piazza. These things are tricky, no?

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