News was made last week in the sleepy village of Cooperstown, N.Y., at the annual induction ceremonies at the Baseball Hall of Fame. As the former stars of the game made the interview rounds afterwards, Hammerin’ Hank Aaron — who was introduced as “everyone’s home run champion” — said that he would welcome players who used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) into the Hall, only if their plaques had asterisks reading “they did it, but here’s why.”
Other Hall of Famers were not so gracious, like Goose Gossage who issued this threat to dopers who hope to breach Cooperstown’s hallowed threshold: “I think if you cheated, you shouldn’t be allowed in. I wouldn’t come.” No doubt about it; the issue of what to do with the accomplishments of steroid-era players has been a red hot topic in baseball.
With the revelation that Boston slugger David Ortiz may have tested positive for PEDs, sports-radio hotlines have been abuzz with various and sundry cries of cheating, especially from Yankee fans. Little right have they to accuse though, since some of the brightest stars in the Bronx have also come under the shadow of drugging doubt. As a result, many are clamoring for the total release of the infamous list of players who tested positive for PEDs in 2003.
It seems to me that this whole business has gotten out of hand. Since the first ball was pitched, players have been trying to get an edge; that physical or sometimes psychological advantage that would enable them to raise their game to the next level. And while anabolic steroids are currently banned from over-the-counter sale, this was not always so. I’m not saying that taking PEDs is right or wrong; but the fact is, that most of them were not illegal when they were used by some of the players whose records are in dispute.
And, if you were to assume that MLB bans these drugs for the same reason as the FDA — because they are potentially hazardous to one’s health — then it really has less to do with “cheating” than it does with the nanny state’s overreaching desire to protect us from ourselves. One wonders what effect modern puritanical views on alcohol and tobacco consumption would have had on the careers of baseball’s hard-drinking, hard-living stars of the past.
Yet, what bothers most fans is that steroids have given their users unfair advantages over those in the past. But even if we could somehow retro-test some of those suspects who are now out of the game, what can we say about the many other scientific and medical advances that have contributed to the conditioning of the modern ballplayers?
Is it unfair that today’s pitchers can return from serious arm injury fairly quickly with “Tommy John” surgery? What about cortisone shots? Are they not also steroids which are dangerous when improperly used? You can go on and on wondering how vitamin supplements, health regimens, laser surgery and other modern medical procedures might have improved the length and quality of the careers of old-timers.
Add to these the asterisk controversy about the 154-game schedule versus the 162-game slate, and mix in the age-old baseball arguments about changing strike zones, league expansion, pitching inside and the rest, and we are left with that which makes the game great; its enduring arguability. As we have seen above, even the game’s giants can’t agree on how to treat the records of alleged modern miscreants.
But one rule has been sacrosanct in baseball for nearly a century, ever since Judge Kenesaw “Mountain” Landis brought the gavel down on some of the greatest players of their time: gambling in baseball will not be tolerated. Since that day, all sorts of crimes and criminals have been visited on the game, but gamblers have been especially punished because their iniquities are not only of a personal nature; they are an attack on the game itself.
And so it is interesting that some self-avowed baseball purists who think that steroids have polluted the integrity of baseball records, have no trouble trumpeting the case for Pete Rose — confirmed baseball gambler and ultimate compiler — making it into the Hall. The same Mr. Rose who, as player-manager for the Reds, hung around far past his prime to “break” Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record; just for the sake of breaking it.
Who knows: maybe Rose may one day get his wish to get into Cooperstown. But his plaque may have a little asterisk along the lines of Mr. Aaron’s wishes; “he did it, but here’s why.”