Designated HitterMarch 09, 2006
Where Do We Go From Here?
By Peter Schmuck

It was a year ago next week that the House Committee on Government Reform put Major League Baseball on the hotseat and its tepid steroid testing program under a microscope.

The politicians wanted answers and they wanted action and they got both. The image of larger-than-life superstar Mark McGwire wobbling under the weight of his own guilt told the American public all it really needed to know about the exciting home run boom of the past decade, but the story didn't end with a few embarrassed players and enhanced penalties for steroid abuse in baseball.

The congressional hearings and the ugly Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO) scandal illustrated the magnitude of the problem and convinced the Major League Baseball Players Association to sign on to a tougher testing regimen, but left one troublesome question unanswered:

Where do we go from here?

The next Hall of Fame election will force voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) to play a major role in deciding just how ensuing generations of baseball fans view the juiced-ball/juiced player era.

Who wasn't looking forward to the likely Class of 2007 -- Cal Ripken, McGwire, Tony Gwynn -- until McGwire's sad performance last March 17 turned the coming election into a referendum on the steroid era?

I don't think a day goes by that I am not asked at least once whether I will vote for McGwire or Barry Bonds when they become eligible for Cooperstown, and I have a ready answer.

My newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, does not allow its writers to vote on awards, so I no longer have to fill out a ballot for the American League Most Valuable Player or the Cy Young Award or the Hall of Fame. That means I don't decide whether Big Mac or Bad News Barry should be enshrined in spite of their alleged misdeeds.

I realize that's a major copout, but it puts me in a perfect position to take an objective look at the subject.

If Mark McGwire used illegal performance-enhancing drugs to put on the dynamic home run display in 1998 and climb into the upper reaches of baseball's all-time home run list, then I don't think he should be rewarded with a plaque in that hallowed hall.

If Barry Bonds or Sammy Sosa knowingly cheated to achieve the strength and batspeed that put them among the elite power hitters in the history of the game, Hall of Fame voters should think more than twice before checking the box beside either of their names on the ballot.

Trouble is, the only player of that magnitude who has been proven to have used steroids is Rafael Palmeiro, who tested positive early last season after pointing his finger at the House Committee like Bill Clinton and insisting that he had never, ever used illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

What everybody else did is a matter of conjecture, though a new book by two reporters who covered the BALCO scandal provides some compelling and comprehensive evidence that Bonds used several performance-enhancing substances.

Therein lies the problem for Hall of Fame voters, who will have to vote as much with their hearts as with their heads. It's hard not to conclude that McGwire, Bonds and Sosa were chemically enhanced when each made his assault on the all-time single-season home run record.

The dramatic change in the musculature of several top home run hitters over the course of their careers and -- in some cases -- the swift reversal of those changes after strict steroid testing was imposed a couple of years ago, leaves you in the uncomfortable position of the wronged wife who finds her husband in bed with another woman and he asks her, "So, are you going to believe me or your eyes?"

Still, the responsibility of voting for the Hall of Fame is a solemn one, since it puts baseball writers in a position to give a Caesar-like thumbs down on the entire body of a player's career.

It's one thing to look at Mark McGwire -- or listen to his squirrelly performance before Congress -- and draw the obvious conclusion. It's quite another to cast such an important vote based on what amounts to a very strong feeling based on very little factual information.

McGwire never tested positive for steroids. He admitted to using the pseudo-steroid androsteindione during the home run race with Sosa, but that supplement was not restricted at the time by either Major League Baseball or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Was his weepy dissembling in front of Congress strong enough evidence to keep him out of the Hall of Fame? In other words, do you really know what happened...or do you just think you know?

We've still got at least six years to debate whether there is enough hard evidence against Bonds, but the circumstantial case is compelling. His personal trainer, Greg Anderson, went to jail along with BALCO guru Victor Conte. Bonds' leaked grand jury testimony seems to indicate that he used "The Clear" and "The Cream," though he testified that he didn't know they contained illegal steroids.

The new book charges that Bonds used all kinds of different illegal substances, but he didn't -- technically -- break any baseball rules unless he took steroids after the first steroid abuse program was put into place.

Hypothetically, if you were a voter and you had decided that McGwire and Bonds were dirty enough to be kept out of Cooperstown, would it be fair to lump Sammy Sosa in with them?

Sosa may have looked like something out of a Saturday Night Live routine when he feigned an inability to speak and understand English during the hearings, but he has repeatedly denied any involvement with illegal steroids and he has never been the target of any credible accusation of steroid abuse.

Once again, you look at the Sosa of 1990 and the Sosa of 1998 and you can't help but conclude that something fishy was going on, but there is -- as yet -- no hard evidence that he did anything other than work really, really hard in the weightroom. It is totally logical to believe that Sosa is the product of mad science, but proving it is another matter altogether.

Now for the other big gray area. Gaylord Perry is in the Hall of Fame largely because of his long-standing reputation as baseball's greatest cheater. It's a different kind of cheating. Loading a baseball up with Vaseline is a lot different than setting a bad example that could lead young boys to abuse dangerous chemicals, but it is cheating nonetheless.

If baseball could wink at Perry, how can we get all self-righteous with a bunch of guys who, with the exception of Palmeiro, were never caught doing anything?

What it will come down to is the corporate wisdom of the 500-or-so Hall of Fame voters, who have done a terrific job over the years of keeping the gate at Cooperstown.

The Hall of Fame ballot, after all, is just the blank canvas for each individual opinion.

The issue of who decides and how is just as troublesome as the issue that will be decided over the decade or so. Many newspapers are uncomfortable with their reporters taking part in what is, essentially, a fairly significant news event.

The Baltimore Sun and several other major newspapers have decided that they would prefer to have their employees simply cover the news and let someone else make the newsworthy decisions on who should win certain awards or gain induction in the Hall of Fame.

I accede to that authority, but I believe that the baseball writers charged with voting on the postseason awards are uniquely qualified to render those decisions while still meeting the ethical standards of the journalistic profession.

I feel even more strongly that the BBWAA is the proper body to choose the inductees for the most revered of the various professional sports halls of fame.

In short, it's a difficult job, but there is no one better qualified to do it.

Peter Schmuck is a columnist for the Baltimore Sun and President of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA). He covered baseball for 26 years before becoming the Sun's Page 2 Sports columnist 18 months ago.

[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]


There should be no issue of whether players accused, or even proven to have used steroids should get into the Hall of Fame. What they did, or are accused of doing, was not banned by baseball at the time. They did not cheat. On the contrary, they tried to become the best players they could. The real cheaters were the Ruths and Mantles and Fords and Alexanders and the like who cheated their employers and fans by showing up in no condition to play.
There is no guilt here, except on the part of the panderers and demagogues who are using the emotionally charged issue for their own ends. The players are in a totally impossible position in having either to "admit" to something that was not wrong, but will make them appear to be cheaters, or avoid responding and so appear to be wafflers. It is disgusting. Stop contributing to it.

Any ball player who used steroids after 1991 was committing a crime. What about that angle? Perhaps we should just say "oh well, they weren't doing anythign illegal, so we can't punish them." That makes the current policy a waste. Steroid users deserve to be punished, because they gave themselves an advantage. Wrong is wrong. And cheating, even if it not against baseball's by-laws, is wrong under any circumstances.

And cheating, even if it not against baseball's by-laws
Cheating means "doing things that are against the rules."

Anything that is not against the rules, is not cheating. That's not an opinion, that's a logical consequence of what the verb "to cheat" means. The rules of baseball say what is and isn't cheating. Taking steroids is now cheating, but wasn't in 1991. Gaylord Perry was cheating when he threw a spitball, Burleigh Grimes wasn't cheating when he threw a spitball in 1919. Rules change, and you can't judge Grimes by the rules under which Perry played.

Similarly, Bonds taking steroids in 1998 was not cheating, because it wasn't against the rules. Stupid, unpleasant and illegal, but not cheating.

Any ball player who used steroids after 1991 was committing a crime. What about that angle?
What about it? You might wish to redefine it to mean "doing things that are criminal", but if we're going to start believing that MLB shoud punish criminals, can I suggest we start with any ballplayer who drank during prohibition?
"Wrong is wrong."
Really? Is your world really so black and white that you can clearly say what's right and what's wrong, and that your judgement must apply to everyone?

I wish I was that confident about anything, let alone questions of individual morality.

I think, Peter, that you've drastically underemphasized the case against Bonds. To call it a MOUNTAIN of evidence is an understatement. They have drug tests! They have several drug tests that show, explicitly, the drugs Bonds used and the amount he used them. By the way, the lab that performed the tests are the SAME LAB that is currently testing for MLB!

We have direct incontrovertible evidence of Bonds's usage and any lesser description is wrong.

We have evidence? The allegations of a couple of guys trying to sell a book? Please...

I agree with the above posters. Even if Bonds and McGwire were guilty of using steroids (by the way, I agree that they did), it should not change anything, since it was not against the rules at the time. If they were to be caught now, I agree, let's throw the book at them. But baseball didn't (in their infinite wisdom) think that steroid usage was a bad thing in 1998... so how can they now come back and say that it was.

Our society asks the athletes of this world to step up on a pedastal and become greater, faster, stronger than mere mortals. How can we blame the athletes who succumb to that pressure and do exactly what we want them to? These players were doing these super-human things because that's what our society demands...and they were doing them within the rules of the day. I say anyone who blames them or penalizes them for doing it are hipocrites!

It was against baseball's rules in 1998, this is from the ESPN article from the end of 2005:

"In 1991, then-Commissioner Fay Vincent effectively put steroids on baseball's list of banned substances in a memo sent to all MLB teams. Baseball could not test for steroids, the memo said, but should a player be caught with steroids, he would be sent for treatment and subject to penalties. This memo was never publicized and, seemingly, was largely ignored by both management and the players' union. Commissioner Bud Selig reissued the same memo in 1997, with minor changes but with the same lack of conviction."

Lack of conviction, or not, it was against the rules.

Mark -

Your post was both silly and factually incorrect.

First, All illgal drugs, including steroids, have been banned by MLB for over 15 years.

Here is the *evidence* of that fact:

Secondly, if you don't believe that drug tests describing the steroid levels in barry Bonds body isn't credible evidence, I hear the Flat Earth Society is looking for some new members. I'm not sure what other proof you need.

Funny how the topic has gone from whether or not a player used steroids to achieve records, but whether or not it was WRONG to use them! Then the apologists try and equate any wrongdoing (drinking, womanizing, nonsteroid drugs) with taking performance enhancing drugs. But the one that makes me laugh the most is the ridiculous notion that the players of the past should be ashamed that they showed up to games in no condition to play sometimes (in contrast to those who want to boost their performance with steroids). Cheaters don't cheat for the fans or employers - they cheat for themselves! And I have to wonder if any records were ever broken by guys who were out of shape, old, or just plain ol' lack of effort. Probably not many. Performance enhancing drugs make the game exciting, but without a doubt, it is cheating. I feel sorry for fans of the cheats - they're the ones now trying to desperately defend their idols. No doubt many of the cheaters will end up in the record book.

Is that ruling anything like the double secret probation Dean Wormer handed out to Delta House?
A rule that is not enforced, has no enforcement provision, is ignored and even openly dismissed by the very forces supposed to be supporting it, is no rule at all.
Performance enhancing drugs are no more cheating than diet, workout routines, eastern mysticism, TJ surgery, laser surgery, or any other technique an athlete uses to improve performance. Every medical advance, as well as any technological advance, renders moot the issue of sacrosanct records of earlier generations.
There is no moral dimension to the issue of steroids or drugs, and therein lies the problem. It is certainly legitimate for a sport to monitor or outlaw certain practices it deems injurious to people or harmful to the perceived integrity of the game. Any sport may legitimately establish the rules under which it is played. But that is not a moral issue; it is purely pragmatic. In fact, it is entirely arbitrary, and as it is a sport, there is nothing wrong with it. The whole point of sports is to establish arbitrary rules for players to test themselves against. Unfortunately, too many interpret the issue today as a moral failing on the part of players rather than a simple effort to become better at what they do.
As for cheating, some of us are interpreting the concept differently. To me, if someone receives payment to perform, and knows that others are paying to see him perform, and intentionally impairs his ability to meet expectations, that is cheating and stealing money. I do not consider it cheating if one tries to gain an edge in competition by trying methods that are not specifically and clearly against the rules of the game. When I hear that Mantle was so hung over he could not see the ball as it approached him in the outfield, and that he was throwing up between innings, I do not share in the "hail fellow, well met" laughter. He cheated his employers and the paying customers. And the fact that drunkenness is funny to some, while other drugs are taboo, does not alter that fact.

Bob - I agree with all that you say except, that it was indeed against the rules. Period. The players were on notice and chose to broke those rules.

If they weren't cheating, why were they hiding it? Why not be honest about the fact that they were playing better baseball thanks to science?

Hell, Bonds' ratio of HR's to AB's doubled after 1998--that sounds like an endorsement deal waiting to happen: "Hi, this is Barry Bonds. If you want to rake like I do, give Greg Anderson a call. Since I hooked up with Greg and he put me on his killer performance enhancing cocktail, I've been unstoppable. You can be unstoppable, too. Call Greg now."

Why didn't it happen? Why did they hide? Why did they lie when asked whether they used steroids?

Because every guy who resorted to the needle knew he was cheating. That's why.

By the way, over at writer John Brattain sums up perfectly my views on the Bonds steroid issue in an article entitled Apocalypse Now! He basically says what I tried to say above but does it in a much more eloquent way. God bless writers...

Bob R. is very confident in his position and dismissive of everyone else's, but he undermines his own argument with a weak grasp on the facts. First he says steroids weren't banned. Then, when faced with proof that they were, he says the rule was meaningless because it had "no enforcement provision." If he would take a minute and step away from the keyboard, he would see that one possible penalty for violating MLB's drug policy was "permanent explusion from the game." It's obvious to everyone that the policy set forth in Vincent's memo was roundly ignored, but that doesn't mean people cannot be held responsible for knowingly flaunting it.

I'm not sure what the right answer is here, given MLB's (especially the teams -- the Giants come off horribly in the book excerpt I've seen) complicity in the Steroid Era. That said, ignoring the facts as they existed during the relevant period doesn't facilitate a constructive discussion.

Peter Schmuck is talking about the whole baseball
writers voting issue. He's not allowed to vote. As
long as the names of those who do vote & their ballots are allowed to remain secret, they'll happily continue their totalitarian dictatorship. No
one is in charge, no one is seeing that the rules
are applied. "A terrific job?" Who's the judge? Where's the substantiation?

In support of Barry Bonds - The best athletes will always do what they can to improve their bodies and skills. They constantly excercise and practice. They take advantage of every advancement in nutrition and medicine. The rules of the game and the laws of the nation do change and evolve over time. Baseball itself has a particularly history of pushing the envelope of it's own rules. Pitchers "doctor" balls, managers steal signs, batters swing from outside the box after erasing the lines in plain sight of everyone and base runners are called out from phantom tags. Bats are corked and spikes are sharpened. All these could be considered forms of cheating that occur right on the field during play and have a direct impact on the game. Pitchers can throw 95 MPH fastballs with fake tendons and football players can shock their muscles with cattle prods, but Barry Bonds can't take a medical suppliment to increase his strength or speed his healing? Does anyone see the hypocracy here? How many stolen bases would Ty Cobb have today with the modern Nike Baseball shoes, and training, diet, medical and nutrition of today instead of the 1920's methods. How about we put an asteric next to Rickey Hendersons records...It would read "*civilization advanced rendering the achivements yesterday irrelavent." Barry Bonds is only guilty of trying to succeed, just like you and I do at our jobs each day. He follows the example baseball sets, just like we follow the examples of our fellow drivers obeying the trafic laws.

I am less interested in discussing Barry Bonds, steroids and the moral imperatives that various individuals take ... rather what I find interesting is Mr. Schmuck's vehement statement that "I feel even more strongly that the BBWAA is the proper body to choose the inductees for the most revered of the various professional sports halls of fame. In short, it's a difficult job, but there is no one better qualified to do it."

He provides zero rationale. Why BBWAA and not Vin Scully or Bob Uecker or Skip Carray? Why BBWAA and not Roger Angel or Roger Kahn? Why BBWAA and not Pete Palmer or Bill James? Why BBWAA and not George Steinbrenner or Theo Epstein or Bobby Cox?

I am less concerned about Barry Bonds and more about the Hall generally. We have no real understanding of the institutional rationale for inducting Sutter and not Gossage or Sutton and not Blyleven or why not ... What we have is an article that boldly states that only BBWAA is qualified to pass on the qualifications of Bonds.

I applaud the B'more Sun for preventing its writers from voting on awards. Schmuck is trained to report the news. Chosing awards is making news. The BBWAA collectively has no expertise in evaluating performance. They know if John Doe is a good interview or friendly to the beat writers; they don't have any special expertise in knowing if he is better, worse or equal to Tom, Dick, or Harry.

Inevitably, these conversations become personal as the heat gets turned up. Once we eliminate the florid rhetoric ("very confident", "dismissive", "weak grasp of facts", there is one point made in kdg123's post. That is that I was wrong about the ban on steroids and so switched my argument to say it did not matter. There is some truth in that. I did not know about the earlier rulings and appreciate the link that allowed me to learn something. But my point remains valid. A ruling that is never enforced, that is ignored even by those who made it, indeed which violation is even encouraged by its sponsors, is not a rule. And there is no enforcement provision. What you note is the penalty it promises; that is not enforcement. Enforcement means some procedure to carry out the penalty. That is what was missing until the recent renegotiation of the basic agreement. Lacking any means of enforcement, the ruling is meaningless. I recently heard Dan Patrick claim that Selig admitted he knew of amphetamine use for over 40 years. Assuming he was as astute as the ordinary fan, he most certainly knew about steroid use as well. Until the last few years, what has he done to attack it? What did he do in 1998?
We are denying ourselves the treat of a lifetime, to cheer and honor a man who is arguably the greatest ballplayer in history. Even if he used steroids (and there is not one study that identifies the effect of steroids on baseball performance, let alone distinguishes its effects from the many other factors that make for baseball success), apparently so did many others. But nobody has come close to matching his achievements. In that, he is comparable to Ruth. They all had the juiced ball, but only Ruth did what he did. So too Bonds has played in a league far above even the greatest players of his day, unmatched as Ruth was, including those who also used or probably used steroids. What a shame that we ruin our own pleasure in this way.

In my mind, the crime was how long it took to correct and abolish the usage of steroids in baseball far more than the actual usage itself. The owners, the media, and even the fans turning a blind eye to the matter for so long have to accept at least some of the blame.

As for the BBWAA, I agree with Schmuck that they do a good job with the Hall of Fame. But it's still not good enough.

First question, what ILLEGAL drugs (steroids, etc..)

Then these comments.
Mark McGwire: He came into the major leagues as a prolific homerun hitter and didn't just become that overnight. He came up as a rookie in 1987 and hit only 49. Injured off and on through out his career if you throw out the 1998 & 1999 season he still averaged 34+ HR per year.

Sammy Sosa: He didn't start hitting HR's until 1993. if you throw his 1998 & 1999 season he averaged 32+ HR per year.

Barry Bonds: A HR hitter his whole career starting in 1987 with 25. Throw out his 2001 season and he has averaged 31+ per season. That is 20 seasons averaging 30 plus hr with a low of 16 in his rookie season. With a BA of .300 or greater all his career.

Why wouldn't these guys make the HOF? Especially Bonds. In the past MLB has given players chances (too many) once caught using ILLEGAL drugs (Cocaine, Pot, etc...). But now we want to stop players that are all time greats from making the Hall because they MIGHT have made a poor judgement in their lifes by using supplements that might have had muscle builder ingredients. What about the off field (and on field) activities of other HOF's like Cobb, Ruth, Mantle ok that was just drinking, womanizing and being immoral people at times in their lifes.

Just had to get that off my chest. Thanks for the opportunity.