Big Issues in Baseball: The False Morality Play of the Hall of Fame

Hall of Fame BaseballOn January 8, the Hall of Fame will release the results of the voting for the 2014 Hall class.  Every year, baseball fans debate the merits of the candidacy of individual players, and what constitutes a Hall of Famer — whether Jack Morris’ stats live up to his reputation, whether Don Mattingly’s peak compensates for the injury-riddled second half of his career, and so on.  But in recent years, this exercise has become a chore, as the debate has become less about statistics, and more about an argument over morality that is entirely disingenuous.  As the players from the so-called Steroid Era have made their way onto the ballot, the sportswriters of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America take it upon themselves to turn the Hall of Fame into a beacon of moral purity; those who have taken steroids (or are suspected of taking steroids, or have some weird back acne that Murray Chass noticed in the Mets’ locker room) do not meet the standards for enshrinement into such a club.  Of course, there is no rule stating that even those with past suspensions from steroid use are ineligible for the Hall — instead, voters hide behind this statement in the BBWAA election rules, which states: “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.”  In the minds of these writers, the use of steroids reflects so negatively on the integrity and character of a man that they can never be redeemed to the point where they are allowed entrance into Cooperstown’s hallowed halls.  These sportswriters operate in a world where morality is black and white; but in real life, the morality of performance enhancing drugs is not so clear-cut.

Of course, I do not believe that steroids should be allowed to run rampant in the game, and commend the work of the sport to rid itself of them.   The reason the Kennesaw Mountain Landis had to eliminate gambling from the game of baseball after the Black Sox Scandal of 1919 was that the legitimacy of the action on the field came into question — fans could no longer believe what they were seeing.  Steroids have the same effect; as offensive numbers spiraled to ahistorical highs and seemingly insurmountable records were easily surpassed, fans lost the ability to trust the numbers they were seeing, and in baseball, the numbers are sacrosanct.  On a sport-wide level, steroids have the capability to destroy the game.  But on an individual level, that forest can be lost amidst some very high trees.

Using steroids is certainly a form of cheating, and cheating is wrong, plain and simple. But, as with any decision to be made, there are varying degrees of wrong.  These players base their livelihoods on playing baseball, and for many, their families depend on their success.  The Dominican Republic is one of the poorest nations in the world, and for a large segment of the population, baseball is viewed as the only escape from poverty.  These players will do anything they can to get an advantage and get a signing bonus, including forging a phony birth certificate and, of course, taking steroids.  But does this decision condemn them as amoral?

Players who come from disparate backgrounds have their own reasons for taking PEDs.  For some, it might be solely about the money.  And why is this such a bad thing?  Amassing wealth can not only change the lives of the players, it can bring their families financial security.  And for others, taking steroids may be about creating a legacy — becoming the best there ever was at the sport they love.  The desire to leave an imprint on society well after you are gone is completely human, and completely understandable.  

More importantly, these players play on the national stage, where millions of people who have never met these people living and dying on their exploits.  For some, the pressure to perform can be too much, or they lose confidence in themselves and have to resort to performance enhancers.  The reasons players take steroids do not excuse their decision.  But the pressures they face are unique, and the decision is difficult. Would the sportswriters, if in the players’ position, have made the decision to stay off steroids?  We will never know, nor will they.  But it’s clear they are in no position to judge.

Additionally, why are steroids frowned upon while so many other forms of cheating in baseball are celebrated?  Baseball’s first superstar, Jim Creighton, changed the game of baseball when he decided that, rather than lob the ball over the plate for hitters as was in the rules of the day, he would flaunt the rules by making it difficult.  The annals of the game are littered with stories of cheating.  Babe Ruth fell ill in 1922 after ingesting sheep testicle in an attempt to put more testosterone into his body.  Leo Durocher’s 1951 New York Giants, who went 50-12 to tie the Dodgers, and won the pennant on Bobby Thompson’s “shot heard ’round the world,” stuck a coach in the bleachers in order to steal signs from opposing teams.  Gaylord Perry was a known spitballer; he wrote his autobiography entitled “Me and the Spitter” while he was still playing, and was suspended for doctoring the ball near the end of his career.  And scores of players in the 1960s and 70s, including Willie Mays, used amphetamines to boost their performance.  Yet all those players are in the Hall of Fame.  If we’re working in binaries, shouldn’t all forms of cheating be treated as a supreme moral failing? Why are steroids any different?

The players who decided to use performance enhancing drugs made a decision — a decision that, while wrong, was not indefensible and certainly not a reflection on their character.  And there needs to be a place in the Hall of Fame for the Bonds’, McGwire’s and Clemens’ of the world; without them, the Hall cannot truly tell the story of the game.

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