The Line

Writing about baseball during the offseason is something I’ve had a difficult time doing in the past. It isn’t for being blown out on the subject, a lack of interest, or anything of the sort. What I’ve found is that the offseason lends itself to more rumors and misinformation than anything else, and by the time I’ve written something, it’s already wrong. Until now.

For the first time since 1996, not a single eligible name on the ballot has received enough votes to enter the Hall of Fame. It isn’t for lack of big names, because in reality, the big names are why this is being written right now. Those big names, the scapegoats of the so-called “steroid era”, are the very names garnering headlines for the empty class of 2013.

The debate has been raging for a decade about what would happen when this time came, and now that it’s here, we’ve received an answer: that no player linked to PED usage will be voted into the Hall of Fame. That, to me, is the real travesty.

I’ve long understood that there’s a certain negative stigma associated with “cheating”, even in its most simple forms. What I’ve failed to fully understand in this situation, however, is how the very people that enabled the culture in baseball are now the ones leading the charge to bull-rush candidates off of the ballot.

As the sport that was, at one time, dubbed America’s pastime, baseball has a very rich – although at times rigid – history.  There was the Black Sox Scandal during the 1919 World Series, in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox were banned for life from baseball for intentionally throwing games, a list of people that included “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. History has still never forgiven Jackson, and he is still banned from the Hall of Fame.

In 1961, Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run total, and many clamored that the record should have an asterisk next to it since Maris had more games to break the record (162 versus the 151 Ruth had). The part that was never told is that it actually took Maris fewer player appearances to hit his 60th homer. He hit it in his 684th plate appearance of the 1961 season, while Ruth didn’t hit his 60th until his 689th plate appearance in his history 1927 season. Yet, even though Maris isn’t in the Hall of Fame, his record is now, for the most part, universally recognized as having surpassed that of Babe Ruth. Why is history so forgiving for some, yet not for others? I’ve struggled to answer the question.

As baseball fell from popularity in the 1970’s due to increasing popularity of football, the ball was rolling for everything that led up to the steroid era. Baseball had long been a radio business for those that weren’t in attendance of games. Old ballparks weren’t meant to hold more than about 15,000 fans, and certainly didn’t offer modern attractions seen in today’s parks. At the same time, the AFL/NFL merger of 1970 kicked off an era of high popularity for professional football, and even today, the popularity is continuing to rise. Football was fun to watch on television, while baseball games were too long and slow.

As the 1980’s rolled around, baseball began losing more athletes to football, and the game started changing. Players started getting stronger and faster. “Greenies” had been popular for some time, but weren’t at the heart of the issue. Some baseball players, as noted earlier this year by Bobby Valentine, began lifting weights. At the time, weight training was seen as taboo in the baseball world. Players that did it didn’t want others knowing.

When the baseball strike happened and wiped out the 1994 postseason, fan reaction was that of anger. By the time baseball resumed regular activities in April of 1995, fans didn’t care to attend games any longer, much less watch on TV. Players, coaches, owners, and all baseball executives were looking for a way to boost popularity within the sport. So when Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire gave fans a historic home run chase in 1998, in which both players shattered the previous single-season record of 61 still held by Roger Maris, everyone was happy. Fans enjoyed the show, owners and MLB executives were thrilled that their game was back on the map, and media members finally had something good to say about baseball again. All was well. Or so we thought.

As teams began requiring players to adhere to a weight training regimen during this time, the overall makeup of a baseball player changed during this time. When some players grew at a higher rate than others, fans naturally mocked that steroid use was to blame. The fans, you know, the folks that aren’t even an integral part of everyday baseball activities, knew exactly what was going on. Owners and managers had to have had their suspicions as well. More importantly, journalists, the people employed to cover every at-bat, every clubhouse altercation, and every postgame reaction, they knew better than anyone, and had more of a voice than anyone to shine light on what was going on in baseball. But hey, when the going is good, why change that? Never mind the fact that players like Tony Gwynn were acknowledging steroids in the mid-90’s, there was no rush to do anything about the issue. Even when random testing was implemented in 2001, it was only for minor league players not currently on an MLB 40-man roster. When testing was instituted at the MLB level, there was no penalty for testing positive until 2005, when even a 10-day penalty was all that was imposed on offenders. There was never any real hurry to fix what was acknowledged as a “problem”. Attendance was rising and the stories were juicy.

Now, in 2013, those very same writers who had a moral obligation to uncover the truth then, the same people that benefited from every record broken during that time, they’re supposed to be the people to play the role of judge and jury? Pardon me for not finding much credibility in it.

Yes, I get that Barry Bonds, quite possibly the most mercurial baseball player of his time, probably broke some records due to steroid usage. I understand that the name Roger Clemens will always hold a certain amount of negativity. What I also understand is that baseball did everything in its power to enable the problem, whether it be building more hitter-friendly ballparks, lowering the pitching mound, or turning a blind eye to everything in front of them. In talking to my brother about this issue today, he provided quite possibly the best insight I’ve seen in on the subject: “The thing is, where is that line? If you say steroids are considering cheating, but greenies are OK, is that the line? What about the things in between them? Are they OK too? Are steroids the beginning of the line or the end?”

We live in a time where "innocent until proven guilty" is just something we say, yet our actions rarely, if ever, back that claim up. It's been speculated before that Hank Aaron could have possibly been a steroid user. While there has never been any definitive proof, the fact that his numbers got better as he reached the end of his career have raised some eyebrows, nonetheless. Yet, it's these same types of unproven claims that are keeping many current names on the ballot from being inducted into the Hall. I just can't buy that writers are really looking at the issue objectively. More than that, I'm almost 100% convinced that it has everything to do with the writers pretending that they were blind to the issue for so long.

In the end, I guess I’m just disturbed by what has now become a culture of biting the mouth that feeds. Baseball writers have been given the ability to, in a sense, play God, and that’s a power that is too easily abused. If some of baseball’s most historic stars are left out of the Hall of Fame, I get it. I don’t have to like it, but I get it. What I don’t get is this: if cheating is cheating, where do we draw the line?