Sports history files: Baseball’s dwindling Romantics

The burden of history falls upon baseball like perhaps no other sport in North America. The idealism, desire for moral purity and poetic meanderings of some of the game’s most zealous gatekeepers (most of them self-identified, rather than actual) has hardly diminished after more than a century.

This absolutism has at times been a disservice to the game, because it tends to whitewash or distort history. While historical interpretation is a largely subjective endeavor, the burden of placing the accomplishments of its greatest players in a proper, fair and accurate historical context has become an increasingly troublesome one.

This was the dilemma faced by many writers given Baseball Hall of Fame ballots last year. The results were announced yesterday, and for the first time since 1996, the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America who voted approved no living players for induction.

The lengthy list of names on the ballot made it difficult enough for any player to reach the threshold of being voted on 75 percent of the ballots cast. That some of those names have been associated with steroids use has ushered in what is considered a “new” era on the matter of reaching Cooperstown.

JuicingTheGameI would agree with that argument, up to a point. This was the first year of eligibility for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, the players most hounded by the federal government for doping allegations. We’re not many years removed from the absurdity of Jeff Novitzky, an anti-steroids IRS agent, sifting through a dumpster at the BALCO lab, and the millions of taxpayer dollars that were wasted to prosecute Bonds and trot Clemens before Congress to get them to confess to their “crimes.”

A number of writers have explained why for them even being connected to or suspected of steroids use crosses the line of “Rule 5,” the Hall of Fame voting provision that goes to a player’s character.

Howard Bryant of ESPN.com, as prominent a steroids scold as there is in the media and author of the 2005 book, “Juicing the Game,” wrote Wednesday that he sent in a blank ballot “because the damages to the game were real:”

I understand that we live in a pharmacological age. There is a pill for everything, whether it is Viagra, Lipitor or Adderall. I understand that we will never get clarity about who used and who didn’t or about how much drugs helped the numbers or hurt them. What will always baffle me, however, is that even in an age of intense cynicism, the lying and deceit don’t matter to some. Why are people who were offended by these years of dishonesty being cast now as outdated charlatans, soapbox preachers or the “moral police”? I wonder why there is so little outrage toward the liars and cheaters who for years used their clout with the fans, their enormous wealth, their fame and their influence in the game to deceive the public.

While I don’t doubt the sincerity of his feelings, the historical holes in his column are vast. First of all, anyone who routinely uses the word “cheaters” in this discussion tends to be an absolutist in expressing an intolerance for steroids. The same goes for “lying and deceit.” This verbiage is commonly employed by writers engaging in far too much schadenfreude regarding Lance Armstrong, for example.

After taking a beating from commenters on the column, Bryant poorly defended himself on Twitter Thursday with about the most arrogant thing I’ve ever seen from a sportswriter (and that’s saying a lot):

BBWAA is nothing but a mop.MLB, players sit back as HOF voters get pummeled for their mess. They punted Steroid Era to us+this is the price

Unlike those now turning their wrath against Armstrong and (alleged) baseball dopers after years of looking the other way, Bryant can’t be accused of being inconsistent about steroids. But he is terribly remiss in ignoring the fact that Cooperstown includes a rogues’ gallery of less-than-earnest human beings who cheated their way through life, if not necessarily on the diamond.

In Thursday’s SB Nation Longform feature, the father-son tandem of Michael and Colin MacDonald contend that absolutists waxing indignant now — and Bob Costas is singled out here — have no one but themselves to blame:

We do not think that steroid use is good or laudable. We wish the game were free from them. We wish steroids never had been used in baseball. But we also recognize reality. When the genie escaped the bottle, it forced players to choose between using and gaining a competitive advantage, and not using and suffering a competitive disadvantage. Using also endangers the player’s health and imposes the same choice on other players. Not using risks losing games and jobs (and the 1989 World Series). Some players will cheat at every opportunity and others will honor all rules no matter the temptation. But many players will play within the rules as the guardians of the game define and enforce them. But if the enforcement of the rules signals a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude, the blame originates with those sending the signal.

CooperstownConfidentialPrior to the publication of his 2009 book, “Cooperstown Confidential,” author Zev Chafets answered the absolutists as forthrightly as anyone ever has, pointing out the many unhealthy commodities consumed by players, Hall of Famers and otherwise, during the long history of the game:

Since the dawn of baseball, players have used whatever substances they believed would help them perform better, heal faster or relax during a long and stressful season. As far back as 1889, the pitcher Pud Galvin ingested monkey testosterone. During Prohibition, Grover Cleveland Alexander, also a pitcher, calmed his nerves with federally banned alcohol, and no less an expert than Bill Veeck, who owned several major-league teams, said that Alexander was a better pitcher drunk than sober.

In 1961, during his home run race with Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle developed a sudden abscess that kept him on the bench. It came from an infected needle used by Max Jacobson, a quack who injected Mantle with a home-brew containing steroids and speed. In his autobiography, Hank Aaron admitted once taking an amphetamine tablet during a game. The Pirates’ John Milner testified at a drug dealer’s trial that his teammate, Willie Mays, kept “red juice,” a liquid form of speed, in his locker. (Mays denied it.) After he retired, Sandy Koufax admitted the he was often “half high” on the mound from the drugs he took for his ailing left arm.

These arguments are gaining more traction in the mainstream media, including with some Hall of Fame voters, who are responding forcefully to the puritans. Another early chronicler of steroids in baseball, Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, wrote this week why he won’t cross the same line as Bryant. So some voters who couldn’t check off Bonds or Clemens also excluded Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza by extension, which riled up Richard Justice of MLB.com:

Oh, Lord, scoop out my eyes with a plastic spoon. There are few things sportswriters enjoy more than preaching about right and wrong.

Ditto for baseball business writer Maury Brown, who doesn’t have a Hall of Fame vote but ought to:

People are not all “rainbows and unicorns.”…. Cheating in baseball began long before steroids were the lightening rod they are today… The HOF isn’t Church, so don’t vote like it is…. Those that are not filling out their ballots as a form of protest are weak, making the story about them, and need to get in the trenches, deal with it or step aside. Your vote is a privilege, not a right. Deal with the complexities of it all.

(Similarly smart views here from Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kevin Modesti of the Pasadena Star-News and Jayson Stark of ESPN.com.)

As the Hall of Fame votes were being finalized, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns anointed himself as Savonarola of Swat in rather churlish comments to the Hollywood Reporter that have ricocheted around the sports media world:

We know some pitchers extended their playing careers, we know some people hit the ball farther, but nobody hit .406, nobody had a 56-game hitting streak, no pitcher won 30 games, no pitcher won 35 games, no pitcher won 25 games. Maybe that helps you make it less onerous, but at the same time, those motherf—ers should suffer for a while.

Burns — who gave Costas, Bryant and Verducci unquestioned face time about steroids in his “Baseball” film — is among the last of the baseball Romantics, and it is a sad state of affairs. There’s a sense of desperation, if not moral outrage to their rhetoric, rife with the notion that the game’s robber barons of today aren’t owners who purloin public money for their playhouses but pumped-up sluggers who give fans the long ball they constantly crave.

But to denounce the absolutism of the Romantics is not to endorse the use of steroids, or to say that they are a good thing. It is to acknowledge the human flaws of many of those already in the Hall of Fame, and to understand the full historical range of so-called “cheating” behavior that predates the “steroid era” by decades. This is a nuanced topic that some wish to banish from discussion with a hardline sense of retroactive justice.

I wonder if Verducci missed this 1969 Sports Illustrated article about drug use in sports, with some prescient quotes at the top from Denny McLain.

The black-and-white persistence of the Romantics is fading away, but not because of any perceived moral relativism by a younger generation of writers or players who may shrug their shoulders at “juicing.” There is a heavy dose of realism and probity that is entering the discussion, a strong counter to those who wish to oversimplify.

What we are in now is the tail end of the Romantic era, for better or for worse. Some marginal candidates tied to steroids use may never get in, but with 14 years remaining on the ballot, Bonds and Clemens figure to gain induction. Their careers were well-established long before Major League Baseball began drawing a line against doping.

In blistering the zeal to sanitize the vote, Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports provides one of the few perspectives that puts the historical dereliction of duty by some Hall of Fame balloters in its rightful context:

This wasn’t just a referendum on steroids. It was one on the writers and their failure to recognize as long as they want the privilege of creating history, they must in doing so protect the worthy institution that finds them fit for the task. And considering the backlash following Wednesday’s revelation that it wasn’t just Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens who didn’t pass muster but Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza and so many others, the 10-year members of the Baseball Writers Association of America with Hall of Fame votes seem not to care about the damage they’re doing.

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