Innocent Until Proven Guilty: Steroid Use in Professional Baseball
Published By: All Right Magazine on May 30, 2007
by STEPHEN W. MABRY
In the next several years, Baseball Writers of America who vote for inductees entering the Baseball Hall of Fame will be asked to separate fact from fiction and evidence from hearsay. It will not be an easy job. In a land where you are considered innocent until proven guilty, baseball writers might take the opposite stance, guilty until proven innocent. Steroid and HGH speculation has risen to an all time high after investigation into possible steroid use amongst baseball player reveal several key stars could have been guilty of, but have not tested positive for, steroid use.
The game of baseball has changed drastically throughout the years. The days of baseball stars being accessible to the fans have come and gone, and now players have more bodyguards and personal assistants for safety and well-being than many celebrities and politicians. In recent years, the game has distanced itself even more from the average fan with gaudy contracts that pay players as much as the average Joe American earns in 25 years on the job. Players take the game as a serious business with conditioning and health the forefront of landing one of these mammoth contracts. Some players may have taken the health and conditioning part of the job a bit too far by introducing themselves to illegal substances to help them get a competitive edge.
The induction of Tony Gwynn into the Hall of Fame marks somewhat an end to an era of baseball history. Gywnn had the body of average Joe American. He started out in the big leagues in his twenties, and while he would never be mistaken for a body builder, Gwynn’s body at 22 would be envied by Gwynn at age 40. Gwynn did not have muscles bulging from his eye lids like some athletes today. Instead, he looked like he had seen his fair share of Little Debbie and McDonald’s. Gwynn had a great eye for the game. He used his God-given talent to earn a living playing baseball. Gwynn never hit 40 home runs in a season, and he never drove in 150 runs in a season. Instead, he was a professional hitter, perhaps the best the game of baseball has seen since Ted Williams. After a great career and successful retirement that includes coaching at his alma mater, San Diego State university, Gwynn was elected into the Hall of Fame as a member of the class of 2007.
He will be joined by another of a dying breed in Cal Ripken Jr., whose numbers do not need any explanation. These players were two of the game’s all time best. However, their induction was clouded by a player who was, at one time, as revered as those two afore mentioned players. Mark McGwire’s eligibility for the Hall of Fame stole the headlines away from two of the great players of all time. The reason? Steroids. Plain and simple.
Now that the Era of Chemically-Enhanced Players is upon the writers’ horizon, the facts and speculations will be hard and hard to decipher. In fact, it will probably be a nearly impossible job. The fact is that only one player who will have a legitimate shot at the Hall of Fame over the course of the next few seasons has tested positive for steroids, and that is Raphael Palmeiro. After that, it’s all in what an individual wants to believe. The visual evidence is overwhelming against some players. With some players it isn’t as obvious. Some players fit the villain role much better than others. But what needs to be set is a guideline for voters. Baseball suspended Pete Rose for life. That took away his chance to get into the Baseball Hall of Fame. While Rose still has his supporters that believe the body of work should be separate from what the man did after the his career was over, it’s still a set–in-stone rule. Rose is ineligible. So, too, is Shoeless Joe Jackson, another great player whose ban from baseball was somewhat suspect. Jackson, like Rose, should be in the hall.
So what about steroids and the controversy that is now upon us with McGwire’s eligibility for the Hall of Fame? What guidelines do writers follow? There are none. It’s unprecedented. In Rose’s and Jackson’s cases, there was some doubt as to the reliability of the facts gathered, but in the end, the facts gathered proved that both should serve lifetime suspensions. Baseball writers are left with this uncertainty that may never be answered fully and to the satisfaction of all parties involved. Writers have formed their opinions on players without having solid facts, just visual evidence. With some players, like McGwire, controversy can be sidestepped by pointing to flaws in career numbers. Yes, home runs are wonderful and they fill the stands, but his overall body of work was not Hall of Fame material. McGwire was far too deficient in some categories to be considered a lock for the Hall of Fame. With that said, some writers have their out when it comes to not having evidence, but also believing a player is not 100% clean.
But what about players like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, and Rafael Palmeiro? What happens in those cases? In the case of Palmeiro, it’s simple. He failed a test and was not forthcoming with the truth. Even when he was caught, he tried to blame other factors or plead ignorance. Palmeiro should not be in the Hall of Fame. While his numbers warrant a Hall of Fame nod, he cheated the game just like Rose and Jackson and he was guilty. Enough said. But what about the others? Sammy Sosa has never failed a drug test, nor has he admitted using steroids. While visual evidence would support the overwhelming idea that Sosa is not 100% clean, visual evidence does not provide solid fact. So what could keep Sosa from the Hall of Fame? Sosa used a corked bat. Could that be enough to keep him out of the Hall? George Brett was guilty of pine tar in a game in the 1980s and is in the Hall of Fame. Corked bats probably do not warrant dismissal from hall consideration. Sosa could be, and I expect will be, held to a higher standard when it comes to career numbers.
Whereas 500 career home runs use to be the measuring device used to determine whether a power hitter got into the Hall of Fame, I believe the Hall of Fame voters have raised their standards in lieu of the recent scandals. Perhaps 600 or maybe even 700 home runs will have to be reached in order for power hitters to feel confident about their Hall of Fame chances upon their retirement. In fact, I believe Sosa’s comeback this spring is not about wanting 600 homers for his personal benefit, but also for his Hall of Fame benefit. 600 home runs would be hard to ignore. Sosa’s career numbers outside of home runs are not great, but are definitely good enough to get elected with the 600 home runs as the selling point. So is Sosa a hall of famer? While the suspicion is there, the fact remains he never tested positive for steroids and could end his career with 600 home runs, one of just 6 players all time to reach that mark. For that, Sosa will be elected into the Hall of Fame. The only facts that the voters have to judge Sosa against are a corked bat and 600 home runs.
As for Clemens and Bonds, they are the two greatest players of their generation. No solid and conclusive evidence links them to anything illegal. How could the Hall of Fame shun either of these individuals? The fact is, without proof, its impossible to keep them out of the Hall of Fame. Their numbers, when they are finished playing, will be as good as any player who played in the history of the game. Until players fail tests and evidence is concrete, the Hall of Fame has no choice to ignore the hearsay and vote in players based on the stats accumulated during these players’ careers. How could they not? Barry Bonds is this generation’s Babe Ruth or Willie Mays. He is the most feared hitter in the game.
With Roger Clemens, as he approaches 350 career wins, how could a player, surpassing the 300 barrier by 50, yes 50, wins not be considered a Hall of Famer? There is absolutely no way that happens. Willletting Bonds, Clemens, and Sosa in the Hall of Fame be the popular option? Probably not, but it is the option that keeps our value system alive. Innocent until proven guilty. Only Rafael Palmeiro at this point should be ignored by the writers. Everyone else with the career numbers should be allowed to pass through the gates at the Hall of Fame.