There is that great scene in Field of Dreams when Terrence Mann tells Ray why baseball matters:
The one constant through all the years, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, it’s a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and could be again.
Well there are two glaring exceptions to this–two times in baseball’s history when the game was not constant, when it wasn’t the way it was supposed to be, when it reminded us of all that was bad, rather than all that was good. The first time was the Black Sox scandal, and the second time was the Steroid Era.
One of the tired, hackneyed old saws about putting guys like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds in the Hall of Fame is that we lack perspective, and we wont be able to put their achievements in context until several years have gone by and we know more about the true impact of steroids on the game.
Well, some years have gone by already, and we are getting more and more context, and it’s all pointing toward the same conclusion–namely, that steroids had a huge and ridiculous impact on the game for a few years, so much so that if you run statistical models on baseball performance over time, people like the good folks at Baseball Prospectus and elsewhere keep finding that performances in the years 1995-2002 were so far outside what is statistically possible under normal random chance that they can only conclude that a fundamentally different game was being played in those years. Different because of rampant use of steroids.
My opinion on putting these guys in the Hall of Fame used to be that we should punish them by not putting them in on the first ballot to show our displeasure, and then let them in a few years later to reflect their numbers.
But I’ve changed my mind. Let’s keep these guys out forever.
The defenders of the steroid users have come up with all sorts of ridiculous defenses. “The pitchers used steroids too.” So what? They’re cheaters too – keep them all out. “You still have to hit the ball.” Um, yeah, thanks a lot Captain Obvious. If Barry Bonds had used a metal bat whent the rest of the league was still using a wooden bats, he would “still have to hit the ball,” but would that mean he had earned all of the 2,567 home runs he would have hit? “It wasn’t illegal at the time.” Well, first of all, it was illegal in that it was against actual laws to possess and use steroids without prescriptions, just not against basball rules. But seriously, can we really make an argument that using steroids was not cheating at the time? Everyone knew it was cheating, which was why there were all the denials and secrecy.
But the main argument of the steroid defenders is that there is no incontrovertable evidence that any of these guys used steroids. Of course, these people consistently overlook the testimony under sworn oath of guys like Bonds and Giambi in front of a Grand freakin’ Jury, and the drug test actually failed by Rafael Palmeiro, but even when it comes to guys like Sammy Sosa, the circumstantial evidence is so overwhelming that we really have to keep them out of the Hall.
Look, this isn’t a trial. We are not debating whether we are going to put these guys away for life or send them to the electric chair. There is no “standard of proof” in Hall-of-Fame voting wherein we have to hold these guys innocent until proven guilty “beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
Getting into the Hall of Fame is not a right or an obigation that automatically accrues to any player who reaches a certain benchmark set of numbers. If that were the case, we wouldn’t need to vote at all. Rather, the Hall of Fame is an honor–the highest honor it is possible to bestow in this game–and it should not be bestowed on anyone unless we are absolutely, 100 percent positive that they deserve it.
I would say, if these guys are willing to swear under oath in court that they didn’t do steroids, then maybe we could let them in, but these guys couldn’t even deny it before the Congressional hearing. The standard of proof needs to be reversed. Rather than needing to prove beyond all shadow of a doubt that these guys did do steroids before we can keep them out of the Hall, we need to prove beyond all doubt that these guys didn’t do steroids before we let them in. But if there is any doubt, keep them out, especially since there is no way to get a guy out of the Hall once he is in, but there are many ways to put guys in later if we find out they deserve it.
Because I don’t want to be taking my grandchildren to Cooperstown 50 years from now and telling them that yeah, these 400 guys earned their way in, but don’t pay attention to those 15 guys because we found out later that they used steroids.
Because I want the Hall of Fame, at least, to be a place that reminds us of all that once was good, and could be again.