This weekend at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.,, most fans won’t have much to enjoy. Beyond 19th-Century Boston catcher-third baseman Deacon White, fans can “celebrate” the induction of two of the most hated sorts of baseball people: an umpire, Hank O’Day; and an owner—and not just some random owner, but an owner of the New York Yankees, Jacob Ruppert.
A baseball Rip Van Winkle who’d been in a coma since 1999 or so might be surprised upon waking to find that no sign of Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmiero, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa or Roger Clemens in the Elysian Fields of upstate New York. These last three players were rejected for the class of 2013, a year after McGwire and Palmiero lost out.
Despite their historic accomplishments, the voters of the Baseball Writers of America have not elected these players because of their alleged, admitted, or presumed use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). The moralistic rationale for their rejection is straightforward enough: the players who took steroids, HGH, or other PEDs were cheaters, and their behavior made a mockery of the records they broke and the great statistics they compiled. They betrayed the game of baseball, and so do not deserve to be enshrined in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown.
This argument of course ignores the use of other PEDs not that long ago (lots of records were set during an era when amphetamines were handed out in MLB clubhouses like M&M’s). More importantly, this moralizing ignores the context in which these players chose to juice.
As my Cubs season ticket–partner Brian Azzarello pointed out to me, if the voters’ logic holds, then some other consequences should follow:
- No baseball writer who covered baseball during the Steroids Era should be awarded the Taylor Spink Award.
- No baseball broadcaster who worked on radio or TV during the Steroids Era should be awarded the Ford C. Frick Award.
Let’s rejoin our Rip Van Winkle, who probably fell asleep waiting for the Cubs to do something positive. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Why did players, management, and the media embrace PED-created baseball performance in the first place? Because of the 1994 strike and cancellation of the World Series. Fans were staying away in droves, but then Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa threatened Roger Maris’s 61-homer record.
Sportswriters and broadcasters might’ve been working for different papers, networks, and teams in many different local and national markets, but they all sang the same song: The Home Run Chase Is Saving Baseball. (A background chorus sang the praises of power-pitchers mowing down batters with K after K.)
The photogenic-if-surly McGwire and the media teddy bear Sosa brought fans back. Their 1998 binge, ending with McGwire hitting 70 homers and Sosa 66, was a national phenomenon, pumped up by the same writers and broadcasters who now disparage them and exclude them from Cooperstown.
This media worship of the long ball and the strikeout has its comic side, of course: that hilarious Nike “Chicks dig the long ball” commercial featuring Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. People forget now that the commercial featured McGwire as Nike spokesman in an ad series with the tagline “It really is the shoes.”
Let’s be honest: if the media paid as much attention to hitting the other way to advance the runner, or working an at-bat to let a speedy teammate steal, or hitting the damn cut-off man, home-run and strike-out mania would not have led so many athletes to use PEDs.
Ah, but America loves might. Athletes are competitors, and will seek any competitive edge they can, but like all people, they act morally or immorally or amorally in a context created by their culture. Players and owners alike would make more money with fans rooting for home runs, and so home runs it was. And the media, far from being a stern watchdog, rolled over to have its tummy scratched. Now they snarl and bite.
Bonds’s own use of PEDS is widely attributed to anger at the way the media praised McGwire and Sosa, ignoring his already-Hall-worthy accomplishments. You want homers? I’ll give you homers, Bonds decided, and so he shattered both the single-season and career records, despite consistently being intentionally walked and pitched around.
In short: writers and broadcasters helped to create the disease they now claim to cure by denying these players their rightful place in the Hall of Fame. But if the best players of the Steroids Era do not belong in Cooperstown because they betrayed the game, then neither do the scribes and mike men who covered that impure game.
And as long as we’re on our high horses here, no manager or general manager of an MLB team during the Steroids Era should be eligible for Hall of Fame induction either.
Yeah, I’m looking at you, Tony La Russa.
La Russa by most metrics is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he and other baseball executives share moral responsibility with the players who took PEDs and the media who praised the results of PEDS.
La Russa has a lifetime managerial record of 2,728 wins, third on the all-time wins list for managers, behind only Connie Mack and John McGraw. He won six pennants, with World Series titles in both leagues, in 2011 and 2006 with St. Louis, and 1989 with Oakland.
Ah, yes, Oakland, where, arguably, the evil fungus of the Steroids Era began, with Bash Brothers Jose Canseco and McGwire lighting up scoreboards.
Unlike writers, who had pressure to keep things positive if they wanted to maintain access to sources, La Russa had no excuse for his betrayal of baseball. He either knew that players were taking PEDs and didn’t care, or he suspected and looked out the window at the fluffy clouds going by, or he was entirely clueless and deeply engaged in a PETA brochure. Smart money is not on the third option, given La Russa’s reputation for brains, even if he is a vegetarian lawyer.
And if the Hall had an award for Gall, Unmitigated: La Russa hired Mark McGwire as his hitting coach in 2009 in St. Louis. After McGwire finally admitted to taking steroids in 2010, La Russa kept him on the job.
If McGwire has no place in the Hall, neither does his enabler and excuser, La Russa, or La Russa’s boss Walt Jocketty. Or Jocketty’s boss’s boss, Commissioner Bud Selig.
Who from that era belongs in the Hall? Either the players who put up the best numbers between the lines, from the first pitch to the last out: or no one. No writers, no broadcasters, no managers, no executives.
With three exceptions: Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, who wrote Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports, which exposed Barry Bonds’ use of PEDs (and which held up in Federal court). And Steve Wilstein, the AP writer who was the first journalist to report seeing Andro in Mark McGwire’s locker, back in 1998.
At the time, Wilstein was vilified for daring to…be a reporter. He saw a jar of Andro in McGwire’s locker, asked him if he used it, and wrote the story. The story that turned out to be true.
The J. G. Spinks Award is given for “meritorious contributions to baseball writing.” Many of the writers who have won it since the late 1990s were among the fourth-estate cheerleaders for the Strikeout Kings and the Home Run Record Chasers. The Ford C. Frick Award is for “major contributions to baseball.” The 2010 winner (to just take one example), Jon Miller, shilled for homers like few others as he broadcast for both Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN and the San Francisco Giants since 1997 (including the call on Bonds’s 756th homer).
The writers and broadcasters of the Steroid Era together created the culture that encouraged the PED use they now condemn. If the players do not belong in the Hall, neither do they.