By moving forward we deal with the past. This wise counsel was revealed to me through the words of Mister Dean Koontz in a manuscript he penned called Brother Odd ….. “(Many things such as ego, pride, money, vanity…) are defenses of the sorrows of this world but (they can never) undo the past. Only time will conquer time. The way forward is the only way back to innocence and peace.”
It is through this odd circumstance that eventually we will deal with the ills of a so very recent past in the annals of Major League Baseball, a troubled and despicable recent past. The era of performance enhancing drugs and how theses drugs help to rewrite the very bible of the game itself, the hallowed record book, the history of the game, the written word of the game. This book is how we look at the games past; how we see it revealed to us. I remember as a child that I would pour throughout the numbers and statistics in that icon of baseball. As a child, an innocent naïf, who hungered for the facts of the game I saw only in terms of what was and what is and not what ifs and what could have beens. I knew nothing of long treatises that elucidated further upon the legacies and times of the record holders, of the historical review of a player’s career, and, thus, of his transgressions, his blemishes and his willingness to play within certain rules or without certain rules of the game as played in the Major Leagues. I had yet to learn to see things tinged with shades of varying tints of black and white, shades of grey and interpretation. The way I learned of those tints, those nuances, was by growing older and by losing my innocence as I learned the truth of how flawed and human these hallowed figures of bygone eras were as well of the ever fleeting present era that quickly resolved itself into the now recent past.
I learned of how racist the game, as played in the majors, actually was at one time. How because of a person’s color they were cheated out of fame, glory and, yes, a measure of wealth even before the time of free agency.
I learned how certain players used not so honorable methods to achieve their numbers and therefore their place in the bible of the game.
I learned of catchers, who before they returned the ball back to the pitcher, used sharpened belt buckles to cut and nick, to deface the ball, so that it would dipsy doodle uncommonly when thrown by the pitcher. I learned of spit balls. I learned how pitchers would use emery boards, petroleum jelly, or various other substances or methods to doctor the ball in an effort to give them an advantage over the batter.
I learned how batters used corked bats, how they shaved or honed their bats to be a bit flatter than the regulation rounded norm to gain an advantage over the pitcher.
And, I learned how certain players would sharpen their spikes to an actual cutting edge so when they slid into a base they could cause harm to the fielder at the base with the express purpose of making that fielder hesitant to block a base when they slid because they feared those lethal spikes.
I learned that at the professional level of baseball that a certain amount of cheating was allowable and was part and parcel to the play of the game.
Just don’t get caught was the unwritten word, that was all. And if you did get caught, well, then accept the fine and suspension and move on. That was life in the big leagues. I learned that there was no magical world where all was fair and even-stevens. But, even after learning all this, and, even having to absorb the gist of this reality, and, even when I digested the disappointment I felt when I found out that in the world of professional baseball, as in life, there was no Santa Claus, I was still not deterred from loving the game of professional baseball. After all it was baseball… and, at its finest level, at its near perfect performance is the near perfect game and I could accept some flaws, some warts, and some imperfection. Baseball is that perfect imperfection.
And, except for a certain few players, I believed most of the men who play the game played it relatively fairly and that those who did cheat, for the most part, those that used these devious methods, were not of the upper echelons of the players of the game and, again, for the most part, were not the record holders; were not the honored core that set the standards for the game. Yes, there were exceptions, one notable one being Ty Cobb but eventually he had his record eclipsed so he was replaced in the listings of the crème de la crème. Of course, irony of ironies, the person who broke Cobb’s record is presently banned from consideration, by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, for admission to the Hall of Fame.
But… I always was able to move forward, able to accept and reconcile that baseball was flawed to a certain degree because the people who played the game were just that, people, and thus were flawed and that was the reality of the situation: that baseball was a real game played by real people and therefore unfortunate stuff sometimes happened. And, usually, once the cheaters were exposed then baseball, and in turn we the spectator, could always move on, baseball could find a certain measure of redemption and closure. That, as in the real world of human life, transgressions happened but through vigilance and dedication of the participants of the game that the game itself would be protected and thus maintain its inherent dignity.
And thus, the bible of the game, the records and the statistics, were sacrosanct and remained a true and valid representation of the greatest game ever to be played.
But, then a type of player, the biggest and baddest; the darkest and most vile vigilante-gunslinger type of maverick, strode into town one day and life in the world of baseball, in fact, in all sports, was destined to be radically thrown into chaos and upheaval. These new breed of players presented baseball with a new problem because they didn’t just cheat, but that the way that they cheated was so unique and so critical, that it allowed them to alter the bible of the game. The records and the listings of all the players and all their statistics were no longer sacrosanct but rather they made it so the bible, the record book, was destined to no longer be a true written word of what the men who played the game could do any more on just pure unadulterated human talent. The specter of Performance Enhancing Drugs dawned upon the most perfect of all the games.
These drugs were used illegally by certain players that actually had a fair amount of ability to begin with, to artificially enhance themselves to go beyond that inherent and basic talent they possessed and began to change the way the game was played. They were rewriting the records at a rate that up to this point was inconceivable. They were not just breaking records they were shattering records. What was once a rarity was now becoming a common occurrence. And though it was suspected that artificial means were being utilized by these certain players, there was not one sector of the baseball world that spoke out and said that something wrong was happening. That something illegal was occurring in the game. No one, from the commissioner’s office, to the owners, to the owner’s representatives, the front office, to the staffs that worked with the players, e.g., trainers, instructors, etc… to the players themselves, and finally to the press, the sports writers, whose job it was to investigate and report on any newsworthy and/or illicit occurrences.
The home run extravaganza between McGwire and Cubs star Sammy Sosa was the feel-good summertime saga and is a perfect example of how the rumors and suspicions about these enormous feats achieved by these increasingly enormous men using performance enhancing drugs was widely ignored by sportswriters, as well the baseball establishment.
The press abrogated its own responsibility to all of us by never pushing the issue and they became enablers that allowed baseball to keep its dirty little secret. The press became a part of the problem. The press is supposed to be the monitor, the watch dog, for us, the people who watch and enjoy the game and support the game through our very real cash outlay through the purchase of merchandise, through game admissions and the eventual purchasing of beverages and food at the games, games that we thought were being played within the prescribed rules. Walter Lippmann, the 20th-century American columnist, wrote, “A free press is not a privilege, but an organic necessity in a great society.” But the sportswriters belied their responsibility to us, to the game of baseball. They failed to perform the necessity of their duty to report the news of the game, both the good and the bad. Justice William O. Douglas specified that the press enables “the public’s right to know”. He was speaking of the “right to know” as being crucial to responsible and democratic governing processes… but the press has a responsibility to keep other institutions honest through this “people’s right to know”.
The Press should have been doing their job by being the vanguard that spurred on baseball to confront its negligent and wrongful participation in a fraud of the game. The press, without over stepping their ethical bounds, which they on occasion are very wont to do, should have investigated and uncovered and reported to us the reality of steroids, of PEDs, that were being illegally used by players to enhance their abilities to perform beyond normal human capacities. This “right to know” is not a straightforward proposition. Neither the people nor the press ought to know everything that goes on in the business of baseball. Matters relating to security, certain business affairs, and internal debates about rules development are not, for obvious reasons, needed to be subjected to public scrutiny. But when the game is being injured, when the game is being lessened and being played by dishonest means and through activity that is just as evil as the other specter that confronts baseball, gambling, then the press needs to advise the public, who care and who love the game, of this reality. The press quite frankly dropped the ball for one of the biggest errors that have ever occurred in the sport of baseball.
The biggest and baddest cheating tool was now a part of the game and it was suddenly acceptable to cheat in a most grievous manner. Why? Because people in record numbers were coming through the turnstiles of the ball parks and these people were spending very big money once they were inside the respective ball parks they visited. Because merchandising of each teams product was booming. Product was moving from the shelves in record numbers. The product of baseball was hot once again and a renaissance of the sport was happening big time. No one dared to kill the golden calf and thus the great hoax was perpetrated upon the game itself, upon we the people that paid our hard earned dollars to see a pure and simple game played at its very best.
So now what? How is this to be resolved? How do we confront this tragedy? Do we just allow the game to live the lie? Is there any way that we can ever uncover all the lies that were foisted upon us the….gullible…public? Can we move forward and deal with this sorry part of baseball’s recent reality? Is it possible to let time conquer time in any way possible so baseball can find its way back to innocence and just being that once again simple wonderful game?
Actually there is and it is the press itself that can and will perform the movement forward so that this past can be dealt with in a responsible and just manner.
It is through the aegis of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) that the press can atone and make amends for its negligent actions during the age of PEDs. The BBWAA is comprised of sports writers who have written for at least 10 years and thus eligible to vote for admittance into the Baseball Hall of Fame. These writers take the responsibility of voting for the Hall very seriously. People may not agree with the members’ votes, but these writers do their homework and they do put in plenty of time and energy into making the decisions. For a writer to vote a player into the HOF there is a due diligence that goes into researching each candidate, especially for those players who are the tweeners, i.e., who fall somewhere in the gray area between being an automatic selection and having no chance. However, for the first time in a very long time there has been a major change in the process of reviewing a candidate’s career since the BBWAA assumed the responsibility of choosing members for the HOF. It now goes beyond studying a player’s statistics and accomplishments.
In today’s world a HOF voter must also be part of the morality police. They need to try to determine which players cheated by using performance-enhancing drugs and which ones stayed clean. And they need to decide if they should rule out all cheaters or should there be exceptions to the rules. They need to determine if certain players should be judged fit to be in the HOF if they had a HOF career prior to using PEDs and then the voter must determine who fits this bill …we’re specifically talking Barry Bonds and RogerClemens in the very near future. But there will be others and the question will be did they already accomplish enough to be a Hall of Famer before they reportedly began using steroids and human growth hormone, and which players needed that artificial help to boost them into the Hall-worthy category. But the BBWAA can be the committee that through its own personal debate and wrestling of conscience that can be the Supreme Court that moves us forward. Why? Because they are a formidable group of some what intelligent and knowledgeable people (543 in 2008) who are best suited to make a concerted effort to get this conundrum of a bass ackwards situation right.
The Rocky Mountain News’ Tracy Ringolsby and the Dayton Daily News’ Hal McCoy are of two different minds of thought in the regard of who among PED users are eligible and who is not eligible for HOF enshrinement. These are two veteran writers who have been honored by the HOF as winners of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for meritorious service to the craft of baseball writing and thus their opinions are worth noting.
Ringolsby says, “I think what this report, (George Mitchell’s 20-month reportinto steroid/PED use in professional baseball), shows is that baseball, like other sports, went through a period of time that will be forever blemished, but it also shows this was an industry-wide situation, not isolated cases. Hopefully, lessons will be learned from what happened, in that we have a tendency in all phases of life to try and find an edge on our competition and often that edge is used without a full understanding of the long-term implications.”
“I won’t vote for cheaters,” McCoy says. “I said that about Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds. So I have to say it about Roger Clemens, too. He cheated and he wasn’t participating on a level playing field with guys who chose to play the game the right way.”
John Perrotto who has been a BBWAA member since 1988, when he began what has been 20 years covering the Pirates for the Beaver County (Pa.) Times says, “I was of the same mind as McCoy last year; my final decision was to automatically disqualify anyone with a steroid cloud. Thus I did not vote for McGwire. However, a year has passed, with more PED speculation and more admissions, all of which has given me a different perspective on the issue. In fact … (when) Cleveland Indians pitcher Paul Byrd verified a San Francisco Chronicle report of his HGH use… it struck me that if Byrd, …(who) throws his fastball at a speed barely faster than Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball, could be an HGH user, then no one in the game is beyond suspicion. So …every player who has appeared in a major league game from 1988 (an arbitrary date, as it was the first of my 20 years as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ beat writer for the Beaver County Times in suburban Pittsburgh) until now has possibly been chemically enhanced. It may not be the most logical way to look at the issue and it certainly isn’t fair. However, I cannot think of a better prism through which to view the players of the past two decades.”
Daniel Feinberg, a professional film and television critic and self proclaimed perpetual malcontent who rambles at his heart’s content as if other people read and cared about what he speaks to, says, “I’d vote for McGwire. Without any hesitation. I’d have “qualms”. But no hesitation. Major league baseball made its own bed when it comes to McGwire. The sport turned its back on laws and regulations and the players took advantage. Bad players! But without 100% certainty that some people were using steroids and others weren’t, I’m going with the assumption that absolutely everybody was doing something they shouldn’t have been doing. And in that context, Mark McGwire was the best power hitter of his era. Period. The damage he did to the game’s reputation after the fact doesn’t compare to the positives he and Sosa did for the game in 1998 in terms of bringing the game back. Also, McGwire hit 450-foot home runs. Every time. I don’t accept that that’s the result of steroid use. I would absolutely require that his HOF plaque make “some” semantically ambiguous reference to steroid use, but I’d put him in the Hall.”
Jason Stark, a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com, who voted for McGuire as one of his eight votes, had this point: “OK, so I saved the most uncomfortable vote for last. The Hall of Fame time isn’t supposed to be just another excuse to debate steroids. So now that the baseball stuff is out of the way, here goes: Yeah, I voted for McGwire. I can’t say (it) gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling. But I cast it because he’s the first tainted star of that generation to appear on the Hall of Fame ballot, and as more and more names show up on these ballots, we all better have a consistent philosophy about how to handle them. Even after the Mitchell report, how much do we really know about the stars of that era? Do we know anything more about McGwire, for instance, than we knew a month ago? So if you’re one of those voters who wants to make a statement, where do you draw the line? Are you going to vote only against guys who gave horrible answers to Congress or wound up in a classic literary work by Jose Canseco? Or are you going to vote against anybody you suspect took something? I understand if you do. But what if it’s a guy whose name has never, ever come up in the conversation? It’s our job as voters to try to draw that all-important Hall of Fame line, and baseball has given us no meaningful information to help us draw it. All baseball did was let all these guys play, pile up their numbers and break their records—then dump the whole mess in our lap to sort out. Hey, thanks a lot. So I feel more comfortable doing what voters have done for years with other “cheaters” and players tarnished by controversy. I feel more comfortable voting for players like McGwire, based on what the sport allowed them to do on the field, than I do trying to pick and choose who did what, and when, and why. If I could prove the innocence of the “clean” players of that era as easily as people think they can assume the guilt of the men they think were “cheaters,” I might vote differently. But what can we prove, really? Not a whole lot. So my philosophy, now and for as long as I vote, is to try to handle this issue as consistently as humanly possible. And the only true way to be consistent is to vote for just about all the best players of that era … or none of them.”
And then there is Boston Herald sportswriter Steve Buckley who notes that when Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris’s home run record in 1998 that it was the shot heard around the baseball world. But seven years later, McGwire’s silence was deafening. ”I am not here to talk about the past,” he said in what was a stupid and egotistical and ill-advised performance before a Congressional panel investigating steroids/PEDs in sports. Buckley says, “Okay, if he doesn’t want to talk about the past, I don’t want to talk about his past,” Buckley did not cast a vote for McGwire, even though McGwire has never failed a drug test. Buckley says the cloud of suspicion is too great. Further, Buckley says, “This isn’t one of those, ‘I won’t vote for him the first year to punish him,’ I simply won’t vote for him at all until I get a better handle on what his steroid abuse was.” And then CBS broadcasting reports veteran St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Bernie Miklasz as saying, “I think there’s a lot of retroactive guilt. I think we all to a large extent looked the other way. Now, these many years later, the same people that glorified him want to put the scarlet letter on… (McGwire, et. al.)… for steroids. And I just don’t like the hypocrisy that’s involved here.”
And Boston Globe’s Gordon Edes says “It’s an uncomfortable position for baseball writers to be in …being essentially the judge and jury. I dread these next few years and having to make those kinds of calls.”
Also, it is particularly important to note that all members of the election committee are instructed to take into consideration these two rules for voting as specified by the National Baseball Hall of Fame itself Fame: Rule 5) Voting: Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played and Rule 6). Automatic Elections: No automatic elections based on performances such as a batting average of .400 or more for one (1) year, pitching a perfect game or similar outstanding achievement shall be permitted. And then there is the Hall’s own very specific motto: “Preserving History … Honoring Excellence …Connecting Generations”. And finally, MLB also could influence the voting members, as the HOF specifies that “Any player on Baseball’s ineligible list shall not be an eligible candidate”. So if any alleged user was convicted of any crime and/or for any other reason placed on MLB’s ineligible list that player would de facto be ineligible for Hall election.
So, I say since this group is in place and quite willing and ready, albeit with a serious measure of the aforementioned dread, to deal with the issues surrounding what to do about the steroid/PEDs issue and how to validate or invalidate certain suspected “users” then let them have at it. Let them do the dirty work to resolve this sad and sordid time in baseball’s history. Let them wage the debate both internally and externally over whether this player or that player deserves the immortality of being enshrined in the HOF , the pantheon of the greats, and sometimes not so greats, that have gone before in the game. It won’t admonish or rectify the so-called new records but it will take to task the issue with integrity and with a good measure of justice. 543 people serving as our judgment panel is a good start to allowing baseball to find the way forward and the way back to innocence and peace and that perfect imperfection of the simple game of baseball.
Originally published and submitted in 2008
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