There will plenty to say about the Baseball Hall of Fame this year. Predictions. Arguments. Laments. Challenges. Before Jan. 9, the day the Hall of Fame class is announced, and for days afterward, I imagine a half billion words will be spilled on the subject, probably half of them right here.
But before getting into specifics, I’m thinking we should try to simplify the PED discussion just a little bit.
First: It seems to me that there are three major philosophical reasons why someone would not vote for a player who used (or probably used) performance-enhancing drugs. Maybe you can think of another, but I’m stuck at three:
1. Because using PEDs is cheating, and cheaters do not belong in the Hall of Fame.
2. Because using PEDs turned non-Hall of Famers into Hall of Famers.
3. Because those players who used PEDs irreparably soiled the game and, as such, have no business being in a museum that is meant to celebrate those who brought glory and honor to baseball.
I’ve read and listened to 10 bajillion-shmillion PED/Hall of Fame arguments, and it seems to me that the argument always comes down to one (or more) of these three. This is good. This is manageable. One thing that made the Trout-Cabrera arguments so frustrating, I think, was that it was a constantly moving target. One side would argue that Trout was a better player than Cabrera — Triple Crown and all — and suddenly the argument would be about whether being better is the same as being more valuable. You would discuss the quirks of the English language and the argument moved to who was better in September. You would discuss September and suddenly the argument would be about the leadership Cabrera showed moving to third base. You would argue leadership and the argument shifted to how the Tigers made the playoffs and the Angels didn’t. You would argue that part and suddenly the argument was about who was more feared at the plate. And so on. The discussion was like Sugar Ray Robinson. It moved too fast to hit.
It seems to me, this steroid and PED controversy — which baseball fans have been arguing in fits and starts for a decade now — would be better discussed if we have the framework. Pick a number – 1, 2, 3. Maybe we can go from there.
Now, there are counterarguments to each of these three arguments. As far as I can tell, the best of these are:
1. There are many, many cheaters in the Hall of Fame, including drug cheaters.
2. There are several players — Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens among them — who most people would agree were Hall of Fame-caliber without PEDs.
3. There are people in the Hall of Fame who soiled the game too, but more to the point, we really have no way of knowing who did and did not use PEDs during the Steroid Era, because there was no testing in place and our eyes are not a reliable method for picking the users from the abstainers.
Now, I should say — even generally believing the counterarguments, I concede that they do not obliterate the original points. That’s why this should be a fascinating and passionate argument. It’s Gnip Gnop, back and forth. It IS true that steroid use brought dishonor to baseball. It IS likely that some players might not have anything close to a Hall of Fame argument without PEDs. It IS certain that while we have no way of knowing everyone who used or didn’t use, there are some players (1) who have tested positive after testing was finally implemented; (2) who admitted using after being caught by one method or another; (3) who have a preponderance of circumstantial evidence pointing to their PED use. And then you have the, “Just because you can’t catch all the bank robbers doesn’t mean you should not charge the ones you do catch,” line.
The counterpunches again. There are many, many cheaters in the Hall of Fame. Would Gaylord Perry be in the Hall of Fame without the spitball? How about Don Sutton or Whitey Ford without cutting the ball? How about all the players who used greenies — as illegal as steroids in the law — to pep them up before a game? Many think Babe Ruth corked his bat. Others in the Hall certainly did. But in some ways, just listing off the many who cheated — the Hall of Fame would be a lonely place without any cheaters in it — doesn’t make the point strongly enough. Cheating isn’t just a part of baseball, it has been (until recently) a CHERISHED part of baseball.
“I’ve cheated, or someone on my team has cheated, in almost every game I’ve been in.”
— Rogers Hornsby, Hall of Famer
“I didn’t begin cheating until late in my career, when I needed something to help me survive … I didn’t cheat in 1963 when I won 24 games. Well, maybe a little.”
— Whitey Ford, Hall of Famer
“If you know how to cheat, start now.”
— Earl Weaver, Hall of Famer
“No, we don’t cheat. And even if we did, I’d never tell you.”
— Tommy Lasorda, Hall of Famer
“Anything short of murder is OK.”
— Dick Williams, Hall of Famer
“[A player holding the base runner down] … I don’t call that cheating. I call that heads-up baseball. Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it.”
— Leo Durocher, Hall of Famer
And so on. Nobody is entirely sure where “It you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin'” or “It’s not cheating if you don’t get caught” came from. But these have been prominent ideologies in baseball. Even now, when you talk about greenies or corking bats or scuffing balls or stealing signs, many people just kind of shrug and laugh and think of it all as relatively harmless mischief. Steroid use, though, has taken on darker and more sinister tones.
Which leads to the argument that steroid use is a different level of wickedness and brings a whole different level of dishonor to the game — maybe. But what brought more dishonor to baseball than the years when dark-skinned players were simply not allowed to play in the major leagues? It remains the game’s greatest shame. And yet men who used their position and power to ACTIVELY participate and advance that shame — men like Tom Yawkey, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Ty Cobb, Cap Anson, George Weiss and others — are in the Hall of Fame. Alcoholics are in the Hall of Fame. Other drug users are in the Hall of Fame. People who did pretty despicable acts — spit on an umpire, attack a fan, purposely spike other players, purposely throw at other players’ heads — are in the Hall of Fame. All these, certainly brought dishonor to the game.
It’s a fascinating set of arguments, powerful points on each side. Election to the Hall of Fame, of course, is not a right. It’s a privilege. And for a player — any player — to get 75% of the voters to agree on his Hall of Fame worth, he must win any number of arguments. If 6% don’t vote for a player because of his defensive deficiencies, 9% because of his base running flaws, 7% because he did not hit with enough power, 4% because he wasn’t good enough in the postseason … he doesn’t have enough votes. It isn’t just one reason. It’s never just one reason.
And this, I think, is the power of the anti-PED surge. The three arguments — that PED use is cheating, that it turns ordinary players into stars and that it is a stain on the game — are each powerful in their own right. Together, in rat-tat-tat combination, they are overwhelming. That’s why I think the arguments should be broken down, bit by bit.