Welcome to a new column that we call point/counterpoint. This column will consist of back and forth sports bar-style debates between The Observer’s biggest sports fans. To kick off this column we look at last week’s Baseball Hall of Fame election and debate if suspected users of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) from the 90s and 2000s should be elected to stand amongst the greatest to play America’s national pastime. This transcript has been lightly edited.
JP. O’Hagan (Sports Editor): Play ball. Baseball has long been a game that puts an emphasis on skill and reveres greatness. In the 90s and early 2000s we saw an era of excitement with bigger personalities, faster pitchers and longer homers. Then we learned that this wasn’t skill or handwork, it was created. Why should those players be remembered alongside the greatest to play the game when they probably wouldn’t have been if it wasn’t for the PEDs?
Billy Heyen (Sports Writer): I would argue that many of the men suspected or even confirmed to have juiced are among the greatest our game has ever seen. I’d put them in the Hall if their numbers show they should be there. There is just too much uncertainty. Estimates on the low end say 40 to 50 percent of the players in the era used steroids. If juiced hitters were facing juiced pitchers and we can’t even know the full effect that had on their abilities, how can we judge these players? Early on in the steroid era, most substances in question weren’t even against the rules of baseball. Without enough knowledge on how numbers and games were changed, I say put these guys in if their numbers and contributions show they should be in.
JP: The “if their numbers show it” is a popular argument and I do understand the reasoning behind it. However I would ask, how do you account for the fact that juiced players also faced non-juiced players? This gave them an advantage. While the stat value of that advantage is not perfectly understood, it is still there. If it wasn’t the players would not have taken the steroids. How can you trust the numbers if the numbers don’t make sense?
Billy: Baseball, historically, has been a numbers game. More than other sports, there are milestones that seem to mean something to the common fan: 3,000 hits, 500 home runs, 300 wins. I understand that there may have been an advantage for a juicer vs a non-juicer. Barry Bonds may have added 200 home runs to his career with steroids, or he may have added only two. All I know is that I grew up watching Bonds hit balls into McCovey Cove. I watched A-Rod become one of the best hitters in the league from the time he was 19. Roger Clemens continued to get batters out with his dominating arsenal even as his velocity declined. I cannot tell you that these are the most honorable men. All I can tell you is what I saw on a baseball field. I cannot imagine bringing my kid to Cooperstown in 25 years and not being able to show them the plaques of all these great players I saw growing up. By no means are those who took steroids perfect people. However, on the field they were legends, and in my eyes, that is what Cooperstown is for. It needs to house the history of the game, good and bad, and to leave these men out when what they did on the field was so magnificent is hard for me to stomach.
JP: Perhaps here is where we really boil down to the essence of the question. What is the purpose of the Hall of Fame? It is a museum to tell the history? Or rather is it a place to honor the greatest men to ever step on a baseball diamond? You argue it is to tell the history. I would argue that induction should be reserved for the honor of those who we wish to immortalize for their pursuits. Why would we want to honor and uphold those who cheated, tarnishing the game for a decade? There is a part of the Hall of Fame that tells the history of the game. Often called the greatest play in baseball history was Cubs outfielder Rick Monday running over and saving an American flag from Vietnam protesters trying to burn it during a game at Dodger Stadium. The story is in Cooperstown, but Rick Monday is no hall-of-famer. He hit .264 batting average and 241 home runs. The same can be said for Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose, two of baseball’s greatest, who are kept out for tarnishing the game, mentioned but not inducted. It is possible to tell the history without also having to induct PED users. That is an honor that should be saved.
Billy: If we are honoring the greatest men to step on the baseball diamond, one of the most racist men ever, Ty Cobb, would have to be left out. In their era, these players were the best. The Hall of Fame is not a history of great men, rather a history of great ball players. Watching Bonds and Clemens and Mark McGwire, you knew you were witnessing great ballplayers. I’m not saying I like what they did, but I do think they were and are Hall of Famers. If you leave out the best players of an era, it does not paint the full picture. In an era in which the sport may have been tainted, these men were the best. We cannot live an alternate past.
JP: Lets move beyond players like Bonds and Clemens. What about the players who wouldn’t be in the hall of fame consideration but got a bump due to PED use? I’m talking about guys like Todd Hundley, David Justice, José Canseco, solid guys that may have gotten looks for the Hall on numbers alone, but probably shouldn’t because they are linked to steroids. Or on other side, how do you address players like Fred McGriff, Jim Edmonds or Alan Trammell who are at the same level and yet probably won’t make it in because their numbers are a little too low especially compared to their juiced contemporaries? What do you tell those guys?
Billy: Those steroid players you named have not gotten much of a look at all. I think the bigger problem the Hall has is a crowded ballot and an outdated voting process. I have a tough time doing anything other than judging the action on the field. I do think Jim Edmonds is a Hall of Famer, and the reason he fell off the ballot is because it is too crowded with steroids players who get some votes but not enough to get in. I wish that they would just decide how to approach it. If they want to vote players who used steroids in then they should be in, out of the way, and allow for time to assess players such as Edmonds.
JP: It is true that they haven’t been strongly for the Hall but they haven’t because they are linked to steroids. I will agree that the Hall needs to make up its mind. However to have the voters approach elections as a team is a lofty goal for a notoriously disjointed process. There will always be people who vote for the wrong people for a stupid reason, or don’t vote for people (like the insane three voters who didn’t vote for Ken Griffey Jr. this year) but some sense of unity when approaching PED users is a goal that I can agree with. I obviously want them to agree on a different direction but it’s good to find common ground. Closing thoughts?
Billy: In closing I will go back to what I said earlier: the best players in the game I grew up watching and loving should be in the Hall, “clean” or not. Junior made it, and I love that. Bonds was just as transcendent, and I would hope one day I can show my kid his plaque, with all his past, good and bad. We will never know if some players used, we know some did, and we highly presume that some did not. At the end of the day a Hall of Famer is decided by results on the field.