I’ve mentioned before that this last season I really put my heart into baseball. True, adult fandom instead of the sort of child nostalgia of the Cardinals in the ’90s. This offseason I tried to care about football and basketball and even the laughably elitist Winter Olympics but since those failed to create the same undefinable spark, here I am focused on the Baseball Hall of Fame which today inducted three new members, up from zero last year. Frank Thomas (of whom I was a fan), Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine. All of them deserve to be recognized for being great baseball players.
But here’s the thing. So does Barry Bonds. And so does Roger Clemens.
The Problem with Performance Enhancing Drugs
They should be disqualified for steroids, right? After all, would Bonds have hit 73 homeruns in 2003 without bulking up on steroids? Would Roger Clemens get the Cy Young seven times between 1986 and 2004? Maybe not. It’s undeniable that they were cheating and their stats got boosted by it. As such, I understand the impulse to punish them retroactively for it.
The problem is that you don’t know who did what in any era of baseball. There are so many ways to increase your performance chemically and they’ve all been around since early in the 20th century. Anabolic steroids first crop up in sports in the 1950s, and in football by the ’60s. Why is it inconceivable that baseball legends were also guilty in an age before drug testing? Roger Maris broke the homerun record too, right? Hank Aaron had more homers than anyone until a ‘roided up Barry Bonds broke his record. Do we ignore the possibility they cheated because we didn’t hear rumors about it? No managers and teammates testified against them for behavior that wasn’t illegal by the letter of the law? Or was it because we never saw hitters show up with a suspicious amount of extra muscle one year? Certainly we have to acknowledge that it wasn’t impossible in their day and age.
What about drugs for attentiveness and energy, like amphetamines? Bob Gibson and his ilk pitched complete games with razor sharp focus and a disconcerting intensity, how do we know that he wasn’t dosing with uppers?
Now, to be clear, I’m not accusing any of these players. I don’t believe that they did anything illegal or immoral, but the question is how would we know? Anabolic steroids weren’t even illegal until 1990 and it was only then that the MLB made it clear that it was against policy. Random drug testing didn’t start until 2001, long after the problem came onto the radar.
There’s very little hard proof the players used steroids outside of testimony of others. I can believe the testimony, but it’s going to be necessarily incomplete. No one person knew every other person using PEDs and as such there are likely players that got away with using PEDs. They might not be Hall of Fame caliber players, but nonetheless their stats will be recorded in the Annals of Baseball without asterisks or footnotes.
In addition, how do we punish a player like Barry Bonds who had a hall of fame career for a decade before anyone accuses him of starting to use steroids? If we take the common wisdom that Bonds started juicing in 1999 and ignore his entire career from that season on, the man would still have 3 MVPs, 7 Gold Gloves, and 7 Silver Sluggers as well as league high records in a lot of stats like homeruns, RBIs, and OBP. He consistently put up 9 WAR seasons without PEDs. If he had been permanently injured after 1998 and never played baseball again, he would still be a hall of fame caliber player clocking in with a cumulative 95 WAR. So how do we classify him? Does his later steroid use wipe out his phenomenal playing before that? How do we take into account that he looked at McGwire and Sosa and suspected they were juicing and it went totally unpunished while they shattered the homerun record and made headlines across the country?
The bottom line is that we can’t disqualify only PED seasons, we can’t even be sure we know a comprehensive list of PED users since the beginning of baseball, and we can’t even enumerate every possible PED and show that they were against the MLB drug policy. In fact, a lot of the drugs, like McGwire’s Androstenedione weren’t. This is why we have to take a more pragmatic approach and look at the stats and the stats alone. We can’t base who gets to be enshrined in the Hall on what rumors the BBWAA believes and which it doesn’t believe.
Stats are Inherently Unfair
The argument against this, of course, is that PEDs boost these stats and could take a good player and make them great. This is true, but so can a lot of other changes to the game over the years. Science has revolutionized the game in legal ways as much as it has the world around it.
Babe Ruth didn’t have a nutritionist. He didn’t have a physical therapist and a personal trainer and video archives of pitchers and hitters to examine. The pitchers and hitters he faced didn’t have those advantages either, but that doesn’t make it an even exchange.
Sandy Koufax didn’t have the advantage of modern medicines and surgeries that could have persuaded him to continue pitching instead of saving his arm.
Teams of yesterday didn’t have the ability to scout every high school and college in the country, or import players from the Caribbean and Japan.
There’s a generation of negro league players that never even got to have their stats recorded consistently and will consequently never have the numbers they should have.
Hall of Famers like Stan Musial, Joe Dimaggio, Yogi Berra, and Ted Williams lost seasons at a time to military service, how is that fair compared to the players that came before and after the war and didn’t have seasons taken from them in their primes?
What about hitters in the dead ball era? And what about all the other equipment changes like sunglasses and batting helmets and pitching machines? And what about the “traditional” kind of cheating that doesn’t show up on drug tests like corked bats or pitchers junking up the ball?
The fact is, it isn’t fair. Stats don’t tell the whole story. They don’t account for the changes in the game, they don’t account for better training, medicine, or equipment and they don’t account for cheating in any form. Stats are already useless for comparing players of different eras in any truly meaningful way. You can say Ty Cobb was a better hitter than Ted Williams because of their lifetime batting averages but it’s not true unless you couch it with ‘in their own eras’. It certainly doesn’t mean that Ty Cobb in his prime would’ve had nearly the same numbers facing teams that Williams did 20 years after he retired.
Because of this, I believe players like Clemens and Bonds should be inducted to the hall based on the strength of their numbers. No matter what, in their own eras, they were the best at what they did. Inducting them doesn’t take away from the players of yesterday or from the players of tomorrow (that hopefully won’t be juiced up) because they’ll be competing against a whole new crop of talent with all new advances in science and medicine and changes to the game (like instant replay coming next season).
The Popularity Contest is Stupid
The way the BBWAA votes on the Hall is absolutely ridiculous and divorced from stats. The Writers are likely to vote for players that, while good, aren’t Hall of Fame material. This year Kevin Gurnick voted for one player out of a possible ten. Jack Morris. Now Morris isn’t a bad pitcher but he’s not a hall of famer. He accumulated 43 WAR over 18 seasons. He was an all star a few times, but never got a gold glove, Cy Young Award or an MVP.
Gurnick’s reasoning, which is braindead, is that Morris didn’t play in the steroid era. Fair enough, except that he played until 1994 which is well into the steroid era. Not to mention that the three automatic slam dunk inductees this year were all not connected to PED use whatsoever. I could understand not voting for Bonds or Clemens, but to not cast a single vote for anyone but Morris is a total joke. Gurnick was using his ballot as a political statement and that’s a really fucking dumb reason to keep someone like Craig Biggio (who was two votes away) out of the Hall.
In addition, there are some players that are in the Hall for poor reasons too. Look at Bill Mazerowski. Had 8 Gold Gloves, but only accumulated 36 WAR over 17 seasons, averaging about 2 WAR a season. That’s good, but not great. His lifetime batting average was a meager .260 and he never once led the league in anything of consequence. Certainly not enough to be in the Hall. The only reason he made it was that he got a Game 7 walk-off home run for the Pirates. That’s all. One lucky at bat and a slightly above average career.
The point is that the writers that are in charge of the Hall aren’t doing a good job. They’re casting ballots against players in protest or for players that just don’t belong when all the Hall should be concerned with his a player’s accomplishments on the field, encapsulated nicely in their recorded stats.
What I’d Like To See
I’d like to see a milestone based Hall that is unconcerned with PEDs. It’s not the Hall’s duty to punish PED players on admittance, it’s the MLB’s duty to catch and punish them harshly enough that it’s not worth it in the first place – which will hopefully be reflected in their stats. Reaching a particular milestone, like 3000 hits, 500 home runs, etc. is an automatic ticket to the Hall. This means players like Bonds, Clemens, and Pete Rose would be immediately inducted regardless of their conduct off the field.
I don’t believe that it should be entirely objective either. If the Writers want to argue for a player, perhaps one with a value that’s hard to quantify, they should be able to rally support for them despite not reaching any of the hard milestones. Yeah, maybe players like Mazerowski still get in for a single at bat, but I’d rather have some false positives than false negatives.
As for PEDs, I think the MLB should still attempt to keep players from using them with stricter testing and more severe monetary and gametime punishments. Jhonny Peralta, then a Tiger now a Cardinal, only had a 50 game suspension last year for getting caught in the Biogenesis scandal. That’s 1/3 of a season, barely a slap on the wrist in terms of statistics. You want to get players to stop using PEDs to blow up their contracts and extend their careers for millions of dollars? Hit them where it hurts, in the wallet. Drop ’em back to the league minimum for a season or let their teams get out of contracts scot-free. Yeah, someone might have to sell a mansion and scale back to half a million a year, but I’m sorry if I can’t cry about them only making 10x the median household income in the US when they get caught cheating. I’ll guarantee you one thing: if getting caught using steroids ended up costing you $15 million instead of making $15 million more, players at all levels would rethink it.
Anyway, this is my line of thinking now. I realize that the PED issue isn’t as clear cut as I’d like it to be, and that players are flawed human beings like us all and that shouldn’t keep them from being put in the Hall of Fame regardless of what a bunch of snobby baseball writers think because they let politics and anecdotes get in the way of honoring the best baseball players of a generation.