Closing the book on the steroids era …

… means opening the doors in Cooperstown.

Yes, we get it. Some players cheated. They took performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) to gain a competitive advantage in a game that is played, well …. competitively. And since the league crackdown in 2005, there seems to be a whole new level of righteous indignation, some coming from the very sportswriters that drooled in admiration when these (alleged) cheaters, well ….. cheated (allegedly).

I hate to burst your bubble, but players have always cheated. Perhaps never to the level that PED abusers did in the late 90s and early 2000s, but if there was a way to gain a competitive advantage, some players would take it, regardless of the consequences. Given the salaries of professional athletes today, one can understand why some players chose to take those risks, both professionally and personally.

Before taking on the controversial cases of Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire or, gasp, Barry Bonds, let’s take a look at a very different player – Tim Raines. I won’t make the case for Rock as many others have already done so. If you want to know more, a good example comes from our friends over at Bleacher Report.

Here’s what those articles don’t tell you – Raines cheated. An admitted cocaine user, Raines was one of the players called to testify before the grand jury in the 1985 Pittsburgh Drug Trials. It’s been largely forgotten over the years, especially since Raines was not given a suspension as many of the others were. He also seems to be one of the few players that kept it from destroying their life, and that should count for something. Perhaps more than we know. Should this revelation hurt Raines chances of induction into the Hall of Fame ? Not one bit.

Why not ? Because it was a widespread problem throughout baseball, and the league office was slow to react to it. Now, that may not be entirely fair to Peter Ueberroth as he inherited the problem and, thanks to a more powerful player’s union, was somewhat limited in what he could do. The fact remains, baseball did little about the problem until 1985.

The other contributing factor is that cocaine abuse was not just a hitter’s cheat. Some high profile pitchers were linked to the cocaine problem, either through admissions or being called to testify. That list includes Vida Blue, Joaquin Andujar and Dwight Gooden. It also includes some Gold Glove winning defenders, such as Keith Hernandez. Cocaine made its way into every aspect of the game, and if the estimates of the number of players involved is anywhere close to reality, it really makes you wonder what sort of a cheat it turned out to be.

Let’s not forget that this same scenario played itself out a decade earlier, but with the more pedestrian amphetamines. That was the cheat of the late 1960s and early 70s, and many high profile players have been connected with that, but in whispers (and in the Pittsburgh grand jury testimony). Knowing what we do now, it is fun to look back at game films from that era and wonder each time we see a batter fidget nervously in the batters box. There is something of a confirmation when we see a pitcher knowingly take his time, as if to somehow punish an opponent that he believes is disrespecting the game.

There has been no public outcry to go back and revisit players already enshrined in Cooperstown. Perhaps that is fueling some of the desire to keep suspected PED abusers out now, because once in the Hall, forever shall they stay. Unfortunately, to do that with any degree of confidence would require far more information than we will ever receive. Players will be evaluated inconsistently, on both sides – those that did not cheat as well as those that were just a little better at getting away with it.

So let’s bring this back to Palemeiro, McGwire and when his time comes, Barry Bonds. Let’s drop all the pretense that the players, league office and sportswriters didn’t know what was going on at the time They did, and each had a part to play in this little drama. The players continued to cheat, the league office did little to stop it, and the writers continued to shower the players with undying praise for their performance on the field. Not all, to be sure, but enough to make this a non-issue going forward.

But we have a much bigger problem – rumors. Some players, such as Mark McGwire, have admitted their use of PEDs. Perhaps not with the contrition that some want, or feel they are entitled to, but that genie is out of the bottle. There is no more controversy. For many others, it is guilt by association. In some cases, all we have are accusations in the latest book by Jose Canseco, as an example. What about Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens ? Alex Rodriguez ? Ivan Rodriguez ? And what about Jeff Bagwell, who has managed to stay clear of such accusations ?

Should a rumor, accusation, or just “common knowledge” be enough to ruin a players entry into the Hall of Fame ? At this point, the only fair thing to do is drop the pretense and judge the players solely on their on-the-field performance, allegedly enhanced or not. This is an imperfect game, played by imperfect players, so why try to find such purity at the end of this process. It is ridiculous, and it should stop now. Everybody should grow up and step down off Mt. Righteous.

The only difference between the cocaine problems in the 1980s and the PEDs of the 90s/00s is that cocaine largely destroyed the player’s careers while they were still playing. That’s why were are having the argument now, instead of a decade ago.

While it is perfectly acceptable for the voters to recognize a player for accomplishing something special in his career, going beyond just the career numbers, Jackie Robinson for example, it is completely wrong for those same writers to take on the role of ultimate judge and jury on the person. Leave that for a higher power with the full understanding that will ultimately happen. Prolonged steroids use can lead to severe medical troubles, including liver cancer, liver failure, stroke or death. In other words, things that are far worse than whether or not they were elected into the Hall of Fame.

The proper thing for baseball to do now, is what they were so good at doing last decade – looking the other way. Open the Hall of Fame to Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire. When it comes time to vote on Barry Bonds, don’t even ask the question – you aren’t going to believe the answer any way, are you ? That might not seem fair, but we just don’t have, nor will we ever get, enough information to do anything else. And no, it is not fair to every player that played the game with just their God given talents. Then again, being left handed and able to throw a baseball 100 miles per hour isn’t fair either.

At the same time, the Commissioner needs to stay vigilant in keeping PEDs out of baseball now and in the future. It starts with the kids down in the farm system, educating them both in the personal and professional risks they will face, should they consider using PEDs of any form. A strict no tolerance policy combined with better testing and handling procedures needs to continue to send the message that these substances will not be allowed and violators will be dealt with harshly. Baseball may be played in free democratic countries, but the players need to realize that it is a privilege to participate, not a right. And that comes with a higher level of personal responsibility.

We can solve the problem for the current group of players As for the past ones, It is no longer about being right or wrong with respect to the PEDs issue. All that we can do is be consistent with how players from previous eras have been treated. That train has already left the station, so let’s board it with the full understanding that consistency is a noble journey.

What we can, and should do, is make sure that generations in the future remember how narcotics started invading baseball in the 1960s, reached a peak with cocaine in the 80s, and then steroids and other PEDs shortly after that. It was a bad time for baseball and it will cast a dark shadow across many players careers, some undeservingly so. But it happened, and the story needs to be told. And that’s it – we have fulfilled our responsibility to the next generation. As well as the current one.

Do you agree or disagree ? Feel free to share your opinions in the comments.

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2 Responses to Closing the book on the steroids era …

  1. Paul Kocak says:

    Plus, what does “cheat” even mean in the context of substances not having been banned? I equate the whole steroids issue w/ the housing bubble before it burst. Everyone (nearly everyone) ignored all the warning signs and negatives because it worked for them. Same here. The after-the-fact pontificating rings hollow, especially from sports writers and fans, who were silent collaborators as they enjoyed the thrills from steroids.


    • Thanks for the comment, Paul. I couldn’t agree more. And yes, the US housing bubble is a perfect analogy for what went on. As long as it works and everybody is happy – wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more.

      I probably missed out on a great opportunity to turn the article a different direction by including a bit on Gaylord Perry. It would have made it less narcotics vs PEDs. Should have done that.

      Baseball needs to concentrate on keeping the substances out of the game, educating our youth, and less time with feigned revisionist outcry.


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