How in the Hall do we handle PEDs?

In discussing the complications surrounding the review of candidates from “the Steroid Era” for the Hall of Fame, sportswriter Peter Gammons accidentally tapped into the real root of the problem:

“What I find is that there is no guidebook to what entails a Hall of Famer or a manual defining the criteria. Most of us vote based on our own vision of what the Hall of Fame is or should be, which, in reality, means we don’t know what the Hall is supposed to be, which is a fascinating part of what goes into each ballot due on New Year’s Eve.”

Gammons is absolutely correct. The Hall of Fame has never clearly defined for the voters what a Hall of Famer is. From the very beginning, the job of defining that has been left to the voters—a group of people each with a slightly different answer to that question. All we really know is that a man is a Hall of Famer once 75 percent of the voters agree that he is, and not before. The best measuring stick today’s voters have in determining whether a player should be in the Hall of Fame is by comparison to those already enshrined. With 237 players inducted to date, there is a 77-year history whereby a de facto definition has been settled on by previous generations of electors.

That standard has included players who cheated, broke baseball’s rules, or broke the law. It has included drug users, alcoholics, gamblers and racists. It has included many players who were not positive role models for our children in any way, shape or form other than to teach them how to play the game of baseball.

And that’s the point: The Hall of Fame elects people who play baseball very well. It is not in the business of canonizing saints. The clause about character, sportsmanship and integrity was a rhetorical flourish added in the 1940s to help boost the candidacies of players who might be borderline solely on the basis of their performance. It has never been used to keep out a single candidate who, on the basis of how he performed on the field, was worthy of election. That is how the Hall of Fame has handled players like this throughout its history.

The only players the voters consistently rejected as Hall of Fame material were those who threw games, players who intentionally lost. Shoeless Joe Jackson and Eddie Cicotte received virtually no support from the voters for a decade before the character clause was inserted into the guidelines, making absolutely no difference to the electorate. In 1991, the Hall of Fame codified the prohibition against players on baseball’s ineligible list (i.e., lifetime banishment from Organized Baseball) to keep Pete Rose from appearing on the ballot.

And that’s been the policy ever since. If a player’s sins are serious enough to kick him out of baseball forever, then the Hall of Fame won’t honor him. Anything less than that and, if the voters consider him one of the greatest players of his era, he should be elected.

The one issue serious enough to question the integrity of the game, so far as the Hall has ever been concerned, is throwing games. Players who defaced balls and corked bats, who stole signs or injured opponents, who flagrantly broke the rules in all manner of ways, were all trying to help their team win. The players of the past two decades who ingested and injected things into their bodies in order to heal faster and to build more muscle are in that tradition. And it wasn’t until threats from Congress forced MLB to act against performance-enhancing drugs did managers, team and league officials (and sportswriters) do anything more than turn a blind eye, often with a wink and a smile.

Baseball has a century and a half of applauding those who cheat to gain an advantage on its opponents. Rightly or wrongly, PED users fall within that tradition. At least they did until mandatory testing began to result in suspensions if you were caught.

But as far as the Hall of Fame remains concerned, PED-users are as eligible for election as anyone else. The only players ineligible for election on the basis of character, sportsmanship and integrity are those on baseball’s ineligible list; the guys with lifetime bans from the game. So far as Hall-worthy players go, that means Jackson, Cicotte and Rose. Some day this might include a juicer, but under current rules only if he fails three drug tests. Anything short of that and the Hall of Fame says he can be elected, which means the Hall clearly does not have a problem honoring a PED user who failed two or fewer drug tests (or none at all) any more than they did honoring players who corked their bats, used amphetamines, assaulted invalids in the stands or any number of other “crimes,” whether against baseball or humanity.

The Hall of Fame says that unless a player is banned for life, so long as he played 10 or more seasons, he’s eligible for election; not just consideration, but election to the Hall. Therefore, voters should apply to same standard to the eligible PED user (or PED suspect) that they apply to all other eligible players: Was he as good a baseball player as the de facto standard for Hall of Famers laid out by seven decades of elections? Was he one of the best all-time at his position? Was he one of the best of his era?

We each have our own version of what a Hall of Famer is or isn’t. But unless and until either Major League Baseball or the Hall of Fame changes its eligibility rules, the fact remains that the Hall of Fame says our individual definitions must include the eligibility of people we believe cheated unless those players fall on MLB’s ineligible list. So while Gammons was correct that the Hall of Fame has never laid out a clear definition of a Hall of Famer, the institution and past electorates have, at least, provided guidance on how to deal with players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens: Elect them.

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  1. rubesandbabes said...

    From the Article:

    “And that’s the point: The Hall of Fame elects people who play baseball very well. It is not in the business of canonizing saints.”

    Yes, but Peter Gammons is in the saintmaking biz – Immediately, within minutes after Mark McGwire got done talking to Bob Costas with his half-confession, Gammons signaled to the other writers not to vote for him. He is the most influential voter, though he does have peers.

    …Promises self to come back at some point in the future and read that Bathazar triple comment…

  2. rubesandbabes said...

    Okay, I was wrong. Gammons is voting for Big Mac. I guess he just believes Big Mac will never make it. His quote at the time of the Costas interview said exactly this.

    But he is not voting for Bonds and Clemens this year, and he doesn’t lower himself to even mention Sammy Sosa.

    So sorta this article is throwing around Gammons’ name, but without his votes.

    Here’s the link:

  3. Mike Erickson said...

    Brad Harris has brought out an interesting slant on why Bonds, Clemens, McGuire and others should be elected to the Hall of Fame. But there are some flaws in his argument.

    First of all, yes, many players who cheated during their careers have already been elected to the Hall. And he concludes that others should not only be considered, but elected, to the Hall since other failings were ignored. But do two wrongs make a right? Gaylord Perry, for instance, not only cheated, but got caught (even flaunted the fact he cheated during his career). Because it was a shame guys like him were voted in means we should make an even more grave mistake by electing players like Barry Bonds? I don’t think so!

    And the use of PEDs has had a MUCH greater impact on the sport than scuffing up the baseball, stealing signs, and the like. Even the use of amphetamines does rise to the level of steroid use. Any great accomplishment of a player in today’s game is immediately questioned – “is he on roids?” – a totally unfair but understandable reaction. Not to mention the sacred statistics such as home run records that are now clearly bogus.

    I don’t care that Bonds was an ornery sourpuss when dealing with the media (many times justified, by the way). Hell, Jim Rice didn’t talk to them and he belongs and was elected to the Hall. And I agree that had Bonds NOT taken steroids his career numbers would be without question HOF material. But wouldas, couldas, shouldas don’t count. Tony Conigliaro, for instance, woulda been in the Hall had his career not been cut so short.

    Mr Harris’ beginning point makes the most sense: there’s no clear definition of what a Hall of Famer is. MY definition is this: “Keep the cheaters out” Fortunately, the HOF voters have a chance to do something about this going forward. Send a message LOUD and CLEAR to those players who have severely damaged (but cannot destroy) our game. You don’t belong in OUR Hall of Fame and we are going to make SURE that it NEVER HAPPENS IN OUR LIMETIME!

  4. mando3b said...

    The problem with PED use that gets consistently overlooked is that PEDs grossly inflate the “sacred” stats that we use to measure greatness. You hear comments all the time like, “If X wins his 200th game/reaches 500 HRs, etc., he’s a shoe-in for the HOF”. If there is an illicit/illegal chemical enhancement that allows otherwise HOF-marginals like McGuire & Sosa to reach such hallowed ground, they SHOULD be rejected. (By the way, I simply refuse to believe that amphetamines could have produced the same effect on raw stats; equating them with PEDs seems to be a red herring. Meanwhile, regarding Gaylord Perry, isn’t true that you have to know how to skillfully use a scuffed-up baseball to good effect? That this is a measure of pitching ability [however perverse]?)I do agree, though, that guys like Bonds and Clemens are the difficult cases: they would probably have made Cooperstown even without PEDs. I really can’t say what we’re supposed to do with them . . .

  5. Balthazar said...

    As you frame the debate, it is demonstrated that the Baseball Hall of Fame election process has no established criteria by which to exclude Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens, and hence their candidacies should proceed.  That’s a fair conclusion of fact, but hardly the whole issue.  You do not ask, “Should those candidacies proceed?” and since your mentioned criteria for consideration is ‘helped their team win,’ it’s easy to see why.  But I will ask that question, really of far more relevance:  “Should demonstrated users of PEDs be eligible for election to the Hall of Fame?”  No. 

    By itself, the Hall of Fame simply isn’t that important, and membership is no abolute standard of performance.  There are individuals in that Hall now who, on the merits of their performance relative to their peers and historically, simply do not grade out as members; this is well known.  There are individuals not in the Hall beyond Jackson, Cicotte, and Rose who, on merits of performance, clearly should be but who are not and are not likely ever to be elected.  So the argument that any individual based upon performance _alone_ must be included has no substance to it.  Yes, most players of high standard are there and likely should be, but the Hall as presently constituted is more a stamp of approval than a certified grade of performance achievement.  “This person was excellent,” with ‘excellence’ pointedly NOT being defined in terms of statistical achievements alone. 

    I would argue that the criteria for election would be more in the order of a) played the game to the best of their potential, b) that such potential was of superior historical standing while, c) they brought the game into no disrepute.  As you demonstrate, the Hall election process _does_ render ineligible individuals on the basis of failings of character, sportsmanship, and integrity.  It’s just that usage of PEDs isn’t presently codified as one such failing.  What we have here is then a loophole which allows inclusion even though the principle of exclusion has a) been long established (fairly or not) and b) could readily be excluded to PED usage for many reasons not least of which is bringing the game into disrepute, which has manifestly been the case.  One cannot exclude, say, Bonds or Clemens because of this loophole, but it is arguable that the loophole should be closed and that they should be excluded.  Simply because someone can be elected due to a flawed process isn’t an endorsement that they should be elected irrespective of other considerations in their careers.

  6. Balthazar said...

    But those are my criteria; let’s consider the principle one you present in your argument that ‘players who helped their team win’ merit consideration regardless of their behavior since, as a corollary, players of high performance if unethical behavior are already elected.  There is no basis to conclude that Bonds or Clemens used _with the specific intent_ ‘to help their teams win’ even if in fact multiple teams did benefit unethically from the PED usage of these and many other past (and present) players.  This has never been a stated, primary reason of either one, nor for most others identified as PED users.  It is at least as arguable that they did it to a) make more money, b) extend their careers in the face of injury and age-related decline, to c) enhance their personal reputations such as making it into the Hall of Fame, and d) to out-compete other contemporary players showing high performance by whatever means.  In other words, it’s demonstrated that these two individuals used PEDs for their own self-aggrandizement, and incidentally enhanced winning for their team.  They are credited in your surmise with intentions which aren’t proven. 

    But let’s give them both the benefit of the doubt and consider if yes, their primary motive, or only motive, was to effect their teams winning more games.  Is that a motive that we should endorse, that “Winning is the only thing” of relevance?  Really?  Without going through all the details, I would argue No, and that the reasons are fully evident.  And this is the divide betweent he users, their enablers, and their excusers, and the rest of us.  If cheaters, bad sports, abusers, and juicers were all excluded from the Hall, then we’d have to likely take out Cobb, McGraw, Slaughter, and several others sure.  But maybe we should.  Because being in the Hall is a stamp of approval above all.  If winning is the only thing, there’s no point in having a Hall.  If credible performance within the rules is in play, and we have a Hall to recognize _that_, then there is simply no place for Bonds, or Clemens ever, or Jackson (even if I like the cuss), or Carl Mays (even though nobody ever liked the cuss).  Rose has the most solid beef, but it looks like he’s lost the argument because he’s just not a very likeable fellow; he’s respected as a competitor but not approved of, and that is the point it seems.

  7. Balthazar said...

    Every baseball far knows who Bonds and Clemens and Rose are.  Baseball fans of any detail know who Joe Jackson and Cicotte were and why they aren’t in the Hall; their performances aren’t erased from evaluation and interest, only excluded from a particular stamp of approval.  They were all Hall of Fame scale talents before the used the stuff, or egregiously cheated, that’s demonstrable.  So were others who aren’t there, so leaving out unsportsmanlike individuals who decided to cheat for their own gain regardless of anything else and have brought the game into disrepute breaks no new ground.  Serious baseball fans understand who Edgar Martinez is, and why a flawed process can’t get him in Hall too, as well as long excluding others who on performance bases certainly are comparable.  Membership in the Hall is selective and flawed, sure.  Raising legalistic arguments to promote the inclusion of some while begging the main question concerning character and the _nature_ of that performance do not advance this debate at all in my view. 

    Should Bonds or Clemens get in Hall?  Not if it means anything:  they can both wait on the bench outside the Hall.  Forever.  The sport and its fans are bigger than them, and neither need to give these guys and the rest a kiss of approval.

  8. John Cepican said...

    Why the rush to put Bonds etc in? You have 15 years to assess the effect of steroids, although it should be clear to all who would look that anabolic steroids distort the game almost as badly as gambling, and Bonds is Exhibit A.The real Bonds had his career year his first year with the Giants, at age 28. Bill James in his research found age 27 the most likely age for a career year, followed by ages 26 and 28, and others have independently replicated his results. Bonds then gradually declined following the usual career trajectory. By age 34 players offensive production declines by 10% or more each year. The real Bonds would have been out of baseball by age 37 or so, having hit about as many home runs as Fred McGriff, 500 or so, and 3 MVPs. Instead he became Barry Balco, using special steroids designed to evade even Olympic testing, he created and sustained muscle mass well beyond anything humanly possible without those drugs. This muscle mass allowed him not just to maintain, but to significantly increase his bat speed, at an old age for a baseball player, resulting in home runs every 8 at-bats whereas in his normal career he had managed one every 16. See “On the Potential of a Chemical Bonds:Possible Effects of Steroids on Home Run Production in Baseball,“R.G.Tobin,Am.J.Phys.,vol.76,no.1,Jan. 2008.See also the appendices in “Game of Shadows,“M.Fainaru-wada and L.Williams. Terms like “cheating” or even “PED” are not precise enough to get at the real issue which is massive distortion of the game. Amphetamines combat fatigue, they don’t make you stronger, and are trivial in effect compared to anabolic steroids. For the good of the game, a serious line needs to be drawn. If Bonds is kept out, then even casual observers of baseball will be forced to notice then consider how steroids massively distort the game. If Bonds is in then no one will pay attention, and his placque probably will not read,“Well, he was a hall of famer anyway.” If Bonds is in it will dishonor all who have played the game to the best of true human capabilities. No to Bonds and Clemens.

  9. hopbitters said...

    At its core, the HoF is (or at least should be) a museum of baseball history. Enshrinement is acknowledgement of having achieved a certain level as a participant (player or otherwise) and/or having historical significance to the game. In 50 years, nobody is going to know who was alleging who was abusing which substance or why that even mattered to anybody. They are simply going to look at the players enshrined and see a small collection of players and think “what a lousy era that must have been”. Instead of unleashing our moral outrage on those horrible human beings to keep them away from our holy shrine of recreational drug abusers, alcoholics, racists, anti-semites, wife beaters, homophobes, etc., we should, much as with Pete Rose, acknowledge their contributions to the game, their historical significance, and along with that, objectively explain the context of the era and where they fit, didn’t fit, or might have fit into that context. To do otherwise is to pretend it didn’t happen and cheapen the history of the game by outright lying about its transgressions. Whatever these players did or didn’t do (most of which you cannot prove, especially the negatives) and whatever effects those substances did or didn’t have (which you can’t quantify in any meaningful way), none of it was done in isolation. MLB is implicit in every proceeding of the era and should be held accountable as such. But admitting it is not nearly so damaging as sweeping it under the rug. Again.

  10. Bob said...

    Bravo, Balthazar. And Mr. Cepican, as well.

    I thank you both wholeheartedly for expressing many of my own views much more eloquently than I could have.

    I saddens me to no end that 95-99% of the employed “analysts” and “thinkers” at SABR-related sites like HB Times, Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, etc., would open the Baseball Hall Of Fame gates to every manner of PED cheat. I suppose they’d all put Lance Armstrong in the Bicycling Hall Of Fame, too. Sigh.

  11. David Brown said...

    I am certainly not a supporter of Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, etc. However, the idea of even having a “Hall of Fame Celebration” exclusively for people who have been dead for over 70 years, would be even worse. Think about it: No Biggio (He of the 3,000 Hit Club), no Piazza, no Bagwell, no Raines, not even Morris. Even the infamous 1996 class where no one was elected by the writers was better than this. At least the Veterans Committee elected someone who we can all agree belonged and was alive to pick up his award at the Hall of Fame(Earl Weaver)and a player some of us actually saw (Jim Bunning). This is hurting the relevancy of the Hall of Fame (Basically who cares if Deacon White is elected or not?), while the elite baseball writers are viewing players such as Biggio as “Guilty until proven innocent” in an absolute extreme fashion. Biggio and Bagwell played with Ken Caminiti, so they “Might be guilty?” Give me a break. If we are going to use that standard, maybe Derek Jeter & Mariano Rivera do not belong in Cooperstown either (Since they played with Roger Clemens)? Same for Pedro Martinez, since he played with Manny Ramirez. In an era, where newspapers, are going the way of the Post Office, maybe it is time to get rid of the writers having that exclusive vote? Frankly I would vote for that. Biggio has more right to be in the Hall of Fame, than the writers do in voting on him.

  12. Paul E said...

      Fantastic job of eloquently and concisely “orating” points with which I entirely concur. Didn’t you do prosecutorial work for the West Chester County NY D.A.‘s office?
      If using PED’s isn’t so bad, then why the hell don’t any of these players come forward and admit they used, like Caminiti and Canseco have done. Perhaps they believe in their own legends? Or perhaps, more importantly, they don’t want their own children to know their accomplishments on the diamond are not quite worthy of all the respect, remuneration, and admiration already doled out?

      Regarding the “pooh-poohing” of steroid use at all these SABR-related sites, yeah, it saddens, frustrates, and amazes me, too.

  13. fred said...

    why is everone upset they did nothing illegle thn so they belong even if they ddmitted it or not if they cheated by gambling or throwing gmes and indited nd sent to jail tats different even thoug jckson and ciotte where bnned i dont think tey went jil so they hve cance to be elecected pete rose sould sed on his plying days who are we to ply gd

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