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Steroid Users and the Hall of Fame: The Time Has Come to Decide

The 2013 MLB Hall of Fame ballot is out, and it’s time to start yelling and screaming. Why you ask? Well because we’re welcoming a wave of suspected steroid users into the conversation and people seem to have strong opinions about that.

Here is the official ballot, and you can see a lot of first timers are controversial like Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Roger Clemens along with previous question marks like Mark McGwire and Jeff Bagwell. Curt Schilling, Mike Piazza, and Craig Biggio are others of note joining the party for the first time.

I’m not going to assess each candidacy individually, but I will say that there are some players who clearly belong in the Hall based on their numbers, but might have a tough time getting in because of their conduct. Presumably, in a world in which we could know with certainty that Barry Bonds never used steroids, he would be a first ballot Hall of Famer easily. Same goes for Sosa and Clemens. No question.

The rest of the players I’ve named are all Hall-worthy, but some of them are under suspicion to varying degrees. Let’s ask the more important question here. Should steroid use matter in Hall of Fame voting?

We can never know who used and who didn’t, so all of this is based on suspicion because none of these guys ever failed a test (although McGwire has admitted to using). Let’s assume for a moment that all of these players would make the Hall of Fame if there was no suspicious on steroid use and that higher suspicion decreases an individual’s likelihood of election.

There are different scenarios for how to address this.

1) Suspicion versus Evidence?

Should we keep players out of the Hall because we think they used? This is an important question. Manny Ramirez, who won’t be eligible for four more years, failed two tests. We know he used banned substances. Bonds never failed a test; we just think he used banned substances. Should we vote based on a feeling, in the absence of true evidence? I would argue that we probably shouldn’t.

We think certain players used, but we don’t actually know. A lot of players used steroids and we’ll never know exactly who did. That includes the players who competed against each of these stars. That doesn’t make their choices to use morally okay, but it does make me think that we can’t just decide certain players don’t belong in the Hall because we think they may have done something wrong. We don’t have evidence. We want to punish users because they corrupted the sport, but we can’t just keep people out of the Hall of Fame because we think they did something wrong.

A jury shouldn’t convict someone just because they look like a murderer if there is no evidence they murdered someone. Certainly, the stakes are different, but the logic is the same.

If we don’t have proof, can we really say who is clean and who isn’t?

2) Is excluding suspected users immoral?

This is an interesting perspective. If we exclude users, are we punishing them or are we trying to hide from a black mark on the game’s record. Wouldn’t we be pretty upset if Germany just stopped putting Nazis in history books because they were bad people? Isn’t the Hall of Fame a museum to baseball? Shouldn’t it include the good and the bad?

I could understand not wanting to celebrate Bonds, but his absence from the Hall would just be strange. He’s the all-time HR leader and one of the best players of all time. He may have cheated to get that far, but we can’t just say he never happened, can we?

If we hide from what brings us shame, we’re trying to pretend it never happened.

3) The Story of the Game

How can we exclude steroid users when they were such a big part of baseball? How can I take my kids to a Cooperstown that doesn’t include the best players of my childhood? They might not be the heroes we want them to be, but they were the best.

We don’t just ignore Nixon because he broke the law. He’s a critical character in American history for that very reason. Bonds can be a villain, but all great stories need villains. These guys were bad guys, we can say, but they are part of our history and we were really happy when clean players broke their records and stole their limelight.

4) What about the Type II Error?

This is a problem in the same vein as #1. What if we exclude a player who earned his way into the Hall cleanly because we thought he used. What if Bonds was totally clean? Wouldn’t we rather have a few bad apples in the Hall if it means all of the innocent people made it in for sure instead of keeping innocent people out in order to make sure none of the guilty get in?

This is a serious dilemma for the voters. Which is better? I’d feel a lot worse if a clean player was left out that if a steroid user got in.

All said, what should we do about the steroid era and the Hall of Fame? I’ve waivered about this for a while, but now that the day has come, it’s time to decide. How do we handle such a complex problem?

I think we have to let them in.

It’s wrong to punish someone on suspicion alone and we shouldn’t try to whitewash over a black period of history. We need to tell the whole story and I don’t want anyone punished for something they didn’t do.

It’s our responsibility as fans to teach our kids about the game in the most honest way possible. When the time comes, my kids will know I think Barry Bonds cheated, but they’ll also know that I can’t prove it. I’ll tell him he was a force to be reckoned with in the box, but I don’t know if he or anyone else was using something they shouldn’t have.

I’ll tell him he’s in the Hall because the Hall is a museum to the game, not a reward for the best behaved.

Most importantly, I teach my kids the important lesson of Bonds and Clemens and Sosa. I’ll teach them that cheating might be a good short term answer, but it’s never the right choice in the long run. I’ll tell them about how I sat up at night watching Barry Bonds break the homerun record in a quiet house. I’ll tell them that no one celebrated outside of San Francisco.

I’ll tell them how everyone said Bonds’ name with disgust, disappointment, or indifference.

He broke the most hallowed record in sports and almost no one really cared. Compare that with the excitement of Aaron passing Ruth and you’ll learn the valuable lesson. Cheating might earn you some hardware. It might make you some money. You might even make it into the Hall of Fame.

But it won’t earn you respect and it won’t make you happy.

We should let the suspected users into the Hall because if they cheated, they’ll be the ones living with the lie, not us.

 

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