The Steroid Problem


By: Connor Lenahan

Last night Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza were voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Griffey ended up resetting the record for highest percentage of votes for induction – 99.3%, with only 3 voters not including Junior – while Piazza well exceeded the 75% benchmark needed to get into the Hall.

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were not inducted last night, and that’s why I’m writing today.

Baseball is representative of a lot of things about American culture, mainly by byproduct of existing for most of our country’s history, most importantly the last 100-150 years. America has evolved alongside our national pastime, despite the fact that the game has fallen behind in popularity to football in recent decades. But we still look at baseball as the defining sport of America. It’s part of the elevator pitch of us as a nation – America: Freedom, Baseball, Apple Pies, etc.

So it’s not a stretch to understand that those that cheat the game are in some ways cheating the country. At least, that’s what we tend to make of steroid users, namely Bonds and Clemens. Again, that’s what provides the debate that arose once again last night, when arguably the greatest hitter of all time and best pitcher of the last fifty years we once again denied entry to Cooperstown.

This shouldn’t be anything new, and I’m sorry for talking so much time to get to the meat of this, but we needed to at least set the table a little, for nothing else than for me to knock some plates and glasses askew when I say the following.

I entirely believe that Bonds and Clemens should be in the Hall of Fame, and I think that the biggest arguments against them are, largely, bullshit.

There have been more articles, hot takes, reports, and even lawsuits regarding these two men than I’d care to list at this point, but for the sake of context, searching “Barry Bonds Steroids” on Google nets close to half a million results, and that’s choosing one specific term to search. Steroids, performance-enhancing drugs, PEDs, the cream, the clear, Human Growth Hormone, HGH; it all means the same. People think Barry Bonds cheated by using a substance/medical aide that improved his strength and ability to hit home runs well past what his career’s natural peak should have been.

Of course he did. Does anyone argue this anymore?

Change “hit home runs” to “throw strike outs/win games” for Clemens and the exact same thing runs true.

They may not have been convicted of a anything, and to their credit, neither have tested positive for PEDs previously, and both have had their day in court and been found in the clear, but logic says otherwise. Barry Bonds reset the single-season home run record that Roger Maris had set at 61 when he was 27-years old at 73 when he was 36-years-old. Roger Clemens won the AL Cy Young award when he was 41-years-old. Players aren’t supposed to do that.

There’s a great deal of circumstantial evidence around both that would lead anyone to believe they were guilty. That’s where we are today. And frankly, no one seems to have much of an issue with holding all of this as truth despite the two being legally cleared.

That’s why Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens aren’t in the Hall of Fame.

Here’s why I disagree.

What they (probably) did was symptomatic of a time in baseball where PED use was at it’s absolute zenith, and as a result they are being retroactively punished for it. I happen to disagree with this practice based on fairness grounds.

Let’s use a real world example. I write Unbreakable every single day and enjoy doing it. There are plenty of things that I rely upon to help me writing. I look around at news sites, social media, and talk to friends for article ideas. I regularly will drink soda for the sake of a caffeine boost and a sugar boost so I have extra energy for the blog after a day of work or class. I know plenty of people that do the same, and it seems to be the norm. It may not necessarily be soda – maybe it’s coffee or potentially Red Bull. Nearly everyone I know gets a caffeine boost of some sort.

Now let’s get hypothetical and say that this blog then allows me to go onto a professional writing position. I continue to write articles and go on with everything that I perceive to be normal. Maybe I notice that fellow writers around me are more into decaffeinated soda and coffee, but a sizable amount of my peers are still have a Starbucks run in their morning routine.

Suddenly, right as I’m in the midst of my writing career, the sitting President announces a federal ban on caffeine after it’s found to be medically detrimental, and it was not available to the Ernest Hemmingways of the world when they wrote amazing works. Now, look, I realize this doesn’t work perfectly, but bear with me. So all those writers that need their caffeine boost suddenly need to find a new outlet. Let’s say that I continue along with this current job, but as a result of the lack of caffeine and/or general age factors, I elect to go for a new job.

Everywhere I apply, however, won’t let me get past the lobby. They decide that since I used caffeine in my previous roles that I can’t get anything new. This also has me disqualified from any future awards – no Pulitzers for me. And worst of all, people want my entire career struck from the record for something that I thought was fine because it was entirely the norm, and more importantly, not against the rules when I was doing it.

Does that sound entirely fair?

I say no. And I openly admit, that’s leaving a lot out of the conversation about the legality of the drugs then and now, as well as the spirit of the argument, but I think this comes down to a central point. Baseball would like nothing more than for people to gloss over the Steroid Era of the late nineties as a dark period of the game’s history. Things got out of control and we unlike what the sport is supposed to be and represent. I can respect that, but it’s the wrong way to go about things.

When we learn about American history, and especially world history, we learn about the good and the bad. We get to hear about how we got to the moon in the 60’s, but we also learn about the Kennedy assassination. We inform kids about the civil rights movement and 9/11 in the same classroom. You need all the chapters to understand where we are today. We can’t elect to leave out slavery and hope people understand the unrest when the Black Lives Matter movement comes to the forefront of a national conversation.

In baseball you need to do the same. You need to acknowledge that Ty Cobb was the best hitter of his generation and in the pantheon of hitters forever, but you need to similarly identify him as a reprehensible human with regards to his behavior and personal biases. Pete Rose bet on baseball, but he also has more hits than any player in league history. Barry Bonds likely used some sort of PED to make his prime last another decade, but so did a large chunk of the league around him at that point. The Steroid Era was important to baseball in many ways, and can’t be selectively remembered because we “think” Griffey Jr. and Piazza were clean while we “know” Bonds and Clemens weren’t.

We start playing theoretical games where we don’t need to. The Baseball Hall of Fame is a museum designed to recognize the greatest players of the defining American game. This is not a path to sainthood. Some players are terrific people and in the Hall, but many aren’t. The point of the Hall is not to reshape the history of baseball, but to recognize the defining moments and players. At least, that’s what it should be.

And in that case, why aren’t the two best players of that era in the Hall?

But before I end this rant, I’d like to clarify one point about the above: I’m not suddenly excusing all cheating. I’m still willing to have a debate about things. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were already Hall of Fame caliber before their muscles exploded. I don’t have an issue with them. But for someone like Mark McGwire, who admitted steroid use, whose career is more defined by the benefits the drugs gave him, and is on the fence for induction, you could leave him off your ballot without an argument from me. If we want the Hall of Fame to be the highlights then that is okay – debating who is good enough to get in is an interesting point, and makes it interesting. We shouldn’t disqualify everyone that had some back acne from the Hall, because that would unfairly leave out innocent people, including yours truly. Suspicion shouldn’t be the only point brought up, but it can be used in a larger context.

And if that sounds impossible, wait a couple of years until Peyton Manning becomes eligible for the football Hall of Fame. He might be the litmus test for this all, provided that the recent allegations against him have legs, which appears semi-possible via the New York Times.

We need the steroid problem to be a conversation, and not a statement. Is that too much to ask?