Cooperstown! The bastion of baseball reverence standing in the quiet flat lands of central New York state… that’s where they kept all the treasures of the game. What a pristine, magical place that must be — a place where zero players from today's Hall of Fame ballot get to reside.
We may not all have the coordination or motor skills to be baseball players; we may not all have the passion or vocabulary to be writers. But at some point, we were all kids, and we probably thought baseball was perfect.
Nostalgia twists our memories into the best versions they could possibly be. So the perspective, when thinking, considering, and judging the game as they do each year with the Hall of Fame ballot, can wind up being from that angle — of a child. These players are heroes, legends, infallible icons; we let them hang on the back of our bedroom doors for a decade, how could they possibly have done anything wrong?
And those that were revealed to have been cheaters — how dare they poison the game for everyone else! They are villains and deserve to be punished!
The decision to use PEDs is probably made when considering a multitude of pressures that we’ll in all likelihood never know: Pressure to keep up with the talent bar, pressure to keep a job after a slick young replacement comes up, pressure to make money to support a family, pressure to not give up on everything they’ve worked for — no one gets into baseball because they’re looking forward to being a debate topic or disappointing legions of fans. And nobody walks into training camp, claps their hands and rubs them together, announcing how excited they are to start using some of those sweet, sweet banned substances.
If a guy could kick MLB’s doors down, burst onto the scene, blast a salvo of home runs every year, routinely make spectacular plays in the field, and steal 40 bases in a season without harnessing the power of fish tranquilizers, then yeah; he should do that. That would be the ideal situation. But there are hundreds of players in this league, thousands more in the minors who are even more motivated to get up to the Majors, and they’re not all Mike Trout. Demonizing these players is unfair; using assumptions to starve them of an honor is unintelligent.
In a lot of cases, no one outside of the players who used or didn’t use them will know the truth. But that doesn’t stop BBWAA writers from doing their own detective work. Take for example Pedro Gomez in April of last year, when he tweeted that his reasoning for keeping Jeff Bagwell out of the Hall of Fame was because Bagwell, under suspicion for using, has never denied that he didn’t. In Gomez’s mind, that’s as good as an admission and it’s a good enough reason to leave Bagwell off the ballot.
Which is silly — that whether or not Bagwell receives what any BBWAA voter believes to be an incredible honor comes down to how merciful Pedro Gomez is feeling — but in letting people vote with their hearts, what you have to remember is that some people have dumb hearts.
Also: Bagwell has in fact denied using PEDs.
Which, in turn, led to Gomez’s response that when “You join BBWAA for 10 years, you get to do what YOU want with your vote.”
How effective of a voter can you be if you’re so caught up in your own beliefs that you refuse to change them once presented with facts that directly contradict them? If you’d rather be influential than right, then what exactly makes the organization you represent so appealing?
Some writers have developed images of themselves standing guard at the gates of Cooperstown, waving torches at Jeff Bagwell and Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, spouting scripture from the good old days of the game, when there was only crack and grass to worry about — the crack of the bat and the smell of the grass, of course! Also, there was drinking, smoking, drug use, sexism, racism, and Ty Cobb — Pittsburgh’s mascot, the Pirate Parrot, currently “has dreams” of being inducted into the Mascot Hall of Fame, despite his well documented coke-dealing in the ‘80s. But these chapters tend to be glossed over, and realistically, they happened so, so long ago, and are very easy to ignore. PEDs are our generation's substances, so naturally, that’s the one hurts the most.
Banning drugs is about player safety and about professionals setting an example for a game played by many athletes at many ages.
Players either use the organic talent they’ve got and work to reach their potential, or they do the same thing while supplementing any progress with artificial acceleration, at the cost of their own health. If a guy knows the risks of using a substance and uses it anyway, then, whether he realizes it or not, he’s taking responsibility for his actions. It’s unclear why there needs to be a secret club guarded by a Greek chorus to let him know what he did was wrong and he should feel bad and he will never get into their club for what he did.
Nobody is saying these players are innocent, we just don’t know if they are or not. And if whether or not a guy has used PEDs is the threshold for measuring his worthiness for the Hall, then making assumptions is a travesty. And if making assumptions is the system, then it’s a stupid system.
When a guy uses steroids, he’s doing it to get better and more competitive. He’s doing it to play the game. A game he most likely played as a kid, and had heroes of his own; heroes with their own vices and addictions and dark secrets and people judging them at every turn.
We may not all be ballplayers, or beat writers, or analysts or bloggers or sabermatricians or traditionalists or loud people talking on the subway, but at some point, we were all kids. And as kids, we learned one mantra quite early: Drugs are bad. Don’t do drugs. I remember knowing that I shouldn’t do drugs before I knew the name of any individual substance.
Baseball, so often referred to as “a child’s game,” seems to feature adults playing by rules set in the ambiguity of childlike ignorance.
At some point — maybe when the hundreds of thousands of dollars come into play—this becomes an adult’s game. And unlike children, adults have their own developed opinions from years of experience. They make their own decisions and live with their own consequences.
If a baseball player wants to use drugs to appear better than he would have been, that’s on him. And if we, as adults, want to hate him for it, or ignore it and cheer, then we can do that too.
But thus far, making it the law has only shed light on an imperfect testing system and detracted from the honor of getting into the Hall by revealing the flawed, presumptuous thinking of the gatekeepers.
Drugs exist in baseball. It may not jive with the golden summer imagery the game once had, but it’s the case, and they’re going to un-exist. Educating on the effects and hoping for common sense is the best way to deal with the culture, so that the debate is about human health; not the morals required to enter an elite club.
If the Hall of Fame wants to exist as both a warm embodiment of the game’s intimate history and the rigid threshold through which its icons must pass to achieve legitimacy, then they should probably do it knowing that any shady decisions they made on the job were done without answering to a collective of judgmental pens.
It’s tough to watch a favorite player admit their use. The soiling of a childhood memory is difficult not to take personally. The reality is that none of the players on the Hall of Fame ballot today were playing because they knew you were watching. They were playing because they were passionate enough to have the drive and lucky enough to have the skill. That they used — if they used — was a decision they made on their own and would be living with consequences, whether they cross into Cooperstown or not.
Justin Klugh is a sports producer for Philly.com and is the senior editor of That Ball's Outta Here