Why the MLB still has a steroid problem

Mark McGwire has been passed over for the Hall of Fame for likely the sixth time. Rafael Palmeiro the second. It seems that the Baseball Writers of America Hall of Fame voters don’t want to vote alleged steroid users into the Hall of Fame. Can I blame them? Not really. However, what I will blame them for is keeping someone out of the Hall of Fame based purely on suspicion alone.

Now I am doing some reading tonight and I run across the NBC Sports’ Hardball Talk website where they have an article by Craig Calcaterra entitled “Three more Hall voters accuse Jeff Bagwell of being juicer.” What?

Inside the article, we go on to learn that at least three writers, Philip Hersh and Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune and Scot Gregor of Chicago’s Daily Herald, apparently believe that Jeff Bagwell used steroids.

Bagwell, now 43, is the holder of a career .297 batting average, a career on base percentage of .408, and a career slugging percentage of .540. He hit 449 home runs in his career, got 2314 hits and 1529 RBI. He was the 1991 NL Rookie of the Year and the 1994 NL Most Valuable Player. He played his entire 15 year career for the Houston Astros before announcing his retirement in 2005. His name has never been publicly linked to steroids.

So the question has to be asked where did these writers get these doubts? Do they have information, like Calcaterra suggests, that isn’t up to the snuff of ethical journalism to publish but is enough to make them question? And if they have it, why don’t the other writers, considering that none of the three covered Bagwell on the beat in Houston? Are they looking at the numbers and questioning his slugging ability? What is it that makes them believe that Jeff Bagwell may have used steroids? And why three Chicago sportswriters?

Well, part of the problem is that the BBWAA has taken it upon themselves to be the protectors of the sanctity of the game. No cheaters here! Well, except Gaylord Perry and guys who used amphetamines to gain that extra boost before a game since the 1940s.

Gaylord Perry is renowned for his spitball, which was illegal. He will readily admit that he threw it in games. Nobody is suggesting we remove him from the Hall of Fame.

Also, in the 1940s as “greenies” or amphetamines became common use as players tried to keep up with the demanding travel schedules as baseball became a more national game. They were used until they were banned within the last decade. It’s estimated that between 50 and 80 percent of players have used amphetamines. Odds are most in the Hall of Fame have too. In fact, considering the reputation that players like Mickey Mantle had for partying hard, it’s pretty safe to assume that he used them as well. Where are the calls to remove him from the Hall based on speculation?

Many have tried to argue with me that amphetamines aren’t “performance enhancing” because they don’t make you a better ball player. But they do enhance your performance because they make you as good as you are, longer. Your numbers are going to be inflated because you’ll be better in successive games as the season wore on than you otherwise would have been without them.

As baseball fans, we are romantic about the game and about the past. It’s hard not to be! However, we are naive to think that our era of baseball, the steroid era, is the only one tarnished with cheaters who used their illegal advantage to put up high level numbers and gain Hall of Fame consideration. The other eras of baseball are not pure and never were. People have been using whatever means necessary to gain an advantage as long as the game of baseball has been around.

And here’s the problem with keeping players out based on speculation, media members have been known to sit on stories for players that are well-liked or that are good to them. How do we know that a guy like Ken Griffey Jr or Cal Ripken Jr didn’t use in their careers? They are both very well liked by fans and media and you could see a reporter to two turning a blind eye, not wanting to ruin their careers.

While speculation surrounds nearly ever other power hitter (apparently, including Bagwell) of the steroid era, many hold Ken Griffey Jr up as the gold standard of a steroid-free power hitter. So why is Ken Griffey Jr, the holder of 630 career home runs, played 22 seasons in the big leagues, not questioned about steroid use? His final seasons were slowed by a succession of knee injuries, potentially a guy putting on too much upper-body strength? We can even question his development too. How does a guy go from averaging 22 home runs a year for the first four years of his career to averaging 44 a year over the next eight? That even includes 17 in a part-season bringing the average down.

I can raise suspicion around many players in baseball. I can throw stats at you that would raise eyebrows. Does that mean we should keep them out of the Hall of Fame too? Are players from the steroid era in danger of being “too good” that we can’t consider that they didn’t use? Steroid users that have talked to the media about what they’ve seen say that it was prevalent throughout baseball in the 1990s. Both pitchers and hitters have been caught.

Questions like this is why I think the Baseball Writers Association of America needs some sort of hard criteria generated for voting people into the Hall of Fame and their eligibility. Until we do, every year until steroid era players are removed from the ballots, the steroid debate will reignite and everyone will be reminded of it. There will be no getting past it for a decade or more.

My proposal: If you have tested positive for steroids during your playing career, you are no longer eligible for the Hall of Fame. Maybe twice to give you the benefit of the doubt of taking a product that has an unlisted illegal ingredient. It happens more than we would like to believe.

Of course, there are follow up questions to this proposal to deal with special circumstances. Let’s tackle those.

What about Barry Bonds and the players who didn’t test positive during their playing career because it wasn’t tested for? Unfortunately, there is no way to prove for sure that they used steroids. All we have is speculation. They get in.

What about Mark McGwire and guys like them who admitted having used steroids, but never tested positive? They get in too.

Whoa, Jon, they admitted it! You gotta keep them out!

Well, the first problem there is that they self identified as users. I think that deserves some credit. Beyond that PR people know that the quickest way to get over a story is to admit it, move on, and hope something else big comes along soon after. Think about the interview Mark McGwire gave after he was hired to be the hitting coach of the Cardinals, an interview he is widely believed to have been required to give as a condition of the job.

Everyone suspected McGwire had used. Most forget that he had already admitted using steroids over a decade ago, I remember reading that as a kid after the home run race of 1998. To get over the story, you follow the path of least resistance. If McGwire had sat in front of Bob Costas that night and maintained that he’d never used steroids would anyone on Earth have believed him? We all know the answer is no. That right there is enough reason to question the admission.

Guys like Rafael Palmeiro who tested positive during his playing days for using steroids, to me, his entire career is now in doubt. Did he start following the Congressional hearings where he pointed his finger to the cameras and said he never did steroids? Or did he lie to protect his reputation? We have proof that he used. He gets kept out.

America’s justice system was built on the foundation of “Innocent until proven guilty.” As a result, no simple speculation should be enough to destroy someone’s Hall of Fame chances. Baseball is touted as the American Pasttime. They should institute that same “Innocent until proven guilty” mantra and let guys who never were proven steroid users into the Hall of Fame.

Until baseball chooses to address this issue, they’ll continue to get run through the mud every year for their failures during the steroid era. It would be in their best interests to sort this out as quickly as possible without screwing players who may have never actually used. Punish the proven users, not the suspected users because suspicions can easily be wrong.

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