I once loved cycling, particularly an Italian cyclist named Marco Pantani. He was tiny, built like a bird, but like a bird he could fly up mountains. It was awe inspiring to watch him attack an ascent and destroy the competition, a tiny little David among so many Goliaths. When I was out riding my bike for twenty, thirty or more miles, I’d dream about riding like Pantani. Soon after his Tour de France and Giro d Italia double, allegations of PED use began to surface. While he never tested positive, a number of incidents would lead to his expulsion from some races and the suspicion would never leave him. As Pantani was being investigated more and more, the entire sport of cycling was coming under fire. As it turned out, “Il Pirata” was just the tip of the iceberg. Entire teams were being thrown out of races, winners of the grand tours were constantly under suspicion (for good reason) and to define PED use in cycling as rampant is almost an understatement. In 2004, Pantani was just 34 years old, feeling persecuted and beaten, died of a cocaine overdose.
I think about Pantani this time of year when the Hall of Fame discussion heats up. I’ll admit it, I was a fan and when all of the drug speculation began to circulate, I was disappointed. However, as the evidence has mounted that cycling was extremely vested in the use of PEDs, I feel less disappointment toward Pantani and more pity and sadness. The same feelings are mirrored in my feelings about baseball and its struggle with PEDs.
I sincerely wish that baseball players, athletes in general really, never used PEDs. Of course that is simple folly, they have used and probably still use drugs in many ways in an effort to gain any sort of advantage. That may sound entirely too cynical, but athletes of pretty much every stripe look for a way to put themselves above their competition. Long term effects mean nothing. More than any other occupation, athletes are concerned with the now. What will help now, damned be the future. Yes, I know that not everyone is doing it, but I’m also not so naïve to think that because testing is much more prevalent that it no longer occurs or that there are drugs out there now that we don’t know anything about.
The next few years we are going to hear more about drug use in baseball as the “Steroid Era” continues to be presented to voters for the Hall of Fame. It isn’t an easy issue and I still don’t know how I feel about it. While some writers seem pretty consistent in their stance, the overall perception I get is that some are guiltier than others, specifically Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. My impression is that many within the voting community are not just punishing Bonds and Clemens, but are taking delight in doing so. I find this particularly off-putting. I get that they are gatekeepers, but taking satisfaction in rejecting someone seems petty. Do your job, by all means, but show some of the class that you purportedly like to see in the athletes you cover.
Tom Verducci wrote a compelling piece about why he won’t vote for steroid users, but I feel his reasoning in some places is wrong. (Rob Neyer offers a great rebuttal to Verducci here.) First, even though he mentions amphetamine use, he doesn’t draw the natural connection between the two. He feels the two are far too different for any real comparison. I disagree. Amphetamine use was rampant in baseball and many former players admitted to using the drug. The notion that it was not performance enhancing is a mental somersault that I can’t quite complete. Or as Verducci states, “nothing compares to the effect steroids had on baseball.” Look, I’m more of a downer guy myself, but I’ve seen plenty of people on uppers and they have an effect. Can they make a player hit a ball further? I doubt it. but can they help a person get up and get going day after day? Absolutely. In his silence, Verducci is ranking one type of drug ahead of the other. That is his call as a voter, but I find it inconsistent. (For a great look on steroids and their affect on baseball skills, read Dan Wade's great piece here.)
Verducci also discusses at great length the character clause. He wants to have it both ways. He doesn’t like when people compare character to morals, yet what is a person of good character if not moral? I also don’t know of anyone stating “if the racists are in steroids users should be in.” People are pointing out that “character” is a very amorphous term. I would suspect, in 1936 when Ty Cobb was elected, very few of the voting membership had qualms with his racial attitude. Some probably held similar views, especially, if like Cobb they were raised in the South during the same era, one of the darkest for race relations in the country. Remember, 1936 was not very far removed from a time when the Ku Klux Klan was at its apex, even becoming a political force for a time. The point here is that there are stains already in the Hall of Fame so the idea that keeping steroid users out is a better understanding of character is stretching the clause a little far.
Verducci pulls the character clause to breaking when he says he is only focused on how the players treated the game in between the lines, not outside of it. First, in his own presentation of how the clause came to be, he contradicts this. As quoted from the anecdote Verducci presents about the origins of the character clause:
“According to an August 1944 memo by Hall of Fame treasurer Paul Kerr, it was Cleland who listed general rules for voters, including the 75 percent threshold and also deciding that "those worthy of Hall of Fame election should be selected from the ranks for ability, character, and their general contribution to base ball in all respects."
Verducci then goes on to state that “It's about how they played the game between the lines, not how they conducted themselves outside of it.” This is where his ideas breakdown. If I’m going by the Cleland quote above, it says nothing about splitting the character on the field or off. If it were strictly on the field, then shouldn’t Gaylord Perry be deemed unworthy? While I believe Verducci is right in the assertion that PEDs had a greater overall impact on the game, Perry cheated during the actual games. How many games would have been lost among Perry’s 314 wins if he hadn’t doctored the ball? Would he have slipped below the magic 300 number? Does he get into the Hall with 299 wins? We can’t know for sure, but isn’t that a slap in the face of those who got in clean as well?
I do find Verducci’s reasoning about suspicion of steroids not being enough to keep someone out, though he didn’t vote for Mike Piazza, so I’m not sure where his true thinking lies. Even so the worst part about all of this, the part that often takes me back to Marco Pantani is the suspicion of PED use being enough, that being part of the “Steroid Era” is enough to raise doubts. This is incredibly unfair. We have numerous writers saying things like, “well he looked like he was using PEDs, therefore I won’t vote for him.” Thinking back to my cycling hero I am convinced that we can’t know for sure if a person used PEDs or not. Marco Pantani and I are the same height, (well were, he’s dead) but even at my fittest almost twenty years ago I outweighed him by 35 pounds, 165 to 130. He was tiny. So if a pitcher with a build like Greg Maddux were using something to help him recover, at least according to the body type test, we would never know. (Please, please, please don’t take that as a suspicion of Maddux. He just makes for a good example.) Yet Piazza’s backne is enough to raise a red flag. Having had my own issue with MRSA, I would like to offer another equally plausible explanation: Piazza’s skin issues could have been the result of unsanitary conditions in the locker room, not from any cheating.
The rush to judgment isn’t the only troubling aspect of the media. I have maintained that the media failed spectacularly during the Steroid Era. If there was this much suspicion, this much whispering, then why weren’t there more investigations into to entire business? Why was it years after doubts about the legitimacy of these performances that the majority of media members finally started being vocal? They, like baseball managers and MLB executives, had an interest in the sport thriving. While complicit may be too strong a word, benign neglect seems appropriate. I hate to say but I think those who could have best reported about the situation were too close to the story. Far too often the people who cover the teams each day become co-opted by the people they report on. I find it particularly interesting that the biggest report on drug use in baseball came from two reporters, one of which wasn’t a sportswriter, the other wasn’t what one would call a “baseball guy.” Even more damning is the fact that other than Bonds and Giambi, the center of the steroid universe seemed to be New York. The notoriously tough New York media, however, didn’t really come to the discussion until much later. I would say that it is appalling that the Chicago media, with Sosa and McGwire front and center, really missed it. The Chicago media, I’m sorry to say, is little better than fans with press passes. The day a hard-hitting investigative piece on Chicago sports comes out, it will be the first since the Black Sox Scandal. No, the Chicago media is much more interested in hero worship until the hero leaves or is run out of town.
Even as confused and muddled all of this is, I find the media members saying they are glad not to vote disingenuous. Tough decision or not, public ridicule or not, I’d love to vote. How I would vote would be difficult and subject to change. I can’t say with absolute clarity where I would go with steroid users because of drug use in the past and what I call the “5 year rule.” Basically once a story breaks about drug use or some other behavioral change in athletes I figure it had been going on at least 5 years prior to anyone knowing anything about it. Not the most scientific process, but I think there is something to it. I also believe more strongly in the “athletic bubble.” As fans, we see our favorite athletes as part of their respective sport and that’s it. When you get right down to it, however, the population of elite athletics is very small. Simply put, these folks interact and talk to one another. I don’t think it is as common as today, but it was going on in the past as well. The point being that with the common knowledge of steroid use in the 1970s among football players, I personally find it unlikely that baseball players of that era knew nothing about PEDs, not saying they were using, but it also isn’t out of the realm of possibility either. Taking those things into account, among all of the other factors, it would be a tough week or so figuring out my ballot. Would it be an honor? Absolutely. Would it difficult? Sure. It would also be a lot of fun. What would be better than spending ten days comparing the careers of baseball players? Not much and I doubt all those who say they wouldn’t want to vote would refuse the actually chance. If they do, I’d take the ballot with both hands.