I’ve always felt that major leaguers who used steroids were like NBA stars playing on a nine-foot basket — the game isn’t supposed to be that easy. Or, imagine their cheating through another prism:
Two race cars line up, one uses regular fuel, the other loads up with an illegal, supercharged potion. Guess which one wins? Not only does the law breaker finish first, it sets a world record. Who would call that a legitimate feat?
That’s the easiest way to frame the steroids debate. Now comes the more complicated task of punishing those who (we think) juiced — specifically, keeping them out of the Hall of Fame. Any discerning fan would put Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens on that list. They’re the tip of the spear of a generation of players who tried to pull a fast one on what Americans used to call The Beautiful Game.
But while it’s easy to assume Bonds and Clemens were part of the brotherhood of the syringe, proving it is another matter. That’s what makes this ballot problematic, deciding the guilt or innocence of two men who were exonerated by the legal system.
The government spent millions trying to convict Bonds, who testified his use of steroids was unintentional. According to the Wall Street Journal, 11 of the 12 jurors didn’t believe Bonds but, ultimately, the feds were unable to prove Bonds was lying. They settled for one count of obstruction of justice, which meant he won. The same is true of Clemens, who, despite the $2.3 million the government spent in court, was acquitted on the six charges against him.
Do I suspect Bonds and Clemens were all in? Of course. But both men are entitled to due process of the law. Without physical proof of their crimes — and with a jury of their peers backing them up — I have no idea when Bonds and Clemens started injecting, or to what degree the chemicals impacted their career totals. Since MLB wasn’t screening for steroids at the time, Clemens and Bonds never tested positive. Those are the handcuffs I wear in filling out the ballot.
In no way does my vote condone the use of performance-enhancing drugs. To the contrary, I think steroid users had an enormous (and unfair) advantage over baseball’s law-abiding citizens. If that weren’t true, juicing wouldn’t have been as widespread as it was in the 1990s and early 2000s.
I’ve come full circle on this issue, as I used to believe steroids were no great trespass against the game, nothing more than an outgrowth of the cocaine era in the 1980s. Instead of snorting, players started injecting, recreational drugs giving way to PEDs.
Similarly, I used to tolerate the argument that steroids were the moral equivalent of amphetamines in the 1950s and ’60s. That’s now a specious argument: there was an institutional acceptance of those little pick-me-ups, which equated to an extra cup of coffee. Steroids, however, were game-changers and players who used them knew they were crossing a line.
Indeed, steroids turned baseball into a glorified video game. Through the use of pharmaceuticals, hitters gained unnatural bat speed, pitchers picked up velocity, the synapses fired more quickly — reaction time was cut. One former player told me even his vision improved after he started using steroids.
“It was unbelievable how much better I could see,” he said. “Hitting was so easy, I actually felt guilty at first.”
We all fell for the futuristic leap, until we realized it was fake. Peel away the layers of steroid magic and what’s underneath is a con. That’s why an admitted user such as Mark McGwire won’t get my vote. Nor will Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and Rafael Palmeiro, ever. Still, it’s not up to the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to police the rest of the field; that’s Bud Selig’s job.
If he’s not going to block Bonds and Clemens — if the commissioner isn’t even willing to affix an asterisk next to their achievements — then let’s stop trying to parse the circumstantial evidence. Let’s move on, and in the spirit of amnesty, induct Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson, as well. Yes, both. It’s time.
In 20 or so years we’ll remember this as the Steroids Era, the same way the early 1900s is viewed by historians as the Dead Ball era. The records of these time periods will be viewed accordingly; Bonds’ 762 homers will be as cartoonish as Cy Young’s 511 victories.
Already, to many, Aaron, not Bonds, is the all-time home run leader. If we’re lucky, the record will someday be broken by someone who’s above suspicion. Until then, we’ll live with an imperfect sport, reflected by my choices in this imperfect ballot:
BARRY BONDS: With those 762 homers and 1.051 OPS, he belonged in another league. And let’s make the point one more time. If you’re going to lock Cooperstown’s doors to Bonds, then you have to indict all the other sluggers of that era, too. Where do you start?
ROGER CLEMENS: He finished with 354 victories (ninth all time), seven Cy Young Awards, and is No. 3 all time in strikeouts. But you could argue the Rocket’s greatest legacy was hiring Rusty Hardin to defend him. We wouldn’t entirely disagree.
MIKE PIAZZA: Here’s another example of the witch-hunt mentality that wants to bring down the greatest-hitting catcher of all time. Huge offensive numbers in an age when almost everyone was juicing? Piazza might’ve fit the profile, but he never failed a drug test, nor was he even named in the Mitchell Report. We’ll take his career numbers at face value: a .308 average and more home runs (396) than any other catcher. Worthy of first-ballot induction if there ever was one.
JEFF BAGWELL: A career .297 hitter with a career .948 OPS. Saddled by whispers of cheating, as well, but there’s not evidence to convict.
EDGAR MARTINEZ: I didn’t feel his numbers merited first-ballot induction last year, especially as a slugger who didn’t play the field. But Martinez’s DH candidacy looks stronger on second glance: a .933 OPS, one of only 10 players in history with 300 HRs, 500 doubles, a career batting average higher than .300, a career on-base percentage over .400 and a career slugging percentage over .500.
ALAN TRAMMELL: Strictly on numbers — and, more specifically, on WAR (Wins Above Replacement) — Trammell had a much better career than he was given credit for. According to baseball-reference.com, Trammell’s 67.1 WAR is fourth among eligible players not in the Hall. He never made it to 3,000 hits but, remember, he played in what’s regarded as a pitching-dominant era. Too bad Trammell was overshadowed by Cal Ripken and Paul Molitor.
TIM RAINES: Another case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, Raines’ legacy has been eclipsed by the great Rickey Henderson. But Raines picked up 49 percent of the vote in his fifth year of eligibility, so I’m not alone in thinking his status as the No. 2 leadoff hitter of his time, after Henderson, shouldn’t go unnoticed. He finished with a career .294 average and an .810 OPS.