In Favor of Recognition

by Gregory Pratt, Special to
December 18, 2007

Let me cut to the chase: baseball's steroid users, known or suspected, belong in baseball's Hall of Fame. The first reason for this is that the controversial have legitimate Hall of Fame numbers. Barry Bonds is baseball's all-time homerun leader. Roger Clemens is known to many as his era's greatest pitcher. Rafael Palmeiro has three thousand hits and well over five hundred homeruns. Sammy Sosa helped revitalize baseball following the strike and has over 600 homeruns. Mark McGwire is almost at the 600 homerun mark, joined Sosa in "The Chase" and was an anchor for the Bash Brothers in Oakland. Some of those named by Jose Canseco -- who I think also belongs, due to both his success on the field as well as his book's significance to the game -- deserve induction into the Hall of Fame. Ivan Rodriguez, who I occasionally refer to as "I-Roid", is the best overall catcher of his time and perhaps the greatest of all time. The list could, theoretically, continue, but I believe the point has been established. Numerous players known or widely-suspected of using steroids have collected various prerequisites for induction into the Hall of Fame; therefore, they should be recognized as Hall of Famers.

The counter to that argument is one I've heard so frequently I could recite it like a favorite song. "They cheated to get to where they got; ergo, they forfeit induction." That is not a view I'm unsympathetic toward. I do consider the achievements of Barry Bonds less than those of Hank Aaron or, especially, Babe Ruth. Bonds simply wasn't the pure power hitter Ruth was and he would've never, by his own admission, reached Willie Mays, let alone Aaron, "naturally" -- something he acknowledged in the 1990s, before he hit late-puberty and everything became possible with the help of luck and God.

Now don't misunderstand me -- I share the view of every sports regulating committee, most fans and the medical community that steroids are a cheater's tool. I find Bonds' transformation a grotesque, tragic one, and I've long referred to him as the Darth Vader of Professional Sports for his metamorphosis into something he was simply never meant to be because of all-too-human insecurity. I just do not believe that steroid use or "cheating" disqualifies someone from being a Hall of Fame player. That is where this conversation complicates and leads into the second, more significant reason for inclusion of these players.

Gaylord Perry is a Hall of Fame major league pitcher who comes up frequently in discussions of "cheaters" in baseball. Don Sutton is another Hall of Fame pitcher who is known to have "cheated," and he utilized many of the same techniques as Perry. In fact, Sutton once cracked about meeting Gaylord Perry, "He gave me a jar of Vaseline. I thanked him and gave him a piece of sandpaper."

Both of these pitchers are significant in the history of baseball. Perry won over 300 games and is eighth on the all-time strikeout list. Sutton is seventh on that list and won 324. They are cheaters, and that is undeniable. Everybody knew it when they were active, and everybody knew it when they voted for them. What this shows us is that there is precedent for induction of "cheaters" into the Hall of Fame, so the window is open for recent players to enter the Hall. Critics of this idea have told me, "because some people have made mistakes we should continue to make it?" I offer a two-part response.

The first part of my extended response is that these pitchers were certainly extremely gifted pitchers. How far they would've gotten in their careers without "cheating" is not an answer I can give, but every single scrub who rubs a little grease on the ball does not go on to win 300 games and strike out three thousand hitters. So it is with steroids, and any review of The Steroids Era at Blogspot or the Mitchell Report will corroborate that. Steroids and scuff are not magic pills turning Nook and Boone Logan into Hall of Famers at their respective positions; they undeniably enhance a player's capabilities but to what level is unclear. Evidence suggests that the enhancement is not so great.

The second part of the response is, I think, the most important: Major League Baseball never saw fit to exile Gaylord Perry or Don Sutton or Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire for their "cheating" nor did it ever give them any significant long-term punishment. Even if they had, for the sake of argument, suspended any of those players for X amount of time, provided those players continued their careers and reached Hall of Fame numbers afterward, without being "banned," there is no reason for them to not make the Hall; they'd have done their time. Except that nobody saw fit to crack down on these players "hard" -- they were allowed to do what they did and they all had notable careers.

That can't be emphasized enough: the league allowed them to "cheat." Why then should they be punished posthumously for what Major League Baseball allowed and encouraged and made billions of dollars off of? There are some who believe that the Hall of Fame should police the sport, and I think there's a small amount of validity to that, but overall, I find it an unwelcome descent into vigilante (read: mob) justice. Baseball did nothing while these players juiced. These users were merely playing under the circumstances of their time, and I don't believe in saying afterward, "none of it counts." To ignore their careers is to ignore reality.

The steroid era is a significant part of baseball that includes significant baseball players who set significant records and have created significant cases for induction into the Hall of Fame. I don't believe that they should be treated much differently, so far as induction goes, as any player from any other era. Do you have the numbers which warrant induction? Then you belong! Not with an asterisk, but with the understanding that you played in an era where offense was "easy" because of the ballparks and steroids. I believe that the Hall of Fame should, and will, create an exhibit recounting the steroid era and shedding further light on the era.

I don't believe that the voters should ignore steroids when inducting someone, or act as if Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were all-natural phenoms; they weren't. Should Barry Bonds be elected to the Hall of Fame, I'd expect his steroid use mentioned by someone at the ceremony. I'd expect him to be asked a question or two about it. I'd expect the people and the fans to know all about it, then and forever. But I would expect them to understand that Bonds was one of the greatest of all time and acknowledge his inclusion. Where he "ranks" in terms of overall greatness will be up for all to debate, but I object to any argument over whether or not he and others like him belong. I am simply not a fan of those who pretend that X and Y never existed because X and Y were found to have done A or B to gain an edge here and there. That goes for baseball and life in general. I don't ignore people's phone calls; I don't ignore people's emails. I don't avoid those who may have criticism of me or who I am upset with. I don't go out to "confront" those whom I have issues with; I address them. I believe in addressing reality, not running away from it, and the reality here is that the steroid era happened, was encouraged, was allowed, and does not merit exclusion.

Other points made by opponents of exclusion to the Hall of Fame for steroid users should be addressed, and I will do so briefly. One of the more common arguments made by these critics is that the National Baseball Hall of Fame has a "character clause" attached to it. This clause is a source of great amusement to me. Only five players were able to receive enough votes to enter the Hall in its inaugural ceremony. They were Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson. Can you guess which of these players received the most votes? It was Ty Cobb, known as the most hated man in baseball for his hyper-competitiveness and general meanness. Walter Johnson is widely regarded as the greatest pitcher of all time, and he was so revered in his time. He was also the personification of class and decency. Yet he did not gain more votes than Ty Cobb. Well, if the original voters didn't care about character all that much, I don't see where today's voters would gain justification for pretending that a player's career never occurred because he was a bad man. It is, at best, a minor thing to note.  I am simply opposed to judging a Hall of Fame candidate because of "character" unless there is something of enormous significance, like a murder or child molestation.  But that is not at play with "cheating" whether it relates to steroids or scuffing, especially not if it occurred with the league's consent.

I think there is one more opposition viewpoint to be addressed. I've hinted at it, I suppose, but I don't want to be accused of something hyperbolic, so I will be straight with it. Cheating is a known, accepted part of baseball. Players have been "cheating" by seeking every little advantage they can get for the longest time. Pud Galvin is baseball's first 300 game winner -- he might also be referred to as baseball's first steroid user. He used to inject monkey testosterone, and possibly testosterone from guinea pigs and dogs, to preserve his health. (Research Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard's "elixer" for more information). Should he be kicked out of the Hall of Fame for his hypodermic attempts at an upper hand? If you say yes, I disagree. He is a part of baseball history to be known and understood and appreciated.

As are the steroid users. As are those who scuff the baseball, or steal signs. The only "cardinal sin" in baseball is gambling, whether it be on baseball or throwing games. Nothing else compares within the lines. Nothing else matters, and until Major League Baseball expels people for taking steroids or "doctoring the baseball," I will continue to advocate on behalf of preserving history. The Hall of Fame's motto is "Preserving History, Honoring Excellence, Connecting Generations." I don't want that to stop because people want to pretend something didn't happen. It did. And before we can understand it, or pass judgment on it, we have to accept that it happened and take it from there. The only real reason to keep someone out of the Hall is if they are "banned" from baseball (or just aren't very good). "I don't like Barry Bonds, I detest cheating!" isn't a real reason. It is denial. And it isn't in line with baseball's past or a proper view of history.

Gregory Pratt is a student at UIC who also runs a political weblog.
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