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Steroids and the Hall of Fame

Every now and again, a fella wakes up and feels like bloviating. Bear with me. And don’t stand too close....

The argument against steroids, whittled down to its core:

A player who is unwilling to take performance-enhancing drugs because of the associated health risks should not have to compete with a player who is willing to assume those risks.

John Utilityboots and Jack Versitilitito are fighting for the same roster spot, but John shows up to camp with the body of Jim Van Der Slug and wins the job. Jack rides a fetid bus all summer; John secures a three-year deal in the fall. Jack could have done the same thing, but he worried about the minor details associated with performance-enhancing drugs, like shrunken testicles, cancer, and acne. Acne! Like, on his back and stuff.

The medical risks for this new brand of PEDs are still somewhat unknown. It’s easy for reporters to jot down the side effects from a medical reference book printed in Lyle Alzado’s rookie year, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t risks. There are risks, and it’s unfair to cede an advantage to someone willing to take those health risks. That’s just part of a complex ethical argument.

But the argument is often presented as "cheaters" vs. "non-cheaters," which is ridiculously reductive. It completely eliminates the context of the era. Back in 1998, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa saved the game after the strike in 1994. It’s odd, but Microsoft auto-formats that phrase to be in italics, and it somehow knows that I’m not writing about Brian Wilson or Robb Nen. Robb Nen saved the game that led the Giants to the NLCS. See, no italics? But Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa saved the game. And that’s how, by law, you had to refer to the ‘98 season. While McGwire hit dingerz and saved the game, he had 50-gallon tubs of androstenedione in his locker while he gave interviews. He was also taking stuff that one couldn’t find over the counter, but that was just a footnote in the story of someone who saved the game.

When a reporter started making noise about the androstenedione, it was the reporter who was vilified. He was ridiculed like a guy who brought a dog-eared copy of "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" to an orgy. Stop worrying about the fine print, Jimmy Olsen, and just enjoy the lovefest.

In the winter between 1998 and 1999, a lot of players said, "Hey, I’d like to save the game too." Fringe players wondered if bulking up would help them stick on a roster. It often did, and use snowballed. Major League Baseball acted like the principal who knew that the kids with Megadeth patches sewn on their denim jackets would congregate and smoke behind the gym at lunch. There wasn’t much to gain from hardline enforcement of policies that few cared about.

When players like F.P. Santangelo took performance-enhancing drugs, it’s doubtful that they were thinking about the ethics behind their roster spot. When players like Mark McGwire took performance-enhancing drugs, it’s doubtful that they ruminated on the complexities of baseball’s history, and how performance-enhancing drugs would make it hard to compare players in different eras in a sport that makes a big deal about comparing players in different eras. "This stuff makes me stronger, and I’m not so tired all the time? Does it make me grow a horn out of my forehead? No?" *Inject*

This isn’t to imply that it was just fine that a large percentage of the players were using. It’s not something that’s inconsequential, and it isn’t something that can be laughed off because a lot of players were using. But, good gravy, please stop the good vs. evil, hobbits vs. orcs, black and white discussion. Stop the false dichotomy of players from THE STEROID ERA vs. the OLD-TIMERS who did things the right way and who, if offered a way to extend their careers and improve their numbers with some chemicals, would have said "No way! I’m an old-timer who does things the right way!" I’m not sure if Rod Carew, Robin Yount, or Paul Molitor would have used steroids if they played in an era saturated in chemical enhancements, but the odds are that one of them would have. I say we kick them all out using the "Fallibility of Man" clause, just to be sure.

So when I hear or read that McGwire shouldn’t get in the Hall of Fame because he didn’t apologize the right way, it makes me stabby. Apologize to whom? To me? I had an idea he was using at the time, and I didn’t really care. I certainly never examined the ethics behind steroids until it became a much larger story. Apologize to the reporters? Stop it. Apologize to the Maris family? Oh, pl...wait, that might be a good apology to make with the benefit of hindsight. But stop with the hastily constructed litmus tests.

Steroid users should be considered for Hall-of-Fame induction. Their use of steroids should be a factor in the voting. It’s entirely plausible to wonder if Rafael Palmeiro would have had 500 home runs without performance-enhancing drugs. And if you’re going that route, it’s worth wondering if players like Rusty Staub or Boog Powell would have reached some easily identifiable milestones if they had chemical help. It's worth wondering if Palmeiro's advantage was lessened by having to face pitchers who were also using. Use of performance-enhancing drugs should be a factor in Hall of Fame voting. It’s a complex issue.

It’s a complex issue.

It’s a complex issue. And, like most issues in life, refusing to acknowledge the ambiguity of the issue is a good way to make simple, disposable arguments.

Tomorrow: more Bocock and Merkin jokes, I promise.