Thursday, January 10, 2013

Steroids In The Hall And Beyond

Steroids and the Baseball Hall of Fame just don't mesh well. Steroids in baseball paint a picture of shady cheaters, selling out their bodies, integrity, morals, honor, and self-respect in dark corners of clubhouses around the USA, aided by equally-as-shady trainers and suppliers. The Baseball Hall of Fame in

Cooperstown is everything that is right with sports; legends inhabiting the halls of a grand museum in a romantic little city, a destination for tourists, fans, and people who seek a wave of majestic nostalgia from America's pastime.

Steroids and the hall, though polar opposites, were always destined for a meeting once Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa captivated the sports world with their highway home-run chases in the early 2000's. Baseball sold its soul when it let PEDs run rampant in the game. Although the sport is recovering, this year's hall of fame ballot sends the sport back to a time when the powers of the MLB turned a blind eye to the steroids that helped hit home runs, put butts in seats, and finally drive baseball past its pre-lockout popularity.

This is the first year of hall of fame eligibility for the likes of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, and Sammy Sosa, and players with checkered pasts such as Mark McGwire, Jeff Bagwell, and Rafael Palmero remain on the ballot from 2012. It's unavoidable. We'll find out soon enough if baseball's journalists feel the stars of the steroid era deserve to be immortalized, but the road to that decision for many of those writers, and the people that call themselves fans of the game, has been, is, and will be difficult, toying with the very basis of our ideas about right and wrong, just and cruel, fair and unfair, in sports and life as a whole.

Around baseball, everyone has an opinion about whether the players who shaped Major League Baseball for the 21st century, shattered records, and set themselves up as standards for players in baseball today, the steroid users, should be in the hall of fame. Some feel it's just flat wrong to put people who knowingly cheated in the hall of fame, regardless of on-field performance. Some people believe you can't just ignore a huge era of baseball - that the steroid era happened, and we should recognize the players who were best in their era, just as we have with players from every other era. Some people want to judge each case on its own merits. Did the player admit to steroid use? Did the player ever test positive? Some want an asterisk next to the names of the suspected and convicted PED users in the hall, and some more want a different wing of the hall of fame devoted to exploring this steroid era.

Truth is, of course, there is no good way to deal with the issue of steroids and the hall. There is no way to dissolve the memories, the records, the people, and the drugs that turned the fate of baseball at the turn of the century. Each person looking at this issue will see it a different way. I'll give my views now, with the understanding that many people may not understand what I have to say about this issue that tugs at the heartstrings of so many in baseball today.

I get why Bud Selig and the ruling class of baseball let steroids happen. I totally get it. Baseball is fighting a battle to stay relevant. I hear every day from a kid in my high school about how they hate baseball, how boring and slow it is, and how they haven't, don't, and never will play the game. Baseball was America's Pastime - it is no longer. In fact, for the youth of America, baseball is far behind basketball, football, soccer, and in some parts of the country, hockey, lacrosse, and action sports. Fewer kids watch the game, fewer kids play the game, and the generation that is about to be buying tickets and jerseys aren't going to be spending their money in ballparks on summer nights. For this new generation, awash with iPods, video games, YouTube, and highlight reels, baseball isn't cutting it. It's not fast enough, not cool enough.

You have to love baseball to appreciate the drama and intricacies of the game and not as many people are growing up loving baseball. It's not a flashy sport; it doesn't have dunks or goals, touchdowns or big hits.

But it does have the home run. And that's plenty exciting. To baseball, people in power in the late 90's, the home run seemed like the savior that could put the MLB back on top of the mountain it'd just fallen off of.

How easy it must have been to turn a blind eye to steroids, because there were more home runs, bigger, further, and faster home runs. Everyone was hitting them and business wise, it was great for the sport. Baseball got everyone's attention again with the McGwire / Sosa home run chase, and it stayed there with Bonds. The casual fans baseball was picking up weren't concerned with steroids. Baseball WWE'd itself. It sold its sole. And in the end, that always comes back to bite you in the butt.

During the peak of the steroid era, just before I got into baseball, the sport morphed into something completely foreign to many longtime fans. Most teams stopped playing small-ball, stopped moving runners over, or bunting, because, well, you could just wait for the three-run-home-run. The sport seemed fake. People weren't supposed to hit that many home runs, and few teams were playing the game right anymore. Joe Shmo popped up in different cities, night after night, hitting three home runs in a game. It seemed fake. And it was. Maybe that's why, to me, the people who starred in a fake era seem fake to me themselves.

I can't put people who knowingly cheated in the hall of fame. I think of that place too highly for cheaters.

Steroid users broke the rules. No ifs, ands, or buts. I can't stand the idea of rewarding people for cheating.

Steroid users in today's game already make a ton of money, more than they would otherwise, and putting steroid users in the hall is the icing that clearly says to me that the rewards for taking steroids, even today, far outweigh the risks. You can't make cheating okay. I wouldn't put Bonds, Sosa, McGwire, or even Pete Rose in the hall of fame, ever.

It's not that black and white for many people, and I get it. Steroids and the hall is a complicated issue. The first point people have in defending steroid users is, they had to do it. And in some twisted sense, that’s true.

There was certainly a drug culture in baseball, and I'm sure many players felt they had to take drugs to keep up. Some were even pressured by influential teammates or teams themselves to take drugs. It's a fair point.

There have been countless stories, most poignantly in a Sports Illustrated issue last year, about players who were bounced out of their big league dreams because they didn't - or wouldn't - take PEDs.

But just because young players were in a hard position doesn't mean caving in and cheating is condonable.

It's not, especially because so many players didn't cave, didn't take steroids, lost money and glory for their decision. Besides, the Bonds' and the Palmero's and the Sosa's didn't need PEDs to stay in the show. I wouldn't let Barry Bonds in the hall of fame simply because he was unbelievably stupid. He threw away an already fantastic career, one that probably would have culminated with him in the hall of fame anyway, to juice, hit home runs, and become a pitiful shell of the former athlete who flew around the outfield and bases, and had pop to boot. Bonds caving to steroids? Just selfish and despicable.

Most of the steroid players on the hall ballot started juicing towards the end of their careers, allowing them to artificially elongate their playing days and therefore boost numbers. There's no way Roger Clemens is racking up K's for the Yankees in his 40's without PEDs, and there's no way Bonds has the most incredible show of power in baseball history at 36 without steroids. I don't buy the numbers of the PED era guys on the ballot. We never saw them break down naturally at the end of their careers without steroids, as we've seen modern players do after them.

Alex Rodriguez was a PED-user, for how long and when we're not exactly sure. We do know that we are watching A-Rod, now 'roid free, have his talent and body break down at 37, like it's supposed to. A-Rod on PED's? Could have broken the home-run record, played forever. Without PED's? Almost normal.

We've seen a litany of players, now forgotten, be diminished to nothing after being busted for steroids - The Giambis, Troy Glaus, Ryan Franklin, Jay Gibbons, Brian Roberts, Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield, Mo Vaughn, and on and on and on. We know about players, notably Bartolo Colon and Melky Cabrera this year, who've turned to steroids to save careers, and been busted. For those players, we have a sample of how they aged, and how they performed without artificial aid to honestly judge their careers. With the likes of Palmero and Piazza shielded by steroids for an entire career, we can't honestly judge the player they were without them.

It's quite another debate to have on whether having legalizing PEDs is the right thing to do for baseball, and sports in general. After all, lots of players use steroids anyway, why don't we make them legal, allocate them, monitor them and tax them? If everyone could use steroids, play would be better, and with everyone on 'roids, it would feel like no one was doing them at all. It's a good argument. Athletes would have their earning power increased, and injuries would most likely go down, so they'd go for it. Why would anyone be against just making the whole steroid operation legal?

The steroid debate is one we'll be having for years and years to come. As society becomes more liberal and forgiving as a whole (marijuana and gay marriage were both legalized in multiple states in November), more people will push for steroid legalization in sports.

But legalizing steroids would be very, very dangerous. If everyone did steroids, doing steroids would no longer give players an advantage. To gain that competitive advantage, players could take more and more steroids, which is extremely dangerous. Steroids are awful for the body, the laundry-list of disgusting side effects is disconcerting in itself, and doctors would most likely never go for making steroids legal in sports.

There are hideous consequences for taking steroids, the worse the more steroids ingested. But most people feel people can go damage their bodies if that's what they want, if they know what they are getting themselves into. The real problem is that moral question.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what is morally wrong about steroids. They are illegal in sports today, and doing them is cheating, but if PEDs were legalized, that argument would be moot. What exactly is morally wrong about steroids? I know for one that I don’t want to see a bunch of bodybuilders in the MLB, I want to see players compete naturally and honestly, without artificial enhancements. But is that a moral reason?

Or just personal preference? Steroids feel wrong to me, but I can’t put my finger on why.

Steroids haven’t been good for baseball. The product on the field now is 100x better than the home run ball of days gone by. But the sport is stained forever, and now the faces of PED use have come up for consideration for the sacred Baseball Hall of Fame, the biggest, best and most prestigious hall in sports. Will a plaque of Bonds be put next to Ruth, Sosa next to Aaron, and McGwire next to Gehrig? I don’t think so,

I don’t think baseball’s cheaters have, or ever will have the votes to make the hall of fame, and I don’t think they’ll ever be close. But baseball and its ill-fated jaunt down steroid lane has forever changed the discussion about PEDs around the game, sports, and the world.

Arran Gimba

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