We all know by now that Jeff Bagwell was snubbed on his first hall of fame ballot by the BBWAA. The collective excuse seems to have been that he was just too fit, too shaped, too good to not be taking steroids. At no point has Bagwell’s name ever been connected with steroids in any way, shape or form, but he was a big, strong hitter in the 1990s, so he is guilty until proven innocent.
Jeff Bagwell will not be the last victim of this newfound righteous indignation, and at some point he will probably be inducted into the Hall of Fame, but hopefully the ridiculousness of his case calls attention to the stupidity of the BBWAA’s voters and voting process. Jeff Bagwell’s only sin was that he played during the 1990s, a time when offense soared in the majors in part because of steroid use.
Here is the argument I would like to make: No player should be denied entry to the Hall of Fame because of steroid use – suspected, confirmed, whatever. For most of league history, a wide variety of performance enhancing drugs, including McGwire’s alleged drug of choice Androstenedione, were completely legal both in baseball and wider society. It is absolutely ridiculously that Mark McGwire – one of the best sluggers ever – is being kept out of the Hall of Fame because he benefited from the use of performance enhancers that were both ubiquitous and legal.
Furthermore, even if performance enhancing drugs are considered cheating, there is no precedent to use cheating (except in the case of gambling) to deny a player entrance to the Hall of Fame. Players like John McGraw, Ty Cobb, Joe Niekro, and Whitey Ford were notorious cheaters and dirty players, but were inducted without controversy. The biggest complaint against Gaylord Perry was not that he openly admitted to doctoring balls (and would literally taunt players on the mound by pretending to do so), but that his W-L record had too many losses. And let’s not even get into corked bats.
And let’s not pretend that steroids were some new, particularly powerful form of (completely legal and accepted) cheating that happened to emerge in the 1990s. Jose Canseco in his book claimed that he used steroids in the 1980s to get from the minors to the major leagues. Mike Schmidt admitted in his book that performance enhancing drugs were freely given out in his major league clubhouses in the 1970s.
The 1990s saw a huge surge of home runs for a number of reasons. One was probably that medical science increased the potency of the performance enhancing drugs that were already in use. But that was only one reason – ballparks were smaller, pitchers weren’t allowed to push batters off the plate, managers got stupid using relief pitchers, college players grew up using aluminum bats instead of wooden ones – among many.
This wouldn’t break a rational Hall of Fame voting process, but it does mess with the assumptions made by scores of retired BBWAA writers who are either too dumb or too disconnected to compare hitters against their peers and vote for the Hall of Fame accordingly. The home run surge of the 1990s probably messes with the “500 home run club = Hall of Fame” rule that the writers had leaned on so heavily for so long. If we let a worthy group of people pick who does and does not enter the Hall of Fame, this would not be a problem. If performance enhancing drugs – or corked bats, or doctored balls, or McGraw/Cobb dirty tricks – were generally accepted as a means of playing better, then we should have no problem judging an environment where many or most players benefited from their use.
The counterfactuals bear this out. If Mark McGwire hadn’t used andro (and no one else did too), do you really think he wouldn’t have been a top-10 hitter of his generation? Of course he would be – McGwire hit 49 home runs his rookie year, and set records in high school. If Barry Bonds hadn’t taken whatever he took, would he not still go down as the greatest hitter of the 1990s? Of course he would have. Had Roger Clemens not taken steroids, wouldn’t he still have been one of the best pitchers of all time?
I find it difficult in any way to defend steroids as some kind of moral affront without completely divorcing yourself from baseball history.
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