Hollowed Halls
Issue   |   Wed, 09/18/2013 - 00:43

Imagine you knew nothing about American professional sports. If I told you that every major sport had a Hall of Fame, a place to immortalize the players who dominated and revolutionized their game, it would probably make sense to you. Then, suppose I told you that being among the best players in your era wasn’t always a guarantee to get you into your sport’s Hall.

This seemingly glaring incongruity, one that probably wouldn’t make sense to a child, is just one piece of the fallout from Major League Baseball’s infamous PED scandal. The players I’m thinking of are none other than Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, statistically the greatest power hitter and starting pitcher, respectively, in modern baseball history. This year, the exclusion of Bonds and Clemens from Cooperstown signaled that the Baseball Writers of America — in a move that is probably representative of popular opinion — aren’t backing down when it comes to spurning all things ‘roids. These days, past and present known and even suspected juicers aren’t getting much sympathy from the fans or, in light of A-Rod’s looming 211-game suspension, the Commissioner’s Office.

Generally, our most primeval notions of right and wrong seem to tell us that we shouldn’t reward cheaters. A whole generation of fans lumps Bonds and Clemens into a category of players who, along with other shifty characters such as Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, permanently stained the game and stole their collective innocence. Even in the absence of positive tests, we do have pretty compelling evidence (read: the Mitchell Report and, well, necks that big just aren’t natural) that Bonds and Clemens, not to mention the others, took illegal substances. Purists point to the fact that they artificially inflated their statistics and skewed some of the game’s most sacred records. They broke the honor code, if you will, as did many of the players in their era, and they should have to pay for that. This perception is similar to the one that Pete Rose has faced over the years.

So, if it may well make some moral sense to snub Bonds and Clemens, on what could I base an opposing argument? My two answers: perspective and context. Let’s deal with the “perspective” part first by taking a closer look at each player’s career arc.

Consider the seven seasons between 1986 and 1992, a time period that probably belonged to the “pre-steroid era” and was, at the least, before Roger Clemens looked like a cartoon character. During those years, the Rocket put up some pretty gawdy numbers. Pitching for the Red Sox, the tough Texan was a three-time 20-game winner, a four-time ERA titleist, an MVP winner and a three-time Cy Young recipient. Sounds like dominance to me, which is one of the key criteria for Hall of Fame induction.

His performance stacks up roughly with the seven-year run for Pedro Martinez, who most agree will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, between 1997 and 2003. Pedro’s resume over those seasons? Five ERA titles, three Cy Youngs and one twenty-win season. With the exception of a few good full seasons and a World Series ring on either side, that was the extent of Pedro’s meaningful career. Going back to Clemens, there’s a perception that he was declining between 1992 and 1996 before his ‘roid-induced renaissance in ’97 and ’98. In 1996, however, he posted a 3.63 ERA and led the league in strikeouts, 20 of which came on a legendary night at Tiger Stadium. Some decline. What if Clemens, a legendary workout animal, had pitched just six more years (as opposed to twelve) at a similar level? He might have reasonably totaled between 230 and 250 wins (his “real-life” total was 354) in addition to putting up one of the best seven-year stretches the world has ever seen. For further comparison, Pedro had 219 career wins. So, would Roger have been a Hall of Famer even if PED’s had never entered the equation?Almost certainly, so why shouldn’t he be one now?

A similar argument can be made in defense of Bonds, the game’s all-time home runs leader. Take his 73-homer season and subsequent campaigns — during which he won four MVP awards — out of play entirely, and you still have a seriously impressive hitter on your hands. Between 1990 and 2000, when Bonds hardly appeared muscle-bound, he hit at least 30 home runs every year but one and reliably batted .300. He won three MVP’s and led the league in on-base percentage four times. Give Bonds five more reasonably good seasons in the big leagues, and he easily finishes with 500 home runs. Add his 500 stolen bases, most of which came before the bulk years, and he is in truly elite company, most definitely Hall-worthy.

Now I’ll address the “context” part, the aspect that sets Bonds and Clemens apart from Rose, who was largely a lone offender in terms of his betting on games. Many people don’t want to hear it, but we simply can’t judge Bonds and Clemens, nor any player, in absolute terms. We have to judge their later years based on the era in which they played.: the Steroid Era. If you believe Jose Canseco or Eric Gagne, two admitted PED users who later gave candid accounts of steroid use in baseball clubhouses, the majority of players were on something between, say, 1995 and 2005.

That begs the obvious question of how many of the hitters and pitchers that Bonds and Clemens faced also had an “unfair” advantage. We’ll never know for sure, but it’s likely that a lot of them did. Even eight years ago, let alone 20, the health hazards of anabolic steroids, much as those of smoking, were less widely acknowledged. So, if steroids were epidemic, the fact remains that Bonds and Clemens were among the best players of their era — another important criterion for Hall induction.

Think about this long enough, and you might begin to reconsider the whole morality question surrounding steroid use. Sure, Bonds and Clemens broke the rules that were in place at the time. There’s also the issue of Bonds’ perjury conviction following the Mitchell Report, although he would hardly be the first revered athlete to run into legal troubles (last time I checked, we hadn’t struck OJ from the Football Hall of Fame).

But, given that PED ingestion might have been something close to the norm at the time, was it the individual players or the failure of a whole system that really stole the fans’ “innocence?” Should we automatically condemn the individuals for breaking rules when it seems that those rules were pretty flimsy in the first place? What about the previous generations of players who used cocaine or amphetamines — also against baseball’s rules at the time and illegal — to keep their mental “edge” (which we know happened)? Why don’t we talk about them as much or consider them as evil as the steroid users? It sounds more like an ethics class than a baseball column, but none of it is as clear-cut as we’d like to think.

It may still hurt our sense of justice to grant Bonds and Clemens what I believe they are due. But it would also hurt to reduce the Baseball Hall of Fame, which, like it or not, is an American institution, to a joke. Barry and the Rocket aren’t going to be topping any lists of favorite players anytime soon, but, as with the notoriously acerbic Ty Cobb generations ago, nobody can deny their greatness. And, essentially, greatness is what the Hall of Fame is about.