It's been more than a decade, and we, as a sports-consuming society, are still unable to figure out what to do about performance-enhancing drugs in baseball.
Now, with the Baseball Writers Association of America announcing that no one will be inducted into the Hall of Fame for 2013 (first time since 1996), the story has become more about a particular trend among a couple hopefuls—the cheaters—that were left on the shelf.
On talent and production, there is no doubt Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and a host of other players who were caught, suspected of or admitted using performance-enhancing drugs should be in the Hall of Fame.
I'm not willing to erase an entire generation because we haven't figured out the proper context for this kind of cheating.
How many ball-scuffers or pine-tar abusers are in the Hall of Fame? How many greats of the game played their entire careers in a segregated league? How many bet on baseball? We've dealt with how to handle those issues. This drug thing is still too new to ignore in the hopes that it, and those accused, will just go away.
Baseball, as America's Pastime, has been ingrained within the fabric of this country for centuries. Right or wrong, we've been able to put most of the past ills of the game into some kind of historical context (note: Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson should be in the Hall of Fame, but that's another story for another time). Yet it may take decades, or even an entire generation in the game, to figure out the proper historical context for players who enhanced their performance by artificial means.
Cocaine and uppers were OK, at least in terms of getting into the Hall of Fame, but testosterone and HGH are not.
It's OK to stump for Tim Raines, who admitted to using drugs during his career (and carrying cocaine in glass vials during games), but Barry Bonds being recognized in Cooperstown as one of the five best players in history must come with an asterisk.
Injecting cortisone—a type of steroid—to help recover from injury is OK, but using a different steroid cream—albeit anabolic—to heal faster is not. Hall of Fame voter certification should only go to those with an advanced degree in chemistry. To the layperson, it seems a bit…gray, doesn't it?
What isn't gray in today's game is the specific punishment for failing a test, something most of the potential Hall of Famers up for induction never actually did under baseball's old (read: antiquated) drug policies.
Still, current players who get caught certainly do get suspended, but it's not like the cheaters are being excommunicated from the game after being nabbed.
Melky Cabrera was banned for 50 games in 2012 and got left off the playoff roster as the San Francisco Giants won a World Series without him. Cabrera then signed a two-year deal with Toronto for more in base salary than he was making with the Giants.
Sure, the deal is below market value for a guy who hit .346 and won the All-Star MVP award, but it's not bad, especially considering the historical stigma that's been placed on cheaters in baseball.
In Philadelphia, Carlos Ruiz is suspended for the first 25 games of the regular season for using the drug Adderall without a prescription. The drug is legal if you get a doctor to give it to you, which tons of players do without any problem—so many, in fact, that the league has changed the drug's classification. Now, Adderall is a performance enhancer, but under last year's rules, Ruiz was essentially suspended for being lazy, not for being dirty.
People in Philly are really mad about this, but not because Ruiz apparently lacks integrity. They're mad because he won't be on the field for a small percentage of the season and, damn it, there's a division to win.
Of course, nobody will confuse Ruiz or Cabrera with a Hall of Famer, so it's easier in these cases—and in most current cases—to worry about the here-and-now instead of the greater issue of the game's historical integrity. That leads one to wonder why there isn't the same stigma on all cheaters as there is on the great cheaters.
What about Alex Rodriguez? What about Andy Pettitte? Both have admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs in their careers. Is it possible that Rodriguez—one of the two or three best players of an entire generation—will not get into the Hall of Fame? Or will voters allow him in with some justification like "he was young when he cheated" or "it was only for a year or two" or, the worst justification of them all, "he admitted it."
(Note: Mark McGwire admitted it too, albeit five years too late, and he's still not in.)
Cheaters or not, a Hall of Fame that houses a collection of the best players in the history of the game would not be complete without the likes of Bonds, Clemens and, eventually, Rodriguez.
I admit it's hard to know if Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and McGwire just had inflated numbers because of the steroids, but it's also hard to know if the pitchers throwing to them were on something, too. Are we so sure, even with the cheating, that the playing field wasn't mostly level for these guys?
I recently had this debate with a former MLB All-Star pitcher who played during the steroid era and thinks the cheaters shouldn't be allowed in the Hall of Fame. He feels the integrity of the game should trump the inclusion of the cheaters, even if they were the best in the game at the time they played.
He admitted, though, that Bonds and Clemens had Hall of Fame numbers before any suspicion of performance-enhancing drugs arose. Is that different than the other players? Should they get in because they would have been Hall of Famers anyway, or does that make it worse that they were already great and still felt the need to cheat?
And what about Mike Piazza? Is he guilty of actually cheating, or just guilty by association and after-the-fact hearsay? Will he not get into the Hall of Fame because he had acne on his back? Will he be put on a "wait-and-see" shelf until more information comes out about his time in baseball or the era in which he starred?
Remember, once a player is in the Hall of Fame, he's in. Cooperstown won't be kicking players out after they get inducted, so I get why voters are being extra careful with those suspected of taking PEDs.
I just think it's too gray to know who did or didn't take drugs, and with the classifications for certain drugs always changing, it's hard to know if what's against the rules now wasn't the norm in clubhouses a decade ago.
Without opening a can of worms by outing current players, I will relay a well-sourced story to illustrate just how hard it is to figure out this whole "steroid era." A source close to me was told by a member of an MLB organization that people inside the club were concerned with what performance enhancers had done to an injured player's body over his career. The player has never been accused and to public knowledge never failed a test, but the whispers inside the organization have begun to seep out.
What happens if that player comes up for Hall of Fame consideration? What if the story never gets beyond whispers? Where is the line, somewhere between suspicion and fact?
I understand the message it sends by including players who are cheaters. I do. But a message is already being sent to players in the league now, who can return from suspension to multimillion-dollar contracts.
Ruiz will not get one dime less from the Phillies or another team in free agency next year because he failed two drug tests. Fans won't cheer for the home runs any less vociferously if a guy just got back from suspension. We may not like the cheating, but it's much easier to excuse when it's helping our favorite team.
If the message isn't being sent to the average players by the teams or the fans, why should we only hold the great players accountable?
(For full disclosure, I did not have a Hall of Fame vote, but if I had voted this year, I would have selected Jack Morris, Jeff Bagwell, Lee Smith, Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza and Sammy Sosa. I did not include Rafael Palmeiro because the actual Hall of Fame ballot is limited to 10 votes, though I would vote for him given his numbers when compared to the rest of the Hall of Fame. While I said I would let the PED users in, I don't think they should get in ahead of those who weren't suspected. Having said that, I do not think Craig Biggio, who may get the benefit of votes for being a very good and presumably clean player in the steroid era, is worthy of a vote this year.)