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Monday, April 18, 2011

Baseball's Heading for a Hall of a Mess

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This month hasn't been kind to those who'd like to consign Major League Baseball's "steroid era" to the past. On April 8 Manny Ramirez, a .312 lifetime hitter with 555 home runs, retired in the face of a 100-game suspension for his second failed drug test in two years. Five days later Barry Bonds, the all-time homer king with 762, was convicted of obstructing justice in connection with a federal investigation into steroid use.

Bonds will be eligible for election to the Hall of Fame in December 2012—along with pitching great Roger Clemens, who soon goes on trial for allegedly lying to Congress about steroid use. For baseball, the clouded past will be present for a long time.

Frank: "Manny being Manny" was always the excuse for Ramirez's self-centered antics. This time, "being Manny " meant disappearing and letting MLB tell the Rays he was quitting.

Artie:
Kind of like the Colts shipping their stuff out of Baltimore in the dead of night in 1984, ain'a?

Frank:
Ramirez reportedly tested positive in the 2003 "survey" testing, which preceded the current system of penalties. And he got caught in '09, costing him 50 games with the Dodgers.

Artie:
So what're the odds he was clean before '03?

Frank:
In the public mind, about the same as the odds that Bonds' amazing bulk-up in the late '90s came only from training and good nutrition.

Artie:
Remember, Bonds' trial wasn't about whether he used 'roids, just whether he lied about it.

Frank:
The language of the obstruction count—giving "false and misleading information"—sure sounds like lying. On three counts charging actual perjury, the jury was 11-1 to convict on one, but leaning heavily to acquit on two.

Artie:
Legal mumbo jumbo aside, who really buys Bonds' story that he thought the stuff he took externally was flaxseed oil and ointments?

Frank:
And that he was injected only by doctors, not his trainer, Greg Anderson—who must be the best friend ever. He chose to go to jail rather than testify about Bonds. Clemens ain't so lucky; his former trainer, Brian McNamee, is his chief accuser.

Artie:
I think the question isn't who did steroids, but who didn't in the period from, say, 1997...

Frank:
Some would date it from '95, after the strike that killed the '94 World Series. And there were suspicions before then.

Artie:
So let's say, conservatively, the mid-'90s until 2004, when penalties kicked in. The whole mess will keep coming up as more suspects hit the Hall of Fame ballot.

Frank:
Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro already are on the ballot. Next year they'll be joined by Bonds, Clemens and Sammy Sosa.

Artie:
With Manny a few years later, and eventually A-Rod—who may well pass Bonds' record. In '09 he admitted to using 'roids and lying about it.

Frank:
As our readers know, I have a Hall of Fame vote through the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

Artie:
And you've been in the distinct minority voting for McGwire and Palmeiro.

Frank:
True, though I'm always rethinking. Here's where I am so far: If a guy's on the ballot and I think his numbers are superior for his era, I'll vote for him. Lots of guys took steroids, but McGwire's 583 homers and Palmeiro's 3,000-plus hits and 500-plus homers still stand out. But I also would have their Hall plaques explain their steroid connections.

Artie:
Some people defend 'roiding by saying, "At the time, baseball didn't test for it." But steroid use without a prescription was still illegal. So how does that buy them some grace?

Frank:
It doesn't, legally, but it provides context in the competitive sense, considering the pressure to perform and keep their jobs. And there's this: Everyone who follows baseball had to have suspicions when home-run totals exploded in the '90s—and especially in '98, when McGwire was known to be taking the steroid-like stuff called "andro." But did anyone raise questions?

Artie:
If so, they were lost in the hoopla over "Big Mac and Sammy." We all dug the long balls!

Frank:
Exactly. MLB, the owners, the players' union, the media and fans enjoyed the ride—and the money poured in again after the disastrous strike. The product was tainted, but I haven't heard about any rebates for fans who bought the product.

Artie:
I could use the dough, you betcha.

Frank:
But how many fans really regret buying into the show? Surveys always find negative feelings toward cheaters, but did any St. Louis fans protest in '98 because McGwire used andro? Did anyone in San Francisco boycott the games when Bonds was going wild? Cheating doesn't look so bad if it's wearing your team's uniform.

Artie:
The Golden Rule of sports—"Just Win, Baby." So the whole system "enabled" the users. But not everyone was a user.

Frank:
But how do you quantify the effect of steroids? How many of Palmeiro's hits are tainted? And what about team achievements? Are Boston's titles in '04 and '07 invalid because of Manny? Did the Giants reach the '02 World Series unfairly because of Bonds?

Artie:
I think you have to set dates, say '94 through '04, and any records from that period get asterisks. Everyone has to suffer. It ain't fair, but it might be the closest they could get.

Frank:
That would be fine with me. What's required is a policy statement by MLB, namely Commissioner Bud Selig. Which is another big factor in why I vote for McGwire and Palmeiro. I think MLB is ducking its responsibility and letting the BBWAA do the ethical dirty work.

Artie:
MLB sure made an ethical judgment on Pete Rose.

Frank:
Exactly. In 1989 Commissioner Bart Giamatti ruled that Rose's gambling on baseball rendered him "permanently ineligible" for any role in the game. Two years later the Hall said anyone on the "permanently ineligible" list would not be inducted, and Rose's name never appeared on the ballot.

Artie:
Rose later admitted he bet on the Reds when he managed them, but no one's ever claimed he bet against them. Did he hurt the integrity of the game any more than someone taking drugs to enhance performance?

Frank:
Selig could rule that Player X, based on an admission or failed test or court conviction, will join Rose as "permanently ineligible." Or he could recommend the Hall reject anyone strongly connected to steroids, which would probably keep them off the ballot.

Artie:
I doubt the Hall or the BBWAA would object.

Frank:
But Selig hasn't done either of those things. After the "Mitchell Report" in '07 named 89 players as having used performance-enhancing drugs, Selig said there would be no punishments and the game should "move forward."

Artie:
Too bad he can't erase our memories.

Frank:
One of Bud's strengths is his calmness and persistence under pressure. But sometimes that means he takes forever to decide on something.

Artie:
For instance, we're hearing that replay review will probably be extended to trap-or-catch calls and foul-line calls—but not until 2012! What's the holdup? When they started using replay for "boundary" calls on home runs, it began during the '08 season.

Frank:
If keeping Rose off the ballot was proper, the same would be true for the most prominent steroid users—but it's up to MLB. If a guy's on the ballot and his numbers are outstanding, I'm voting for him.

Artie:
But I'd isolate anyone with a steroid connection from the other Hall members.

Frank:
Fine with me. Let's have a permanent exhibition on "The Steroid Era," with all the facts in the open. Plus, I think it'd be real useful to have McGwire or Bonds or Clemens elected to the Hall, which would mean an induction speech and the implied burden of being honest. It would also let everyone in the game discuss the era openly.

Artie
: It could happen with Bonds and Clemens, who maybe had Hall of Fame credentials before they presumably became users. Bonds won three of his seven MVPs long before he became a homer machine. Clemens had three of his seven Cy Youngs before 1992.

Frank:
It'll make for very interesting times in December 2012. But in the meantime, let's hear from Mr. Selig.