October 20, 2019

With great power comes great responsibility

January 14, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

September 24, 1988: While pointing his finger to the sky and staring tauntingly at rival Carl Lewis of the United States, Ben Johnson of Canada crosses the finish line as he breaks the 100-meter world record at the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. Three days later, Johnson is stripped of his gold medal and suspended from competition after testing positive for the steroid Stanozolol.

July 23, 2006: American cyclist Floyd Landis wins the Tour de France in an incredible comeback that race director Jean-Marie Leblanc calls “the best performance in the modern history of the Tour.” Landis is later stripped of his title and suspended from competition after testing positive for a synthetic testosterone.

January 12, 2010: Baseball slugger Mark McGwire admits injecting steroids at a time in his career when he managed to completely transform into the greatest home run hitting force the game had ever seen, smashing the long ball 70% more frequently after his 31st birthday than during the first half of his career. McGwire faces no penalty since steroids were not banned by major league baseball during the time he played. A year later, 115 baseball sportswriters across the nation check YES next to McGwire’s name on their 2011 ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame, the most celebrated individual honor in any sport.

Uncle Ben sharing his wisdom to Peter Parker (Sony Pictures)

***

Baseball fans tend to feel a sense of ownership with the Hall of Fame. We grew up with the game, so we got to watch the museum grow over time—first with the induction of our dad’s idols, then with ours. When the 500+ baseball writers of the BBWAA choose each year’s induction class, it’s like they’re voting on our behalf. Sometimes we’re not too happy with the results. Chances are you’ve got at least one player in your back pocket you think has been annually snubbed and at least one guy you’d like to see evicted from the place. Nothing quite stirs the passionate baseball fan like a good ol’ fashioned HOF debate.

Thanks to steroids, that debate has become baseball’s civil war.

It’s a controversy that’s going to keep swirling for as long as the titans of that time—such as Mark McGwire—remain on the ballot. And when Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens join the party in 2013, watch out. The media and blog storm will hit an apocalyptic frenzy.

The Steroid Era barged into baseball’s environment like fifty Black Sox Scandals wrapped up into one generation. The tainted performances of hundreds who used PEDs to spike their athletic DNA has impacted the integrity of countless games, seasons, and championships. Drug testing is firmly in place, but the Steroid Era’s legacy still has empty pages to be filled, with the final chapters dedicated to scripting who winds up in Cooperstown and who doesn’t. Although everyone agrees that steroid use was rampant, and that it was terrible for the game, heads are butting over how this book should be finished.

The 2011 election results show that, at least for now, the odds of players heavily linked to steroid use and getting their own plaque in Cooperstown stand somewhere between “needing a miracle” and “no chance in hell.” I for one see this as an indication of the gatekeepers staying true to their voting obligation.

But if you’ve been paying attention to the chatter this past week, you’ve noticed that there’s a vocal faction of fans who don’t agree. As the BBWAA majority tries to tackle the steroids elephant head-on and slam it to the turf, they are being hounded by a gnawing resistance that believes the solution to evaluating these chemical superstars is to turn the other way and pretend not to notice the muscles…sort of how baseball got into this mess in the first place.

These voters have either thrown in the towel in trying to figure out the steroid angle, have elected not to segregate steroids from other “impurities” already in the Hall such as amphetamines, or they’re still misty-eyed from the wonderful bliss of the fantastical home run race of 1998.

It’s their choice and their right, and I do respect that…except they’re demanding that everyone skip the ethics and morality “crap” and stick to the performance on the field. They’re also calling the majority voters who did not vote for McGwire or Rafael Palmeiro as the “high-horse crowd” while referring to their submitted ballots as demonstrations “self-righteousness” and “McCarthyism.”

Maybe the scathing labels are all part of a strategy to get the fence-straddlers and the soft-stance majority to hop on over to their side. Regardless, it’s clear the minority wants to ignore half of the voting requirements set forth by the Hall of Fame, which says, “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.”

Which leads to one question for this resistance: Have you forgotten what sport you represent?

This is major league baseball, where sanctity, history, and tradition reign. Okay, maybe the sport isn’t as pretentious as The Masters on CBS, and maybe the notion of PEDs in the game isn’t as easily understood or monitored like in horse racing, cycling, or track—but it’s not exactly your neighbor’s township bowling league either. I’m sure the BBWAA understands this, and there is a majority putting this mindset into action. McGwire’s (19.8%) and Palmeiro’s (11.0%) vote totals in 2011 show that there’s a strong movement to keep known steroid use out—an obvious message given that these two sluggers put up career numbers that were clearly first-ballot quality.

The BBWAA minority, on the other hand, would rather normalize the situation by removing steroids completely from the equation when evaluating candidates for enshrinement. For the most part, they feel this would be consistent with the way the HOF voting has played out over the years—which is to ignore the morality issues. (More on that later.)

This “eyes wide shut” approach has caused a new type of problem for these voters. When they hit their mental “steroids delete key,” there are suddenly too many stars to choose from. Despite the extremely selective mandate of picking only the greatest who ever played, the ballot’s ten-name limit is now giving some of these voters claustrophobia.

Chances are if you need more room to select all the candidates you deem worthy of immortality in one ballot, either you’re not treating the election process as distinguished as it should be or you’re cowering too much on the steroids issue. The reason the ballot seems like it’s ready to explode is because of the surplus of enhanced performances throughout the 1990s that never should have occurred in the first place. It’s a time when mediocrity turned into good, good became great, and great changed into something we never witnessed before. The wave of those fraudulent acts is now pushing ashore to create this sort of pharmaceutical ballot-stuffing phenomena.

I feel the voter’s pain; it’s hard enough to figure out how to compare modern candidates with those who played in the ancient days of oven-mitt gloves, treacherous infields, and baseballs as consistent as balled-up socks. It gets worse dealing with the Hall’s sliding threshold of excellence, spawning way too many “if player A is in, then player B deserves” arguments. Throw in the steroid factor, and it’s no wonder baseball sportswriters not specifically trained as forensic specialists, human lie-detectors, or PhD’s of human anatomy and physiology want to just close their eyes on the issue. It’s not exactly what they signed up for.

Considering all those who’ve worked so hard to rid steroids from all athletics, I think they’re giving up too easily. Steroids has haunted professional competition since the ’50s and ’60s when Olympic hopefuls first started calling out how unfair it was to square off against doped-up opponents. There’s a good reason why so many have dedicated their careers to ousting steroids from sports, such as Dr. Robert Voy and his battles with the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), and Dr. Charles Yesalis, who studied PEDs in sports for decades and is now the most quoted true expert on the subject. Steroids work, and there is no performance-enhancing chemical on earth quite like it.*

*Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is up there, but let’s keep it under the umbrella of steroids for this piece. While there are volumes of anecdotal and medical evidence supporting the performance enhancing benefits of steroids, HGH itself is much less understood—although HGH’s ability to maintain strong connective tissue to support oversized muscles built by steroids is apparently a very desirable and potent combination.

If you’re going to use amphetamines as leverage to tolerate steroid-linked HOF applicants, you have a case for doing so. For one, they may be even more dangerous and addictive than steroids. And there is some intelligent discussion that supports the idea that amphetamines do bring a few performance enhancing qualities to the table. But their sweet spot is getting ballplayers to feel better, to heal faster, to be as alert as a cat, and to push through the grind of a 162-game season—not unlike how a college student might use them to maintain focus through mid-term exams on a few hours sleep.

Because of improved endurance, amphetamines could allow a player to accumulate numbers he would not have reached otherwise. But I have two reasons for showing amphetamines the door in this steroids/HOF discussion.

First, amphetamines have been ingrained in the game for a long time, maybe as far back as the end of WWII. I’d argue that their use is something of a common denominator in the game and its performances over that time. If this were just an amphetamines/HOF discussion, well, there really wouldn’t be anything to discuss. I don’t think there’s ever been a HOF candidate scrutinized for amphetamine use, nor has there ever been a statistical deviation linked to amphetamines. This brings up my second reason: Amphetamines can’t turn warning-track power into tape-measure moon shots.

Leave that to the juice. Medical science1 has proven that steroid use builds muscle mass which increases strength way more than could ever be accomplished naturally. The act of hitting a baseball harder and farther—the all-important factors in determining batting average and home run numbers—comes down to how that strength is translated into greater bat speed at the moment of impact. Considering the potential physiological benefits, the statistical transformations of McGwire and Barry Bonds, and the explosion of the 40HR/.300AVE seasons throughout the 1990s, we can say with high confidence that steroids did truly enhance baseball performances enough to render all historical home run lists meaningless—while causing a rippling, if underrated, impact on other offensive numbers as well. Mix a dose or two of athletic skill with a dedicated gym-rat mentality—which tends to get strongly reinforced by the psychologically-addictive2 nature of steroids—and you’ve created a maximal scenario for transforming a ballplayer into a specimen capable of extraordinary feats he was never meant to achieve otherwise.

Steroids and amphetamines are both morality issues. But my focus here for judging these HOF’ers is on the authenticity of their performances, a concept Bob Costas has mentioned once or twice. And in the performance enhancing game, steroids beats amphetamines by a 495-foot home run.

Maybe you think that rejecting players like McGwire and Palmeiro isn’t fair, considering the common plea that there’s “drunks, racists, and gamblers” already enshrined. There was no stinkin’ morality card played by the BBWAA to keep those chumps from Cooperstown, you argue, so why should you?

The BBWAA has been known to factor some character assessments into the vote here and there. Halloween and cork star Albert Belle went two and out as a candidate in a showing that deserved much more, if you were focused just on what the guy did at the plate. The chip on Dick Allen’s shoulder shunted his HOF votes, having never cracked 20% in his 15 years of eligibility—despite sabermetric support that juts his numbers at the very least near marginal acceptance levels. Ferguson Jenkins was first-ballot material if he didn’t get convicted for cocaine possession, which forced him to sweat out three elections before being inducted.

But Gaylord Perry? That was an “integrity” oversight. A huge one. Score that an error on the BBWAA. The self-admitted spitball wizard hurled a performance-enhanced goop ball for his entire career in the face of a rule that’s been in the books since 1920. Yet he was sipping victory champagne by his third year on the ballot. As Eagles coach Andy Reid might say—the BBWAA has got to do a better job there. Just because Perry is in, they can’t just use his case as some standard of tolerance for future inductions. We’re supposed to learn from our mistakes, not lower our standards because of them, right?

So you then make the point that steroids weren’t banned from baseball in the 1990s, that everyone was “doing it,” and you suggest that the users during this dark time in the game should be granted leniency.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

This just in: Not every player made the career-altering decision to put their health and rep on the line to use these federally-banned substances—let alone use the same class of drug, same doping schedule, the proper workout routine or had the optimum physiology to maximize the benefits that steroids brings. Could we have possibly created any more of an uneven playing field? Inevitably, the game’s competitive balance was knocked sideways. Fair competition turned foul, whether in battling for a spot on the roster, a place in the starting lineup, or a checkmark on a Hall of Fame ballot. Just ask ex-catcher Jeff Fasano, who had to choke back his disgust at recognizing so many Mitchell Report culprits he had lost roster spots to, simply because he chose to go with the body God gave him.

It’s one thing to accept that this era happened and move on. But do you really want to reward these guys?

Those who choose to think long and hard about a candidate and his alleged steroid use face another dilemma. How do you grade these guys? Who dares play God and pretends to know who did what and when and how much impact steroids had on individuals?

Some voters want HOF president Jeff Idelson to clarify the Hall’s stance on steroids to give the voter more guidelines to work with. Except Idelson thinks the voting process is working just fine, thank you, which means he and the Hall are quite content with the percentages next to McGwire’s and Palmeiro’s names. So no help is coming from that direction.

I agree with you, perplexed BBWAA voter, that making logical sense of this illogical steroid mess is filled with so much circumstantial gray-area fluff it’s tempting to bang the gavel and yell “not admissible” to any of the alleged evidence. But try as you may to keep your “morality police” card stashed away inside your desk drawer, I believe it’s your duty to consider the credibility of these performances by the power bestowed upon you when you accepted membership into the BBWAA. You have been given an honor to share the responsibility with some 500+ other sportswriters to upkeep the integrity of baseball. Do not consider it self-righteous to use your power in making the decision to keep a steroid user out of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Not only is it in your job description (as described by the HOF voting rules), millions of fans are depending on it.

I’m not condoning to shut out the entire generation from Cooperstown. We probably missed that bus anyway, with contemporaries Cal Ripken, Jr., Paul Molitor, and Tony Gwynn already in. Besides, nobody wants to think of a Hall of Fame without Ken Griffey Jr.

Even if the Hall has already been afflicted with steroids, for the Babe’s sake let’s keep this infestation to a minimum. As a voter, you’ve been around the batting cages and locker rooms. You’ve got the numbers to weigh, and for many of these players, there’s some statistical anomalies to question. Ultimately, it comes down to a judgment call on your part. If you feel in your heart that steroids made a candidate Hall-worthy, it’s your duty to *not* check yes next to that man’s name. The BBWAA has entrusted that you use your judgment—it wouldn’t be a fair vote otherwise. That’s why an election with real people voters was created in the first place; baseball isn’t interested in a computer spitting out the inductees. You make the call.

We’ve all got our own perspectives. Personally, I think McGwire’s case is one of the clearest to judge (as I posted a year ago) and a model prototype for what steroids can do. It’s why I’m convinced it was steroids—not a change in batting technique—that made his numbers Hall-worthy. As for Palmeiro’s allegations—the positive drug test, lying under oath, Canseco’s claims, and surprising production in his thirties—there’s just too many checks on the cons side of the sheet to ignore. Can Palmeiro at least offer us more in his denials than just straight denials? How about some feasible explanation as to how he went from being dealt from the Cubs because of his “lack of power”—an event that was sandwiched by back-to-back 8-homer seasons—to becoming the only man in history to slam 38 or more homers in nine consecutive seasons? McGwire and Palmeiro are lucky just to be on the ballot and have their legacy decided by a majority vote, thanks to the absence of a steroid testing policy at the time they played. Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe never had that luxury; for better or for worse, one entity sealed their fate.

The Steroid Era happened. There’s no magical ointment we can use to make this rash go away. Asterisks? Horrible idea, statistically speaking. The record book should continue to read only black and white. This makes you, Mr. or Ms. BBWAA member, the last stand against the Steroid Era. Please continue to honor the responsibility.

Many have posed a question that goes something like this: “Can you imagine the Hall of Fame without so many of those superstars from the Steroid Era?”

Well, if they didn’t take steroids in the first place, you wouldn’t have to imagine it.

— John Cappello

1Bhasin, S., and L. Woodhouse and T.W. Storer. “Hormones and Sport: Proof of the effect of testosterone on skeletal muscle,” Journal of Endocrinology, 2001, Vol. 170, 27-38.

2Carroll, Will with William L. Carroll. The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball’s Drug Problems, Ivan R. Dee Publishers, 2005.

3Adair, Robert K, Ph.D. The Physics of Baseball, Third Edition, HarperCollins Publishers, 2002

4Voy, Robert with Kirk Deeter. Drugs, Sport and Politics: The inside story about drug use in sport and its political cover-up, with a prescription for reform, Human Kinetics Publishers, 1991.

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