The steroid era has made me a hypocrite, I think. Or maybe I am just as confused as everyone else. Last week, the day the latest Barry Bonds story broke, ESPN.com had a poll that asked the following question: Which players from the era of steroids deserve a spot in Cooperstown? Here’s how I voted (in alphabetical order):
Ken Griffey Jr.
There may be a lot of inconsistency in these votes, but I don’t know. The obvious one is this: I said YES to Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa, but NO to Palmeiro. I think Bonds is an easy one to answer: by the time he started bulking up, he had already won three MVP awards. He was already one of the best players in baseball history, well on his way to the Hall of Fame. Of course, by that same logic, he is an egomaniac with no capacity for rational thought if he started taking steroids when his legacy was already set in stone. But egomaniacs make the Hall of Fame, as long as they are great baseball players. And love Bonds or hate him (correct answer: hate him), but the simple fact is that he has never been caught breaking the rules of Major League Baseball. Has he broken the law? Yes, I believe so. Did he take extreme advantage of the fact that MLB did not have any sort of steroid testing? Indeed. Is he probably injecting himself with Human Growth Hormone (for which MLB cannot test) as I am writing this? I reckon. But until he screws up and gets caughts breaking the rules, he is officially kosher, no matter how much I hate to say it.
What about Mark McGwire? Perhaps part of my vote for McGwire is that he is one of my favorite baseball players of all time. Did he break the law? I have no idea. I know he took androstenedione, which was both allowed by baseball AND completely legal. Jose Canseco tells me that McGwire took illegal steroids, and looking at all the facts, that is probably true. But McGwire set the record for home runs by a rookie in 1987, and other than when he was injured, he rarely looked back from that time on. He played by the rules that were in place at the time, and he made it fun to watch baseball again.
Sammy Sosa? This one was a little tougher. I could still go either way on this one, for one simple reason: I do not believe for one second that Sammy Sosa would be a Hall of Famer if he hadn’t bulked up, and if that bulk came from steroids, then we have a problem. Bonds and McGwire were both very talented before they bulked up; Sammy Sosa was a skinny little twerp who had nothing but a rifle arm going for him. The reason I voted for Sosa anyway is that, like the other guys, he played by the rules as they stood at the time, and he put up Hall of Fame numbers in the process.
(Please note that when I talk about the rules, I am aware that baseball had issued a couple memos banning steroids as early as the late 1980s or early 1990s, so steroids were technically against the rules. Maybe I should be putting “rules” in quotes, because while there may have been a rule outlawing steroids, with no means of enforcement, the rule didn’t really exist.)
That brings us to Palmeiro. Bottom line: Palmeiro got caught cheating. As I have said before, it makes no sense that Palmeiro would have started taking steroids in 2005, because he had already put up probable Hall of Fame numbers and baseball had just finally started testing. If Palmeiro really took steroids — and there is absolutely no evidence that he didn’t — then every statistic he ever generated is called into question. Who is Rafael Palmeiro? Is he the guy who averaged 10 home runs a season from 1988 to 1990 and never broke 30 in a season until he was 28 years old? Or is he the guy who averaged 41 homers a season from 1995 to 2003? The steroids tell us that he is probably that weak hitter, and that weak hitter never would have gotten a sniff of the Hall of Fame.
And therein lies the hypocrisy on my part. Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro are both fundamentally unworthy for the Hall of Fame, made worthy only by the numbers they put up thanks to steroids. But because Sosa has never been caught, I vote him in while I shun Palmeiro. Am I wrong?