Debunking the Justifications for Electing Steroid Users to the MLB Hall of Fame

National Baseball Hall of Fame: Entrance

National Baseball Hall of Fame: Entrance (Photo credit: IslesPunkFan)

At 2:00 p.m. today, the results of this year’s Major League Baseball (MLB) Hall of Fame election will be announced, and somewhere Frank Robinson is nervously awaiting the outcome.  Robinson, who was elected to the Hall of Fame over thirty years ago, has never been bashful about expressing his disdain for players who used steroids and performance enhancing drugs.  It is bad enough that Robinson had to sit by and watch his career milestones get obliterated by chemically enhanced players.  But, now, the election of players who used PEDs would bring more than ignominy to Robinson and his brethren; it will also bring rage and resentment.  Players like Robinson, Reggie Jackson, and Hank Aaron will be forced to welcome these cheaters to the most exclusive fraternity in all of sports.

That is why Robinson – and likely numerous other Hall of Fame players – will be closely monitoring the results of this year’s election.  Given the names on this year’s ballot (Sosa, Bonds, Clements), the voting results will provide an indication as to how the baseball writers intend to treat steroid and PED users going forward.

In the days and weeks leading up to the reveal, many members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) have seen fit to reveal their ballots and explain the reasoning defend their position.  These articles have ranged from the very intelligent to the absurd (see any writer who attempted to justify submitting a blank ballot).

The most fervent defenses have been coming from the writers who voted for steroid and PED users on their ballot.  As best as can be discerned, there are seven main arguments that have been put forth to support electing steroid users to the Hall of Fame.  However, these proffered justifications ring hollow and appear to be little more than an exercise in tortured logic.

1.    Steroids Were Not Against the Rules of Baseball.

This argument is simultaneously the most popular and most ludicrous.  First, it was illegal to use anabolic steroids  in the United States.  Although always illegal, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 and the Anabolic Steroid Act of 1990 listed steroids as a Schedule III controlled substance.  Only a physician with permission from the DEA could prescribe steroids or HGH.  Baseball is not an isolated island with its own rules.  Baseball operates within the confines of the United States and if an activity is illegal in the United States, performing that activity while pursuing a career in baseball is certainly not a valid defense.

Second, athletes were being banned and suspended for steroid and PED use in other sports.  Sprinter Ben Johnson  was disqualified after winning gold (and setting a world record) in 1988.  The NFL started issuing steroid suspensions in 1989.  To argue that steroids and other performance enhancers could legitimately be utilized in baseball but not in other sporting competitions lacks sense.

Third, contrary to popular belief, steroid use was expressly prohibited by MLBIn 1991, Fay Vincent, the commissioner, sent a memo to every major league club, which stated that all illegal drug use was “strictly prohibited” by law and “cannot be condoned or tolerated.”  In the memo, Vincent specifically mentioned steroid use and cautioned that such use could result in discipline and expulsion.  The fact that the players, the teams, and the players’ union chose to ignore this memo does not mean that PED use was condoned.  In fact, this memo is tangible proof that steroids were prohibited.

Finally, the most telling basis for discrediting this argument is the players themselves.  If this argument was valid and the players that were utilizing steroids and PEDs in the 1990s and 2000s legitimately thought there was nothing wrong with doing so, why haven’t any of them said that?  Why hasn’t any player said, “I did steroids because I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it?”  Not one player has said this.  The silence from the players is more than deafening; it is conclusive.

The argument that steroids were not specifically banned in the 1990s and 2000s is a façade, a smokescreen created by baseball writers (and fans) to help them justify voting for steroid users.  None of the players during the Steroid Era (whether taking steroids or not) actually believes this argument.

Whether or not steroids were “officially” banned in baseball, the silence from the players demonstrates that they knew it was prohibited.  The truth is any player who took steroids or PEDs knew that he was cheating, and this excuse is nothing more than an after-the-fact justification.  This argument is historical revisionism in the worst way.

2.    Everyone Was Doing It.

This may be my favorite purported justification that I have seen.  Think about this argument for a second:  EVERYONE WAS DOING IT.  It just sounds ridiculous.  It sounds like the poorly conceived argument of a fifteen year-old whose parents caught him drinking, and he defends his actions by saying “but all my friends were drinking, too!”   That argument did not work for me fifteen years ago, why should it work now?

In fact, this “argument” is not actually an argument at all. This excuse is a classic fallacy (argumentum ad populum), which says that because everyone else is doing it, it must be the right way.  Just because “everyone was doing it,” does not mean it is correct.   People relying on this argument mistake a perceived acceptance of steroids as a justification for steroid use.

There is also an inherent contradiction in relying upon this argument.  This argument acknowledges that steroid use was wrong but rationalizes that since all players were doing it, then the steroid use should not be held against them.  This rationalization actually creates a paradox:  using steroids is wrong but because everyone was using them, steroid use must not have been wrong.

Aside from being a red herring and paradoxical, this argument fails based on simple logic.  The reality is that everyone in baseball was not taking steroids and PEDs.  It is impossible and quite unreasoned to think that everyone in baseball was taking steroids.  Taking this argument to its logical extreme, if there was only one player during the Steroid Era who did not take steroids, then this argument fails.

3.    The Players Were Hall-of-Famers Before Taking Steroids.

This argument is mostly used with Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, and goes something like this:  since both players already had Hall-of-Fame caliber careers before they started using steroids, they should be elected based on their credentials prior to using PEDs.

Before getting to the substance of this contention, the inherent flaw is the argument’s presupposition that we can determine when the PED use started.  Tell me, how do you decide when Clemens or Bonds started using steroids or HGH?  When Clemens left the Red Sox?  When Bonds left the Pirates?  After Bonds won his third MVP?  As part of the Hall of Fame application process, is Victor Conte going to provide expert reports for PED users and determine the precise point in each player’s career when the steroid use began? There is no precise demarcation and neither player is going to be offering one anytime soon.

Regardless, the point is that a player should be judged by his full career, not only a portion of it.  If players could be judged by only a certain portion of their careers, the Hall of Fame may look quite different, especially in regards to pitchers.  A great example is to compare the statistics for two starting pitchers during their first ten years in baseball:

W-L ERA SO SHO Games IP
Player A 163-85 2.94 2033 35 302 2222.2
Player B 154-81 3.04 1835 23 298 2128.1

Player A is Roger Clemens.  Player B’s numbers are not far behind and would certainly appear to be Cooperstown worthy if judged in isolation.  Unfortunately for Player B, over the remaining seven years of his career, he won only 40 games while compiling a 4.99 ERA and throwing only one additional shutout.  As some may have guessed, Player B is Doc Gooden.  Has anyone ever made an argument that Dwight Gooden is a Hall of Famer based on his first ten years in the league?  If the “they were hall-of-famers before taking steroids” argument is legitimate and I am Gooden, I immediately issue a press release stating that I took steroids beginning in 1995 and that only my stats prior to that time should be considered.

Finally, and most importantly, these players cheated while playing major league baseball.  Whether this cheating occurred at age 21 or at age 38, they still cheated and should have to pay the piper.  The rationalization that these players should only be judged by the “non-tainted” portions of their careers is idiotic and reeks of a lack of accountability for one’s choices (which seems to be fairly prevalent in today’s society).

4.    We Do Not Know Who Was Clean and Who Was Not.

This argument seems to be the supplement to the “everyone was doing it” argument.  The contention is that even if everyone was not doing steroids, some of the players were taking steroids and we have no way of knowing who did and who did not.  Therefore, the conclusion is: “Let’s let everyone in!”

True, we may not know every player that took steroids, but we do know (by way of overwhelming evidence, failed tests, or admissions) that certain players did take steroids.  Why should these players get free passes simply because we do not know who else may have taken steroids?  If I am on trial for stealing a car, can I argue that I shouldn’t be held accountable because there are other thieves that have not yet been caught?  This would be illogical.  The fact that other players may have taken steroids without detection does not somehow relieve the known steroid users of culpability.

5.    Some Players in the Hall of Fame (Were Cheats) (May Have Used PEDs) (Had Character Issues).

Others have argued that known steroid users should be allowed in the Hall of Fame because some players in the Hall of Fame may have used PEDs or steroids.  Aside from the fact that this argument is sheer speculation, my response is, so what?  Why would two wrongs make a right?

Let’s say someone who is already in the Hall of Fame comes out and admits that he took steroids or PEDs, and two BBWAA writers get together:

Writer 1:         Well, we screwed up by electing So-and-So to the Hall of Fame because now we know that he cheated by using steroids.

Writer 2:         Yeah, we did.  That was a mistake.

Writer 1:         So, what’s the solution?

Writer 2:         Well, since we erred and let one cheat into the Hall of Fame, we should now let them all in.

Writer 1:         Right.  That is logical.  Since we mistakenly voted in one cheater, cheating and PED use should no longer be a consideration when assessing a player’s eligibility for the Hall of Fame.

I fail to see the logic here.  No one is arguing that PED use is acceptable.  In fact, this argument acknowledges PED use is wrong, but nonetheless advocates that because the voters may previously  have elected a player who possibly used PEDs, then cheating through PED use should not be a consideration for electing new members to the Hall of Fame.  I simply do not see the correlation here.

Two interrelated arguments are that other known cheaters and other players with character issues have already been elected to the Hall of Fame.  People who support this argument point to Gaylord Perry (a spitballer) and Ty Cobb (a racist).  If you can’t see a difference between a pitcher who is “doctoring” a baseball in full view of umpires and opposing players versus players who are chemically enhancing their bodies behind closed doors, then I really don’t know what to tell you.  Comparing Perry to steroid users is a classic apples and oranges argument.

Finally, the Ty Cobb “character clause” argument is simply a non-starter.  The problem with the steroid/PED users is that they distorted the integrity of the game on the field.  By taking steroids, these players gave themselves a competitive advantage that other players could not achieve without chemical enhancement.  These players made the game unfair.  Ty Cobb being a racist or Rogers Hornsby being a jerk or Mickey Mantle being a womanizer are not apt comparisons.  By being racists, jerks, or womanizers, these players were not altering the fairness of the game as it was played.  The sole purpose of taking PEDs/steroids was to gain an unnatural competitive advantage while playing the game of baseball.

6.    The Hall of Fame is Meant to Be Historical.

Some have posited that all steroid users should be elected because the Hall of Fame is meant to be historical and the Steroid Era is part of baseball’s history.  Some have further argued that not electing these players would be tantamount to ignoring a whole era of the sport’s history.  Yes, the Hall of Fame is meant to be historical and it is meant to be an exhibition of the sport’s history.  But there is a difference between a player being elected to the Hall of Fame and the Hall of Fame displaying an era in baseball’s history.

The era when African Americans were not allowed to play in the major leagues and the Black Sox scandal are examples of truly horrible times in the game’s history.  No one is advocating that the Hall of Fame should ignore these events or gloss over the imperfect history of the game.  Such events – including the Steroid Era – should be documented for future generations to learn about and learn from.  But, that is not a justification for electing the players who cheated during the Steroid Era to the Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Fame can have an exhibit denoted “The Steroid Era” and this exhibit can include information about  Palmeiro, Bonds, Sosa, McGwire, Clemens, and Ramirez.  The fact that the Steroid Era should be documented by the Hall of Fame, however, is not a justification for enshrining these players.

7.    Everyone Was at Fault for the Steroid Era (Management, Players, Union, and Media), so it Would Be Hypocritical for the Media to Now Vote to Keep Steroid Users Out of the Hall of Fame.

I’ve seen this contention raised once, and it barely warrants a response.  So, let me get this straight:  (1) you admit that taking steroids was wrong, (2) but you claim that the you (the media) were in some way complicit in the proliferation of the Steroid Era by not uncovering or reporting on the issue in earnest, (3) so your solution is to compound your original error by letting known steroid users into the Hall of Fame.  Instead of using the opportunity to address your perceived past transgressions, this position advocates doubling down on them.  The illogicality of this argument is apparent.

* * * * *

No one can get into a time machine and stop the Steroid Era from happening in baseball.  We cannot change the fact that the sport was so focused on moving past the 1994 strike that everyone involved turned a blind eye to the rampant use of PEDs.  Electing players who cheated by taking steroids and PEDs is not the correct way to address the Steroid Era.

I loved watching the homerun chase between Sosa and McGwire in 1998.  I admired Barry Bonds‘s brashness and ability to hit a baseball.  I hated Roger Clemens with the Red Sox and rooted for him as a Yankee.  It saddens me that some of the best players from my childhood were cheats and that the historical moments that I witnessed (and cherished) were really just fabrications.

However, what would sadden me even further would be if these players who cheated – the ones who hoodwinked us all and destroyed our faith in the legitimacy of the game – were now rewarded for it by being elected to the Hall of Fame.