Cheaters Sometimes Prosper: Why Are Steroids Worse Than Spitballs?

In the wake of Manny Ramirez’ retirement last week, there’s been much ado about his chances of making the Hall of Fame. There’s no question that Ramirez’ numbers merit enshrinement, but Manny will likely be denied entrance to Cooperstown because of his use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Voters who point to the Hall’s ethics clause as reason to keep Manny out find themselves in a logical quandary. After all, there are plenty of Cooperstown legends who you might not want to have a beer with, from stabby racist and spiked cleats wearer Ty Cobb to the guy who threw a brushback pitch in an old-timers game, Bob Gibson.

But Hall of Famers’ follies have not been limited to off-field issues and exhibition matches. Take Gaylord Perry. Perry, a legendary spitballer, was caught and suspended for doctoring the ball in 1982—48 years after the last legal spitballer retired. It didn’t keep him out of Cooperstown—he was inducted in 1991.

How can Perry be immortalized when guys like Ramirez, Roger Clemens, and Barry Bonds are all but certain to be left out in the cold? Sure, the spitball seems different from performance-enhancing drugs. There’s a folksy charm about the spitter that harkens back to the good old days. It implies grit and scrappiness—like the cheating equivalent of David Eckstein.

But does that make it any less wrong? Cheating is cheating, no matter how you do it. Perry’s deeds may be tinged with nostalgia, but that doesn’t make his actions any less unethical. If voters withhold their votes from some players who purposefully break the rules for personal benefit on moral grounds, how is it possible to justify letting others in?

Mark McGwire’s exclusion is even more egregious because he retired before Major League Baseball instituted a real drug policy. What makes his steroids worse than Willie Mays’ “red juice” or Mickey Mantle’s “greenies”?

Perhaps a good contemporary comparable for McGwire is New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter, who put on a one-man show when he fell to the ground feigning great pain after a Chad Qualls pitch hit the end of his bat last September. Thanks to his dramatic performance, he was awarded first base for a “hit by pitch” that did not actually hit him. “It’s part of the game,”  Jeter said. “My job is to get on base.”

Like McGwire, nothing Jeter did was technically against the rules, but both men’s actions gave them unfair advantages that they did not deserve. But while Big Mac was vilified, baseball people somehow parlayed Jeter’s crybaby act into a reason to praise him. “If our guys had did it, I would have applauded that,” Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon said after watching his opponent get on base undeservedly.

If this is truly an issue of fundamental morals then why is cheating sometimes okay?

Yes, Jeter’s acting helped him only once, while McGwire gained dozens (if not hundreds) of home runs from his steroid use. But again, if this sort of dishonesty is intrinsically wrong, does it really matter how many times someone does it? How many times does a player have to violate the game’s code of ethics before he can be considered in the wrong?

I in no way condone the actions of the countless players who have disgraced the game by using PEDs, but the greater injustice is that analysts, writers, and voters hold wildly inconsistent moral standards.

Heinous as it sounds, the only fair solution is to choose Hall of Famers based solely on their on-field performances, regardless of the honesty of their successes. The BBWAA’s current policy of excluding some cheaters but not others—and worse, barring players who did not actually break the rules while true wrongdoers have achieved immortality—is simply indefensible.

Manny Ramirez won’t get into Cooperstown, but if Gaylord Perry is still there in 2016, Ramirez should be too.

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