Are all sports-drug users really the same?

Joe Scarnici

Earlier today, I fisked Ken Gurnick's Hall of Fame ballot. It wasn't difficult. He voted for one candidate.

Joe Posnanski has just published his Hall of Fame ballot. Fisking Posnanski's isn't difficult, either. He did vote for 10 candidates ... but they're very nearly the same 10 I would have voted for. Essentially, his ninth and tenth slots are filled by my 11th and 12th choices, and vice versa. Well, not exactly. He has Mike Mussina 11th, where I had him a few slots higher. But essentially our top dozen are the same. So I can't argue much with Joe's choices.

I was taken, though, by this passage in his write-up of Rafael Palmeiro (who's all the way down at 18th on Joe's list):

Is there any difference between someone who used steroids before testing began and someone who tested positive after? This might be nitpicking, but I say yes. I say that, while it was certainly wrong to use steroids before testing, performance-enhancing drugs were baseball’s happy little secret. The game needed several jolts of good feeling after the 1994 strike left everybody embittered, and the home run helped bring the game back. People came back to the ballpark. Baseball players became national figures again. Chicks, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine assured us, dig the longball.

How do you get more longballs? It’s really not that complicated. You lighten the baseballs and harden the bats and give players body armor and and bring in the fences and shrink the strike zone and build more weight rooms and cover your ears when whispers of steroid abuse make their way around. I will always believe that the extensive steroid use in baseball was a league-wide effort, which is why I find it disingenuous to throw all the blame on the players.

But after home runs grew tiresome, after it became clear that steroids and human growth hormone and other PEDs were powerfully tainting the game, after it became so blatant that everyone agreed to drug testing … yes, I think using at that point is different. It feels a bit like the difference between making a racist statement in 1918 and making the same one in 2008. Rafael Palmeiro’s positive test for anabolic steroids — shortly after pointing during a congressional hearing and saying “I have never used steroids” — is different to me. So is Ryan Braun’s shenanigans and Alex Rodriguez’s nonsense and so on.

It does feel a little different, doesn't it? Officially or not, it's pretty obvious that rampant drug use was essentially sanctioned by all the authorities in the 1990s. Again, if you don't believe this, please read Buster Olney's Times op-ed from 2006. It's all there, including Commissioner Bud's supposed (or willful) ignorance. Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association were essentially saying, for roughly 20 years, "Hey, as long as everyone's having fun and nobody gets hurt, let's not talk about our guys breaking federal laws with syringes in bathroom stalls."

And so it's very difficult to blame anyone without blaming everyone. Sure, you can apportion the blame however you like. When you've got a formula that determines exactly how much blame goes to the veteran players who run the union, how much to the Commissioner's Office, and how much to the various media organizations that didn't even begin to question or investigate the aforementioned, please let me know.

But someone must be punished! And to this point, the baseball writers have decided that only the game's very best players from that era will be punished. Which is a debatable decision, I think.

I appreciate Posnanski's take on this. Too often, I think, voters simply throw up their hands and either ignore drugs completely, or paint every known or suspected user with the same brush. I prefer the former over the latter, but neither seems particularly thoughtful. I would not simply disqualify a player because he tested positive for steroids ... but as a tiebreaker? Sure. Even Joe cites statistical reasons for ranking Palmeiro so low. I wouldn't vote for Palmeiro, even absent the failed drug test, simply because there are so many candidates with better qualifications.

There's a reason why Joe Posnanski has so many fans. Yes, he's good at writing sentences and stuff. But a lot of people are good at writing sentences. Posnanski's got so many fans because he's smarter than almost everybody else. It's not just that he knows more, though he does know a lot. It's that he's able to hold conflicting ideas in his mind at the same time, which is actually quite a rare thing, both among baseball writers and everyone else. It's incredibly refreshing, and sets Joe apart from most of the rest of us.

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