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July 12, 2020

Remodeling Cooperstown: tainted players in a tainted league

By ALEX YAHANDA | January 29, 2015

This article, I know, may be outdated by now. But I recently saw in the news that Alex Rodriguez had hired Barry Bonds to become his personal hitting coach as he rejoins the New York Yankees. The irony of this partnership did not escape me. Rodriguez, who had to sit out last season as a result of his extensive history of performance enhancing drug (PED) use, is partnering with Bonds, the unofficial face of baseball’s PED era, to help him make a clean return to the game. This news also gave me a convenient reason to revisit the baseball Hall of Fame elections that occurred a few weeks ago.

Every January I rekindle my desire to become a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) so that I, too, may cast a ballot in favor of players who deserve the Hall of Fame. The urge has been especially strong these past few years because of the absurd moralizing that goes on during the voting process. A vast majority of writers refuse to even consider voting for players who used — or, sometimes, were merely rumored to have used — PEDs during their careers. The rationale here is simple enough: these players took illegal substances that artificially boosted their numbers and thus they should not be allowed a place in baseball’s most hallowed halls. I can recognize that school of thought easily enough. However, what I cannot reconcile is the idea that PED-linked players should be forgotten and not be granted the opportunity to go down as some of the game’s best performers.

The current crop of BBWAA members is content with letting baseball’s steroid era fade into obscurity. Allowing that to happen would be ridiculous. The steroid era was a dark time in baseball history, but it was baseball history nonetheless. PED use yielded the game’s most impressive offensive numbers and also produced some of the game’s all-time biggest figures (literally and figuratively). At the time there was only suspicion that these players had been abusing PEDs: proof, for many, did not come until years later. These now villainized men were at one point major reasons to watch games or to become captivated by baseball. The fans certainly were not complaining — ballpark attendance spiked during this time. Indeed, it was a great time for publicizing the sport, which is probably why Major League Baseball (MLB) did not institute a respectable PED testing policy until 2003. Regardless of what the BBWAA wants, the PED era’s elite will forever remain some of baseball’s most household names.

These athletes were also not the only ones abusing PEDs, they were just the most skilled. They were tainted superstars in a tainted league. And exceptional talent combined with an added pharmaceutical boost produced spectacles as awe-inspiring as any other revered moments in baseball lore. Nobody can deny that Bonds’s early 2000s at bats were anything less than special. The most startling sight wasn’t even the home runs — it was the respect with which pitchers approached him. Watching Bonds draw an obscene number of walks because he saw extremely few hittable pitches was testament to how his hitting prowess was universally feared. How could anyone argue that such a hitting streak does not deserve to be remembered? In likelihood, stats from the PED era may never be replicated.

This is all to say that if I could vote for Hall of Famers, I would, without hesitation, vote for Bonds, Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and other deserving PED-using players (including Rodriguez when his time comes). And it’s not because I agree with their choice to cheat. It’s because their place in the game cannot be disputed. They were baseball for well over a decade. Just because this span was morally dubious or built on more than natural ability does not mean that it should be forced out of the public psyche. After all, we still remember the Chicago Black Sox scandal even though it happened nearly 100 years ago, and we did not try to cover up anything about pre-integration baseball. Future generations of ballplayers and fans should be fully informed of what the steroid era was like. This cannot be entirely possible until Cooperstown acknowledges that it should allow steroid users to stand alongside their cleaner colleagues.

The same idea goes for the other ills that have plagued baseball in the past: segregation, betting scandals, amphetamine abuse, doctoring baseballs or other methods of cheating. The Hall of Fame needs to dedicate entire sections to baseball’s less appealing history lest it neglect its station as the sport’s premier museum. Into this new “Hall of Shame” — or whatever you want to call it — can go the plaques for all the greats who will never be voted into the normal Hall. We have no way of knowing how PED users would have fared without help, but their numbers speak for themselves — they deserve to be acknowledged. The good news is that Cooperstown is in the middle-of-nowhere, New York. There should be ample room to give the Hall of Fame an additional wing or two.

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