It’s right there at the top of the National Baseball Hall of Fame‘s website: “Preserving history. Honoring excellence. Connecting generations.” That there’s even much of a debate on whether Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, arguably the greatest hitter and pitcher in baseball over the last several decades, should get elected to the Hall in spite of the steroid allegations that are forever tied to their legacy, hints at a mind-bogglingly draconian approach to the very idea of history and fame.
It’s simple, really: any voting process that keeps the likes of Bonds and Clemens out of the National Baseball Hall of Fame is, at best, a self-righteous gesture from the baseball writers’ association on what they currently perceive to be a morality line in the sport. At worst, it’s a broken process that fails to achieve the very thing that the Hall of Fame was meant for: to serve as a “home to the greatest stars and the history of the game.”
Here’s the thing about history: it doesn’t care about morality. It’s a record of the past, not to be revised based on what is perceived to be right for the game. You can hate players like Bonds and Clemens for being assholes. You can hate them for allegedly using steroids during the “steroid era” of the game, and their vehement defense in the face of overwhelming public belief; but, ignoring their on-field achievements and fame during their respective playing days is simply just that – ignorance.
Still, rules are rules, they say. After all, the Hall does state that players are elected on the following considerations:
“Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”
Yet, there’s a reason why the first two items have to do with the players’ on-field performance, yes? As far as I’m concerned, the only legitimate argument for keeping all-time greats like Bonds and Clemens out of the hall is the integrity clause; between the alcoholics (Babe Ruth), racists (Kenesaw Mountain Landis), and assholes who also happened to be racists (Ty Cobb), I think it’s safe to say that sportsmanship and character are but the most minor of voting considerations.
So, even if you throw the “alleged” part out, just how much does steroid use violate the integrity of baseball? Certainly, it’s nothing like conspiring to throw a World Series, or gambling on the game while you’re in a position to affect the outcome. Unlike integrity violators like Pete Rose and the Black Sox, what Bonds and Clemens may have done in their careers to get a leg up does not yield tangible, individual results.
Instead, the effects of PED use during the the steroids era are painted in broad strokes. You could point to Bonds 1.422 OPS in his age-39 season, or the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, as particularly pointed ends of said stroke, but why try to find scapegoats in an era where PED use was reportedly rampant? It’s certainly unfair to assume that all players in that era are guilty by association, but the truth is that baseball turned the other way when its players had a PED problem. As far as logic is concerned, you either assume that it was as widespread as it was reported, or that it was limited to a particular few who were caught.
If you’re not willing to go by the guilty-by-association side, here’s just the thing – remember that Bonds and Clemens were never tested positive on steroid use. There’s not been any definitive proof that suggests the endless allegations were anything but, despite the great efforts that have been spent in trying to to find it.
It seems to me that, to target individuals like Bonds and Clemens as egregious violators of the integrity of baseball for having been associated with the steroid era, one would also have to assume the same violation was committed by anyone else who was playing at the time. As far as Hall of Fame voting is concerned, doing so would seem counter-intuitive to the museum’s purpose of documenting the game’s all-time greats, and connecting future generations with its history.
I would hope that the BBWAA would remember the importance of the Hall’s job of documenting the sport’s history, first and foremost; it’s called a Hall of Fame – and not a Hall of Good Guys Who Happened To Play Well – for a reason.
History is not a moral playground, and any institution that proposes to document it should aim do to so as accurately as possible. Whether you like it or not, fame and excellence happened during the steroids era. The BBWAA has been given the responsibility of ensuring that National Baseball Hall of Fame showcases excellence throughout the game’s history – to let politics of good and bad get in the way now would simply be irresponsible.