BACK IN 1997, when I was in my second year with the Cubs, I vividly recall watching batting practice when Mark McGwire stepped in the cage for the Cardinals. It was awesome. I saw how far the ball flew, and, like so many of us, I suspended disbelief. It was like watching a good horror movie, before we knew how wrong things could go.
Over time, a cloud of doubt seeped into clubhouses. Suspicion about whether that teammate beating you out is playing fair. Records became mere placeholders. Every home run hit a little too far brought a hitter’s integrity into question. We stopped trusting the game, and, worse, we lost our sense of awe in it. Even as the fans came back post-strike, it was still eroding.
I’ve thought about those days a lot recently, as the end of Barry Bonds’ candidacy on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot approached. Even before the announcement last week, as I read more and more about the importance of Bonds’ inclusion into the Hall as a historical necessity, I started to worry: “He may actually get in.” For me, this wasn’t just about Bonds. It was about so many extraordinarily productive players from my era, too many of whom used PEDs.
For weeks before the vote was announced, I imagined watching a parade of PED players walk up to the podium to tell us about their journey, knowing they represent a force that accelerated the demise of so many players who played it straight. Congratulations?
It was the same powerlessness I felt facing an opponent who had an unfair advantage. But this time, it was mixed with the disorientation of having no idea where to direct that frustration. I could no longer take it out on a baseball. Instead, I could only swing at ghosts.
Watching so many of sports’ biggest superstars tweet their disappointment in the vote that kept Bonds out didn’t help. Eventually, I realized what many of them haven’t had to: The lines you draw are different when you are directly impacted by such rampant cheating. Not peripherally, not theoretically, but directly — in your contract negotiations, on the lineup card, on the depth chart, in the win column.
It is one thing to watch artificial domination on TV, marveling at the numbers it produced as if it is a magic show. It is another when you lose your job from it.
Eventually, I tried to put aside my anger at the tweets and the commentary. I ended up with a question: How can we celebrate anyone who clearly leveraged unfair advantages in order to win?
We want to enshrine these men? For what? For having a better pharmacist?
THE MOST COMMON argument for the inclusion of PED users in the Hall is that we can’t ignore the past, and trust me — I hold no rose-colored glasses to the idealism of this game’s origins. Throughout my playing career, I was always acutely aware that players who looked like me once could not even participate in that history. And yes, there are likely players who are in the Hall now who took PEDs and got away with it. Yes, there are players in the Hall who took amphetamines, whose behavior would not have lived up to the policies today. But why should any of that stop us from being better now?
We all accept that the Hall of Fame is a museum, tasked with telling the full story. But it is also a shrine. There should be a difference between being recognized in the Hall of Fame and being honored by it. I am represented in the Baseball Hall of Fame — or at least, my senior thesis from college is. Does that mean that I am a Hall of Famer? I doubt my .277 batting average and 59 home runs would have gotten me in. And I am fine with that.
I don’t see why this distinction cannot be made who took PEDs and also had a record-setting impact. If we want to recognize PED users in the Hall, we can build them an exhibit, or even their own wing. We should acknowledge all of our history, both glorious and ugly. Like I am, with my paper, they can be in the Hall — as a fixture and as a recognition of their accomplishments. But I don’t see why they need a plaque.
What we celebrate — what we enshrine — should have a different set of criteria. We cannot treat induction into the Hall as simply an act of historical graduation — automatic entry into the Hall because the numbers are in record books — especially when the inductees did not stand on the shoulders of their predecessors so much as trample them into the ground with glee.
This is how society too often frames history: The winners tell the stories and end up on the pedestal. But how they get there matters, and if we put PEDs on a pedestal, it is one built with bricks etched with the names of many players left in their wake who also have compelling stories to tell.
Every record that Bonds broke was against another player. Bonds faced pitchers, just as Roger Clemens faced hitters. And the fact that so many baseball players — myself included — had to consistently try to beat out people who had a constant advantage is not something I can brush off simply because their final numbers made our eyes pop out of our heads.
For me, to do so would dismiss the time I spent playing out the 2000-2002 seasons while my father was in and out of the hospital, choosing to do it without PEDs despite my desperation to regain my form from the 1999 season. Or when I got hurt during a free-agent year and came back after surgery using underwater workouts and weight training, not HGH. Like many players, I scrapped, battled, aged, while others apparently just cheated age chemically.
It’s not just Bonds. So many players from the steroid era — the era of my own professional career — bulldozed everyone else to pad their stats. Apologists couch it in competitive spirit or a relentless will to win, but in the end it was just egomaniacal avarice, unleashed to compensate for the same insecurity that every major league player feels.
With some of these players, their proponents make the argument that they would have been Hall of Famers whether or not they used. I have always been skeptical that anyone could know for sure when or if a player started taking PEDs. But more importantly, when you make a choice that artificially manipulates your performance and your future, it colors your past. Fairly or not.
We simply can’t say what these enhanced players would do or be without the stuff. I was drafted in 1991, one pick in front of Manny Ramirez, a player some call the “greatest right-handed hitter of all time.” Maybe he was; maybe he deserved to be drafted ahead of me. But I did not fail two tests and miss 150 games because of it. I do not know what kind of hitter he would have been without what he took. No one does. So talking about picking me over Ramirez is like comparing apples to oranges. We weren’t even playing the same sport in the end. Good for him — he made his money, he won world championships. But does he need to be enshrined as an example of the best of our sport? The answer to that question is really up to us.
I BELIEVE THE Hall of Fame and the BBWAA, its voting body for enshrinement, have been put in an impossible position. Theirs is always an unenviable task: Judging each generation of baseball players, matching them up against different eras — navigating barriers placed from racism, exclusion, war or economic depression. But today, attempting to see through the fog of performance-enhancing drugs, it is as difficult as it has ever been for these voters.
Nearly a decade ago, I worked on a task force with the United States Anti-Doping Agency. I was helping to evaluate a report on youth sports to understand what gives young people the fullest, healthiest and most enjoyable experience when participating in sport. Also in the group was an ethicist by the name of Tom Murray, and he said something that stuck with me: “You reward what you value.”
If we are to reward players with induction into the Hall, it should be based on our values. We are the ones who need to decide the difference between being great and being consequential. Some players, like Jackie Robinson, had no choice but to be both on and off the field, which allowed Doug Glanville to be able to be neither on the field, yet still matter. That was his gift to all of us.
If the Hall’s shrine is the most amazing, singular place, one that has Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Ted Williams and Babe Ruth in its halls — one that honors greatness — it should be tough to get in. Really tough.
When you can cheat your way in, the Hall of Fame feels toothless. Some claim to not want the Hall’s moral lecturing or character clauses, but we should want to declare that we have standards, not just calculators. We should use some semblance of context to understand who we are celebrating and why. I concede that we will make mistakes — we probably already have — but we have to keep fighting for principles while continuing to be humble enough to learn and adjust, instead of doubling down because steroid usage was so pernicious, inevitable and pervasive that we decided to give up.
The Hall does not have to be the ultimate determinant of one’s value. In fact, it shouldn’t. Most of us will never get in, but that does not mean we did not have worthy and valuable careers. We have to decide what it means, but I hope the answer pushes back on PEDs, not opens the door wider.
The Hall will face this dilemma for as long as it exists. Even with Bonds and Clemens shut out, the steroid debate is far from over: Alex Rodriguez just had his first round of voting, so this will be discussed every year until this group — my group — is long behind us or until the next scandal. Voters will move in and out, and continue to reframe the priorities of the time. They could even decide that idolization should end and we just focus on history. Not necessarily a bad idea. But until then, we can never escape that cold hard truth of what Tom Murray implores us. “Anything that undermines the relationship between excellence in performance and the best attributes of an athlete should not figure into success,” he told me in a conversation this week. “For when you undermine the meaning of fair competition, you celebrate something that has nothing to do with competition or excellence in sport.”
How we screen for the top honor in this sport says a lot about our game. Only time will tell how that plays out, but in the meantime, next time you are in Cooperstown, look for my paper in the archives. My name is on it.
I hope it always matters that I actually wrote it.