In a recent discussion about how to structure a client’s autobiography, I made the comment that people’s lives tend to unfold in chapters: the early years, life at college, specific career situations, honors earned, and so forth. Soon the conversation turned to whether players suspected of using performance enhancing drugs should be voted into the Hall of Fame, and as we chatted, I realized that the same is true for baseball as well, and that – much to my own surprise – I now would consider voting such a player in.
When the Hall’s first class was inducted in 1936, the game had already moved on from the dead ball era, yet there appeared to be no conflict about including Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, and Babe Ruth, three entirely different sorts of players (with three entirely different character attributes) perfectly adapted for the playing conditions of their day.
Eleven years later, another page was turned when Jackie Robinson broke the color line and opened the Hall’s doors to a large additional population of stars including Robinson, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, and yes, Barry Bonds.
And in 1969, MLB lowered the height of the mound by one third because pitchers had become so dominant, and that seemed not to affect decisions regarding the likes of Warren Spahn, Tom Seaver, and Dennis Eckersley, three different sorts of pitchers who played before, during, and after that transition.
“But this is different,” I hear you cry. “Those involved changes in equipment and rules that affected everyone equally.” That’s true, but isn’t it also true that the consensus today is that a very high percentage of players in the major leagues during the so-called Steroids Era were using PEDs? I mean, isn’t that why we call it the “Steroids Era”? So I ask you, how big a percentage does it need to be before we can talk in terms of “everyone”?
Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that I feel good about the fact that Bonds is now statistically the game’s all-time leader in home runs and that Roger Clemens tops the list of Cy Young Award winners. But as we look at their performances in the context of baseball’s long life, we see that:
• Both were good, very good, before they were suspected of using PEDs
• Both continued to be very good in the years when “everyone else” was also suspected of using PEDs
• Not everyone suspected of using PEDs is considered worthy of Hall of Fame recognition, so that’s not an automatic qualifier
• And in terms of character, neither may have been universally well liked, but neither were they as consistently outrageous as Cobb and Ruth are reputed to have been
None of this means that I would overlook a player’s PED usage when evaluating his candidacy for the Hall. But thanks to the perspective I gained while chatting with my client, neither would I now automatically dismiss a player because his numbers may be considered suspect.
It’s just the latest in a long line of new chapters in the life of baseball.