Where Do We Go From Here?
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.]