I started watching baseball in September of 2004. Not long after my eyes were initially glued to the record books, I watched the superstars just before my time testify against the Federal Grand Jury in regards to their acknowledged steroid use. Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Rafael Palmeiro famously denied their usage of performance enhancing drugs, and I didn’t know how to react.
Several years later, my Dad took me to the Baseball Hall of Fame for the first time. It was here where I first felt the connection between the generations of history and the countless numbers. I walked through the gallery of golden plaques, astonished by the glorified treatment these men were given just for playing a game. We took our trip through time from Babe Ruth to Cal Ripken Jr., and I left Cooperstown with a fresh mindset about the game I cherished above all others.
Over time, the aura of the Hall of Fame has seemed to have lost its touch. I came to the realization that not every inductee was a hero. Ty Cobb, perhaps the most electrifying player of the early 20th century; has been noted as a racist bigot rumored to have committed many violent crimes. He, along with fellow Hall of Famers Tris Speaker and Cap Anson, have been speculated members of the Ku Klux Klan. The class of 1991’s Gaylord Perry made a name for himself by doctoring balls with vaseline in order to gain extra movement on his pitches. Even Whitey Ford, widely regarded as the greatest Yankees starting pitcher, carved the diamond from his wedding ring into baseballs to enhance his grip.
Steroids did not become a theme in baseball until the late 1980’s, but athletes have searched for an edge for as long as the game has been recorded. Professional baseball hardly existed in 1889 when former pitcher Pud Galvin allegedly was injected with testosterone from living dog and sheep testicles, according to NPR. Amphetamines known as “greenies” were rampantly used among players for decades to give them the energy necessary to perform each day. Everyone from Mike Schmidt to Willie Stargell to the “Say Hey Kid”, Willie Mays have been accused of using them. Schmidt later admitted in his autobiography “Clearing the Bases” that these substances were “widely available in major league clubhouses,” and could easily be obtained with a prescription. Were these players “cheating”, too?
Now, it is important to note that steroids were not banned from the game until 1991, and weren’t even tested for until 2003. McGwire and Sosa became household names in 1998 when they battled for Roger Maris’ single season home run record. Hardly anyone hesitated when a reporter noticed an open bottle of androstenedione in McGwire’s locker (“Andro” was then legal in all professional sports except for the International Olympic Committee). The sport in its entirety turned a blind eye to the player’s exponentially growing bodies because it made the league exciting and generated more revenue than ever before.
Barry Bonds was well on his way to becoming one of baseball’s all time greats until he grew jealous of the limelight McGwire and Sosa shared. He supposedly began using steroids in response to their record breaking seasons, and wound up hitting the most home runs of all time.
Flash forward to today, where there are at least seven players on the upcoming 2016 Hall of Fame ballot who have previously been associated with performance enhancing drugs (PED’s). McGwire will be eligible for induction for the 10th time, having never received over 23 of the 75 percent necessary. Sosa, Bonds, and Roger Clemens have also been denied the past three years.
Former All Stars Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, who are entering their fourth and sixth years on the ballot, respectively; have even been shut out solely based on suspicion of drug use. Bagwell was known for his intense weight lifting regimen during his career, and Piazza knowingly took a drug to improve a back acne issue (talk about humiliating). This information has been enough to keep them out of the Hall thus far, which is not fair on any level. Meanwhile, David Ortiz announced his impending retirement following the 2016 season on Wednesday. “Big Papi” would be a lock for Cooperstown if not for a shady report released by the New York Times in 2009 that claimed he was one of over 100 players who tested positive for PED’s. Without physical verified proof that they cheated, they should not be punished in any way. Isn’t one of our country’s most powerful principles “innocent until proven guilty”?
The Hall of Fame has maintained a firm stance on its issue of integrity, which creates a roadblock for suspicious cases. The Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) states on the Hall’s website that a player shall be voted based upon his “record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played”. However, it is contradictory of Major League Baseball to shun these athletes from its history considering their ignorance of the doping issue. All of the players who used PED’s, whether they did it to break records or simply make the team, helped baseball recover from the disastrous 1994 strike and rebuild its fanbase. We are all somewhat accountable for allowing the Steroid Era to occur, yet we continue to play the blame game and cannot take responsibility.
Baseball’s all time hits leader, Pete Rose, has been banished from the sport for over 25 years for betting on the outcomes of games while managing the Cincinnati Reds. Rose has maintained a positive relationship with fans over this time, and many feel that he has paid his dues despite breaking baseball’s cardinal sin. Commissioner Rob Manfred met with him this past summer to discuss the possibility of reinstatement and plans to decide his fate at some point this offseason. Forgiving him of his faults and acknowledging his tremendous on-field abilities would prove to fans that the sport is capable of moving forward.
Advancing beyond Rose’s crimes would not only benefit the state of baseball today, but would start a forgiveness movement critical to the future of the Hall of Fame. If the accusations against current members are true and there are already cheaters inducted, it would not be fair to outlaw the superstars from the past generation. I don’t condone cheating, but I do think justice needs to be served. Baseball made a mistake, and thus, cannot pretend that one of its most profitable eras never existed.
It’s a similar situation to people who, in order to recover from a difficult breakup, choose to delete every picture and disregard the entire period of their life. It helps quicken the healing process initially, but in most cases they cannot hold onto the burden forever. Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Roger Clemens are human after all. Humans are prone to mistakes, especially when fame takes over. They felt pressured to keep pace with the rest of their opponents, which sparked a rippling effect that was not contained until drug testing policies were tightened.
If and when I decide to have my own kids one day, I will take them to the Hall of Fame. Just like any of their favorite superhero movies, there are going to be heroes and villains. I will be proud to point out Ken Griffey Jr., Derek Jeter, and Chipper Jones and tell them about how they chose to play the game the way it was meant to be played. Yet, I will also wish to show them the hits and home run leaders, and explain what they did wrong in order to teach them an important lesson.
You may say that keeping them out would teach that lesson automatically. You may be right. Would inducting Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, McGwire, Palmeiro, Rodriguez, and Rose hurt baseball’s sanctity at first? Most likely, yes. People will continue to debate the purity of the game; which records should count; and how to penalize their actions for the rest of its existence, but the sport itself should not be allowed to pick a side. Not after they let this mess unfurl right before their own eyes. Let’s remember: the Hall of Fame is a museum, not a cathedral. The BBWAA, as well as the Hall itself, should not have the final say of what is right or wrong.