The Baseball Hall of Fame failed to elect anyone this year, for the first time since 1996. This was the big test year for whether the sportswriters would soften their stance on the steroid era, since several known users and suspected users were on the ballot for the first time. We got the answer: the majority of sportswriters eligible to vote agree with Ken Burns that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens “deserve to suffer for a while.”
Though Burns isn’t eligible to vote, his thinking does seem to sum up a lot of what voters feel: no one from that era is clean except scrappy little singles hitters (“I know one person in all of the Major Leagues I’m absolutely certain didn’t, and that’s Ichiro Suzuki”) and although Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are indisputably qualified – even if you discount their obvious steroid-enhanced years – they need to be kept out at least for a while because that whole era makes it “impossible for us to judge excellence.”
Personally I’m more inclined to side with Daniel Tosh – and this is the first time I have ever quoted Daniel Tosh in a favourable manner – who said this a couple of years ago:
We’ll put an asterisk next to Barry Bonds’ name, sure, as soon as we put one next to Babe Ruth’s name. Getting to break records before black people were allowed to play? Excuse me, where is that asterisk? Why don’t people talk about that?
Is that facile? Sure. But what I think is more relevant is that Burns’s big problem with the steroid era – we don’t know who was clean and who wasn’t – applies to almost any era of baseball, unless we think that performance enhancers of one kind or another magically appeared at a certain point in the ’90s. When you add in the fact that every major league baseball player before 1947 is tainted by the fact that some of the best players in baseball weren’t allowed to compete against them (not their fault, unless you’re talking about Cap Anson or somebody, but it does diminish the level of competition they faced overall), there’s a serious question of why this one era has to be treated so differently from all the others.
I’ll add this: I’m not sure if it is fair at all for me to feel this way, but I sometimes feel like the steroid era is dealt with particularly harshly because it was an era of big hitting and home runs, which fans tend to like but which baseball purists often find a bit vulgar. (By the way, I myself prefer a high-average, speed-based approach to baseball; aesthetically speaking, I’d rather see a player with 100 stolen bases a year than 100 walks, even though I know the 100 walks are usually going to be more valuable to the team.) The factors that went into creating the pitchers’ era of the ’60s, like the pitchers throwing at batters and building up the mounds as high as they could, never really seemed like a huge problem.
More to the point, Gaylord Perry‘s open and proud cheating always seemed cute because it was a triumph of smarts and con artistry over sheer athletic ability, as opposed to steroids, where the point is to enhance athletic ability. A scrappy guy triumphing over the limitations of his body is fun; a big strong guy making himself bigger, stronger and more resistant to injury is not (and it certainly won’t be fun for him when he gets older). I’ve just never been sure that the fans, as a group, felt quite as betrayed by the steroid era as the sportswriters did. Whereas the revelations of the gambling era, and even the era when baseball had a really bad cocaine problem, shocked fans because the players were making their level of play worse through the things they were doing. And I wonder: if steroids had produced a game built around singles and speed, rather than slow people hitting homers, would the sportswriter backlash have been quite so fierce?
I don’t want to sound like I’m minimizing the impact of steroid use. But the fact that the fans loved the hitting bonanza of that era is an unavoidable part of the story; so is the fact that, as Dave McMahon notes in that Burns piece, there is no way to tell for sure that anyone – even the scrappy singles hitter – is truly “clean.” As with the era when baseball was overrun with gamblers, the people we believe to be “clean” as opposed to the “dirty” ones often says as much about our preconceptions as our knowledge. There were probably a lot more games thrown in 1919 than the ones we know about, and there were probably a lot more steroid users in baseball than the ones who are being made an example of. Not that steroid use, circa 1998, was as bad as throwing a baseball game at any time in history.
Finally, every time the Hall of Fame ballot comes out I feel bad that Tim Raines didn’t get in, because he’s Tim Raines, and I’m an Expos fan, and everybody needs a cause, and he’s mine. At least Raines moved up the ballot enough that he has a real chance to get in someday, if only because the sportswriters’ obsession with baseball’s steroid problem is clearing a possible path for players from the era of baseball’s cocaine problem.