Steroids, moralizing and the Baseball Hall of Fame

My objections to the War on Steroids are not subtle, nor are they conflicted, as I have written here and here and here.

The caveat has always been that I’m more concerned about the public unaccountability of the taxpayer-funded USADA than athletes who are presumed guilty merely by being charged with doping. Including Lance Armstrong.

But expressing a desire to decriminalize the use of anabolic steroids and halt the federal government’s investigative and prosecutorial powers in this area isn’t the same as cheering on athletes who dope.

And here’s where some conflicted feelings emerge. Ballots for the 2013 class of the Baseball Hall of Fame are due by Dec. 31, and a grand conundrum is unfolding over whether Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro are fit for Cooperstown.

Their names are all on the current ballot, but it’s unlikely they will get in, at least for now, because of the state of our public discourse on steroids and sports.

A number of other candidates have spoken out against the inclusion of steroids users, namely Barry Larkin and Dale Murphy, who is in his last year on a Hall of Fame ballot.

If I had a vote, both of these gentlemen would be in, especially Murphy, who played on bad teams in my hometown for too many years, which may ultimately cost him a spot in a place where he truly belongs. I do appreciate Larkin’s appeal to respect the “integrity of what the Hall of Fame stands for.”

These are important points to make, and a valuable conversation to have.

But as longtime sports journalist and Hall of Fame voter Ron Rapoport wrote recently, it’s a rather one-sided discussion, given the moralizing habits of his own tribe.

Writing on L.A. Observed over the weekend, Rapoport took the audacious view that all of those stained or dogged by steroids charges who are on the ballot ought to be voted in:

“I believe the steroid generation of players, of which these five players are among the most conspicuously accused, may well have saved baseball. I also believe these players’ greatest achievements will outlast not only their careers, but their lifetimes.

“Those of us who covered baseball during the strike that wiped out the 1994 playoffs and World Series well remember how bitter the players, owners and fans were then, and how dire the outlook for the game’s immediate future seemed. We also remember how the home run battles between Sosa and McGwire wiped away this bitterness in an instant and brought the fans running back to the ballpark in forgiveness and delight. Bonds’ assault on all-time home run records in the seasons that followed was equally transfixing as was Clemens’ age-defying march to 354 victories.”

Sports columnist Mike Lupica wrote a book celebrating the Sosa-McGwire duel, then became a come-to-Jesus anti-steroids scold when “Big Mac” was hauled before some of the same sanctimonious old birds in Congress who once hailed him for his feats.

While steroids have been banned by MLB since 1991, there wasn’t a uniform testing procedure in place until 2003. How can you draw a line across the careers of these individuals in “The Steroids Era” when the headmasters of the game couldn’t be bothered to enforce their own rules?

The moralists like to claim that players ought to observe a code of honor, but in reality few were paying much attention until anti-doping zealots gained enough media traction during the last decade. Former pitcher Tommy House (who caught Hank Aaron’s 715th home run ball in the Braves’ bullpen) is quoted by Rapoport as saying that “enhancements have been around forever.” Concluded Rapoport:

“I wonder where in the game’s lily-white, indentured-servitude, amphetamine-dispensing past, we can find total purity.”

I admit to some serious ambivalence about how I would vote, if I could. But ESPN’s Buster Olney, in assessing the obligations of the voter and claiming “it’s the writers, and the writers alone, who are the bottleneck,” really unlocks the issue for me:

“So the baseball writers ought to get out of the way rather than acting like overzealous crossing guards empowered by their ballots. The writers’ work should always reflect history, not determine legacies; that’s the work of the players, the good and the bad.”

Some of these voters are no more likely to vote for anyone linked to steroids than some on the Veterans Committee would welcome the recently departed Marvin Miller into the fold. That’s more than an omission, but a scandal bigger than anything Barry Bonds may have pumped into his body.

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