Kessel: Baseball’s Real Embarrassment

Zach Kessel, Opinion Columnist

On Jan. 21, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America voted Derek Jeter and Larry Walker into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Both are worthy, but there are two arguably more deserving names noticeably left off the list — Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

We’ve heard the argument before — that Bonds, Clemens and other players implicated in baseball’s Steroid Era are cheaters and, like Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose before them, should not be granted entry to baseball’s most hallowed institution.

To fully understand the scope of this issue, we must know the history of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. Major League Baseball’s Steroid Era — generally defined as the period from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s — is considered a black mark on the game’s legacy. Jose Canseco, a baseball player implicated in steroid use, opined in 2002 that 85 percent of professional baseball players were using performance-enhancing drugs at the time.

Now, just because nearly everyone was doing it does not make it morally right. However, because just about everyone was ‘roided up, we can easily compare players well enough to judge who would or would not qualify for the Hall of Fame without steroids.

Take Mike Cameron, for example. Cameron tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs twice over the course of his 16-year career. He finished his time as a professional baseball player with a .249 batting average, 1700 hits and 278 home runs. A solid and lengthy career, sure, but nowhere near the career numbers deemed necessary for enshrinement in the Hall.

On the other hand, we have Barry Bonds. Bonds began using steroids in 1999, reportedly after growing jealous of the media’s fawning over Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s historic home run chase that season. Prior to taking steroids, Bonds had compiled a .290 batting average, 1,917 hits and 411 home runs. Before breaking what would become MLB’s rules he had a career OPS+ — a player’s on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, adjusted for league averages — of 164.

In those 13 years, Bonds put up numbers good enough to merit induction into the Hall of Fame. The four other players who have met the .290/1,900/400 threshold, along with a career OPS+ of 160 or higher, have each been enshrined: Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. Clearly, pre-PED Bonds played at a level few athletes have reached. Furthermore, Bonds, through his first 13 seasons, had a career WAR (wins above replacement player) of 99.9, good for about the 22nd highest of all time.

Clemens is a similar case. The man I consider the greatest pitcher of all time ended his career with 354 wins, 4,672 strikeouts, and an Earned Run Average of 3.12. He posted a career WAR of 139.2, third-highest among all pitchers in MLB history. Though, unlike Bonds, Clemens never admitted to using steroids, it is widely accepted that he did. In the Mitchell Report, a summation of an independent investigation into steroid use in Major League Baseball, Clemens is alleged to have used steroids during multiple seasons. The same idea that applies to Bonds applies to Clemens — disregarding even the allegedly tainted seasons, Clemens is one of the greatest pitchers ever to play baseball.

Some argue that, despite Clemens’ and Bonds’ worthiness outside of their steroid-affected seasons, the notion that they used performance-enhancing drugs at all should disqualify them from the Hall of Fame. I disagree with that on three fronts: first, it’s a hall of fame, not a hall of ethics. There are plenty of ethically-questionable players in the Hall already, including Ty Cobb, who sharpened his spikes in order to slash opposing players’ legs, and Gaylord Perry, a pitcher who routinely doctored the ball in order to increase the movement of his pitches, a tactic outlawed by the league.

The second is that baseball players have used now-banned substances since time immemorial. Most of Bonds’ use, and all of Clemens’ alleged use, came during a period of time in which Major League Baseball did not have a ban in place on steroids.

For about 50 years, Dexedrine pills, colloquially referred to as “greenies,” were readily available in MLB dugouts. Baseball players took these amphetamine pills to increase alertness, aggression and reaction time, and to decrease the effects of fatigue to perform better on the field. Legends like Willie Mays and Ted Williams used them. By the same standard, shouldn’t Mays, Williams and countless other players be retroactively removed from the Hall of Fame?

The third reason why I disagree with the idea of barring players who took steroids from the Hall of Fame is the sheer volume of players using them. Using Canseco’s guess of 85 percent, steroids did not present individual players with an advantage over their competition, but rather an entire generation of players with an advantage over players of different eras. That could be grounds to bar that swath of players from entry into the Hall of Fame, but a decision like that would be impractical, but more importantly, illogical.

Each era of professional baseball players played under different circumstances. Before 1920, the composition of baseballs was radically different from the standard used later on. The “dead ball,” as it is commonly referred to, provided pitchers of the era with an advantage. Before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line in 1947, black baseball players were forced to play in the Negro League. Babe Ruth never had to hit against all of the best pitchers — just all of the best white ones. Perhaps if he played later, when black players and then Latino players entered the major leagues, his statistics would have been different.

After the 1968 season, the league lowered the pitching mound, taking an advantage of pitchers over hitters away. Maybe if Christy Mathewson or Grover Cleveland Alexander had to pitch using today’s mound, they would have fared worse. In addition to rule changes, today’s players have much greater access to medical and training facilities, extending their careers and keeping them in better shape than legends of yesteryear.

All this is to say that it is a travesty that players like Bonds and Clemens have been shut out of baseball’s Hall of Fame, and it is incumbent on the BBWAA to end its continual mistake. For the sake of the game, the voters must realize each era of players had its own advantage over another, and the Hall of Fame should not discriminate between generations.

If the BBWAA applied its ridiculous ethical hangups to non-Steroid Era players, there would be no one in the Hall of Fame. The last year Bonds and Clemens will be on the ballot is 2022. The voters have two more years to rectify their continuous mistake. I hope they do, so that these legends, and many more like them, receive the recognition they deserve.

Zach Kessel is a Medill Freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.