Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by forum poster ofahn.
Three days ago, a great player, Ron Santo, and a very good player, Barry Larkin, were inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Santo was elected by the Veterans Committee. Larkin was elected by the sportswriters and may be the last “clean” player to gain entry for the next twenty years.
By clean I mean that Larkin was never tainted by the specter of PEDs, otherwise known as Performance Enhancing Drugs; primarily Anabolic Steroids and Human Growth Hormone (HGH). From this point on players who began and ended their careers in the “Steroid Era” will make up the majority of names on the ballot.
Sportswriters are polarized about whether PED use should disqualify a player from entry into the Hall. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written debating one simple question: should steroid use disqualify a player from the hall of fame?
The Steroid Era seems to have begun around 1987 and ended about 2004 with the bilateral agreement for testing. A good argument could be made that some players are still cheating but that’s best left for another post. Anabolic Steroids seem to have garnered most of the attention, but Human Growth Hormone (HGH) was also widely used. These can be dangerous drugs if used outside of a doctor’s care BUT all players that used them were given the same improper advantage, which established a fairly level playing field. Many fans and sportswriters have expressed outrage over the “cheating” players and corruption of the “purity” of the game and its statistics by Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs). The idea of PEDs, of course, was to gain an edge over other players for competitive and economic reasons.
I’ve read volumes of stories from well respected sportswriters that explain in clinical detail why they won’t vote for a player that has
- admitted using PEDs
- been accused of using PEDs
- been suspected of using PEDs
despite the fact that the player in question was one of the best from that era. Do you think this is fair? I don’t. I just don’t see how PED use should, by itself, disqualify a player from the Hall Of Fame.
Baseball has never been “pure” in its practice. We applaud players that “cheat” on a fast ball, or “cheat” a few steps either direction in the field, or the catcher that “cheats” by pulling a pitch back into the strike zone and framing it for the catcher. Of course, you can dismiss that as “taking a competitive edge” because “everyone does it” so the playing field is level, but what about the next level of cheating for a “competitive edge”?
Players have been attempting to steal the other team’s signs since around the third inning of the first organized game. Being able to do so is considered a skill valued by his team, but some teams have used their ballparks to gain an edge that other teams can’t match. Members of the 1951 New York Giants have admitted to stealing signs from center field during their amazing run from 13 ½ games back that allowed them to win the pennant that year. Clearly, this was not a level playing field and more than a “competitive edge” and it was performance enhancing. Does that mean we should change the record books? You wouldn’t find many fans that would agree with that.
Players have been cheating as individuals since the game was invented. When the rules prohibited pitchers from adding foreign substances to a baseball they simply did it anyway. The most notorious pitcher to do so was Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry who admitted to loading up baseballs (cheating) while he was still playing. This was unquestionably performance enhancing, but it wasn’t a drug and the sportswriters voted him into the Hall.
New York Yankee catcher Elston Howard would sharpen the buckles on his shin guards and gouge the baseball before throwing it back to Whitey Ford during the Yankees’ glory days in the 50s. If this would not have helped Whitey make the ball move in ways it normally wouldn’t, Howard wouldn’t have done it and maybe the Yankees would not have won as many World Series titles during that time. This was performance enhancing and cheating and did not provide a level playing field but, again, it wasn’t a drug and the sportswriters voted Ford into the Hall with one of the lowest number of wins by a starting pitcher. A valid argument could be made that Ford doesn’t make the Hall if he hadn’t cheated. You can argue (probably without much substance) that these were isolated incidents and weren’t wide spread so they do not constitute an era.
The statistics from each baseball era have been skewed by factors unique for that period. At the beginning of the last century we had the “Dead Ball” Era. During this twenty year period the baseballs were constructed differently and did not travel as far when they were hit. Home runs were rare. Some great pitchers came out of this era including Cy Young, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson. These Hall of Famers would have probably earned admission in any era because they were the dominant players, but the baseball in use allowed them to put up great statistics that may never be equaled. In fact, other pitchers during that era had career numbers that equaled or exceeded those of pitchers later elected to the Hall from other eras, but those pitchers were not selected because the voters understood that they were not the best from that period.
From the 20s to the early 40s we had the “Live” or “Rabbit Ball” Era. By substantially changing the construction of the ball the amount of hits and home runs exploded in just one year. Because the game had changed, and all players were equally affected, the Hall voters looked at hitting and pitching statistics differently than they had for the Dead Ball Era. Pitchers were held to a lesser standard and hitters to a greater one, but the standard the Hall voters focused on was whether the player was dominant in that period and not against statistics from the previous era.
Next came the “Greenies” Era which is the first documented period where drugs had a substantial influence. Greenies, or amphetamines as they are pharmaceutically known, were commonly used from the 1950s through the middle of the last decade and their use did not decline until the widespread use of PEDs replaced them. Amphetamines (Greenies) are a performance enhancing drug and provide a “competitive edge”. Players used them to overcome their fatigue when playing a day game after a night game, or a day game after a night of heavy drinking, and/or one of the many scheduled doubleheaders that were a baseball tradition until the 90s. The use of Greenies was so open that teams would have a bowl of them sitting in the clubhouse or coffee pots with amphetamine laced coffee clearly labeled with a code.
Does that mean any player that used them cheated, and does that mean that they shouldn’t be considered for the Hall of Fame? Or, if they have already been elected, should that player be stripped of their place in the Hall? The big problem with those questions is that you would be discussing the removal from the Hall of
- Hank Aaron
- Willie Mays
- Mickey Mantle
- Ted Williams
- Brooks Robinson
- Frank Robinson
- Jim Palmer
- Eddie Murray
- Cal Ripken
- Willie McCovey
- Carl Yaztremski
- Al Kaline
- Tom Seaver
- Warren Spahn
- Eddie Matthews
- Harmon Killebrew
- Bob Gibson
and many others. Some of these players have admitted using Greenies and almost all are suspected of doing so. The idea of Greenies, of course, was to gain an edge over other players for competitive and economic reasons. Some fans have argued that Greenies did not provide the same level of performance enhancement as steroids BUT they did significantly improve a player’s performance, they were widely used, and all players that used them were given the same improper advantage which made it a level playing field. That’s what makes it an “era”.
Any discussion about Hall of Fame eligibility should address what constitutes a performance enhancing drug. There’s no question that Anabolic steroids, Human Growth Hormone (HGH), and amphetamines meet that description, but what about the next level down. Cortisone (a steroid) is commonly used by baseball players to improve their performance with the approval of Major League Baseball. Muscle relaxants, pain killers, cold medications, and analgesics are all performance enhancing drugs but their authorized use and widespread availability makes for a level playing field. Even caffeine (energy drinks) and nicotine (smokeless tobacco) can be performance enhancing drugs. And that’s before we discuss surgical procedures on the limbs and joints as well as laser surgery on the eyes. All of these medications and procedures are available to the majority of the players which makes for a level playing field. Over the last thirty years there has been an explosion of technology involving bats, gloves, eyewear, and shoes that can be considered performance enhancing. As these substances, procedures, and equipment become available they change the game, and the Hall voters continue to consider the evolving game when they determine which players were the most dominant in comparison to their peers.
Some writers and fans would make the steroids’ debate a character issue using the argument that “cheaters” don’t deserve to be in the Hall. If character was an issue, Ty Cobb would never have gained entry and Ron Santo would have been elected on the first ballot instead of a year after he was gone.
Finally, we haven’t questioned the statistics of any of the “Golden Era” players despite the fact that racism prevented them from competing with some of the best players the major leagues never saw. Dominant Negro League players were barred from Major League Baseball. The outstanding quality of those players, if they would have been allowed on Major League rosters, would have dramatically affected the statistics and dominance of some of the white players that were easily voted into Cooperstown. Hall voters selected the white players based upon the level of play they competed against. When the Hall voters finally started admitting the Negro League players, many having never competed against white Major League players, the standard used was whether they were dominant against their (Negro League) competition in their era. In effect, the negro players were judged against their peers.
So, why don’t we judge the “Steroid Era” players against their peers? Major League Baseball’s own investigation has shown that so many players were using PEDs that the playing field was pretty level. If we go by the standard that has been set by Hall voters for over 100 years of baseball, we should vote for a player based upon their dominance against their peers and not their character or the method in which they chose to enhance their performance.
There’s one other thing to remember about PEDs. They improve the player’s body, which has nothing to do with the player’s inherent ability, talent or desire. A player still must be able to pick up the rotation of the baseball coming out of the hand of the pitcher to be able to hit it. Do PEDs improve that? Maybe, but so does contact lenses or laser surgery on the eyes. Do PEDs improve a player’s ability to run faster? Yes, but so does the improvement in shoe technology over the last twenty years. Do PEDs improve a player’s ability to hit to all fields? I don’t think there’s any scientific proof of that. Can PEDs improve a batter’s ability to pull the ball and hit it another 10 to 20 feet? Yes, but if the pitcher has also been using PEDs he may be able to throw the ball two or three MPH faster. That makes it harder for the batter to even make solid contact, so how far the batter can hit it becomes academic. And, of course, PEDs have never been proven to improve a pitcher’s control or pitch selection. What does all of this mean? That despite the fact that a substantial number of players “cheated” during the Steroid Era, the playing field was pretty level. PEDs should not be a deciding factor if the Hall voters are basing their decisions on performance against a player’s peers instead of those of a different era.
Now we come to deciding whether individual players from the Steroid Era deserve admission into the Hall of Fame. Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds were the two most successful players from this period that seem to be questionable entrants. Why? They were both dominant against their peers. You know, the other players using PEDs. Would either player have the same statistics if they had not used PEDs? No, but the Hall voters have never really voted on stats. They have voted on dominance against their peers. Disagree? Look up Sandy Koufax’s numbers.
The case for or against Clemens has become even more complicated when he was acquitted of perjury in a criminal trial. Does that clear him of suspicion with the sportswriters? We’ll see when they vote on his Hall eligibility this Winter.
The next case is Jeff Bagwell. He has been suspected of using PEDs but he has never been proven to do so. He didn’t accomplish the magic numbers of 500 homers or 3000 hits, but his lifetime OBP of .408 and his other exceptional intangibles should make him an easy choice. You can compare his numbers against Duke Snyder’s or you could just compare him against his peers.
Rafael Palmiero should also be an easy choice, but he had a failed PED test. Discount his numbers back to Bagwell’s and he’s still an easy choice. The Hall voters haven’t seen it that way.
Now we come to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Both admitted PED users. McGwire was the most dominant and feared hitter of his era, whether that era is tainted or not. You can argue that his home run total would need to be higher because of the standards of the era, and that he didn’t excel in any other area. I would argue that his career deserves entry into the Hall because his dominant period was good enough even though it ended early due to an injury. You know, the Koufax standard. Sosa was the second most dominant hitter of the era and his home run numbers, even adjusted for the era, are good enough to justify a place in Cooperstown.
It is fundamentally impossible for the sports writers to isolate the performance of a “clean” player from a “cheater” during the Steroids Era. Even the statistics of players completely beyond reproach were affected by PED use.
Suppose you have a pitcher named Johnny Clean. He has NEVER used any form of PED. But he plays on a team that, during his career, always had at least five regular fielders or hitters that did. All of THEIR performances would have been enhanced. PEDs would have made their bodies stronger and given them more endurance. A 3B would have had a faster reaction time, an extra step, and a stronger throw to 1B. An OF would have the extra step in chasing down a ball and a stronger throw to a base. The C would have had a faster reaction time against a base stealer and a stronger throw to 2B. Once the ball left Johnny Clean’s hand many beneficial things would have happened because of OTHER players using PEDs that would have benefited Johnny Clean and improved his stats and success. That’s before you consider that his teammates would have been better producers at the plate, which would have given him more runs. That could have resulted in him winning more games.
Johnny Clean hasn’t touched an aspirin but he has benefited from PEDs. THAT’S what makes it impossible to pick and choose which players were “clean” and which ones weren’t, and why it necessary to simply evaluated ALL players from the “Steroids Era” against their competition. EVERY PLAYER WAS AFFECTED.
In closing, I’d like to address the “moral outrage” factor. Fans and sportswriters seem to feel somehow betrayed and outraged that players cheated to gain a competitive advantage. Get real! Baseball embraces cheating and always has. Before you decide that the players from the “Steroid Era” don’t deserve to be judged by the same standards that Hall voters have used for over 75 years; ask yourself whether you ever cheated on a test in high school, or college, or on your taxes, or even your mate. If the answer is yes, did you use the rationalization or justification that “everyone else does it”? If the answer to both of those questions is yes, then you have no moral right to deny a Steroid Era ball player the opportunity to be admitted to the Hall of Fame if that player clearly performed above his peers.