About Me

I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

The needle and the damage done? PEDs and the baseball Hall of Fame

This year, for the first time, the Tainted Five of baseball's Steroid Era are eligible for the Hall of Fame:  Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, and Rafael Palmeiro.

And Royce Clayton is on there too.  This article is not about Royce Clayton.

The arguments below were handcrafted late one night in Providence's venerable Ivy Tavern, with cloudy headed input from Brad and Mason, and intellectual performance enhancements provided by the always lovely Rob Duncanson.  By the end of the evening, I had somewhat surprised myself by arriving at the following conclusion:

Clemens, McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro and Bonds should all get in the HOF. 

Clemens and Bonds should be first ballot and unanimous Hall of Famers.

Here's the argument.

1.  Perhaps this is obvious, but let's start here:  Clemens, McGwire, Palmeiro, Sosa, Bonds, and perhaps Jeff Bagwell would all be slam dunks for the HOF if performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) were not an issue.  Clemens and Bonds would be first ballot -- even unanimous -- HOFers.  Sosa, McGwire and Palmeiro would all get in in their 2nd or 3rd years, easy.  For Bagwell, it would depend upon who was up against him (he's not getting in over Greg Maddux or Frank Thomas, for example).  In the case of Bonds and Clemens, I would argue that you have the two greatest baseball players of the post-Ruth era.  Brad argued last night that if Bonds and Clemens had both quit at precisely the time when most people believe they started using PEDs (1998-199), they would have been 1st ballot HOFers even then.  I agree. 

2.  Again, obvious, but let's just say it:  all of the above players are now eligible for the HOF, and have been connected, either directly (through testing or confession) or indirectly (rumor, second-hand testimony, sharp and immediate changes in on-field production, the leaked Mitchell Report), to the use of PEDs at some point in their careers.  Palmeiro is the only one who tested positive (in 2005) since drug testing was included in the MLB collective bargaining agreement, with clear penalties attached.  There is no concrete evidence that Palmeiro used for any period before that particular test.  And he served his suspension.  MLB policy then and now doesn't ban a player from baseball for violating the policy.  It carries a series of specific punishments.  You serve the punishment, you can come back and play.

3.  The first testing for steroids took place in secret in 2003.  The names (though not the aggregate data) were supposed to remain secret, as part of the collective bargaining agreement.  MLB officials, in a dishonest power move that both violated labor law and the confidentiality rights of individual players, chose to leak some of that information -- but not enough of it to either provide concrete evidence of guilt, or allow the players to defend their innocence.  For that reason, I don't consider the leaked names on that report to be valid evidence.  I also hasten to point out that drug tests and samples aren't 100% reliable.

4.  While baseball implicitly banned the use of steroids in 1971, and explicitly did so in 1991 (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1151761/1/index.htm), it did not put any machinery in place to enforce that ban until 2003, and didn't ban HGH until 2005.  Because of this, we have no way of knowing who used pre-2003 and who didn't, when, and how much. 

5.  We also don't know, by the way, what effect steroid use has -- on players at different positions, on players with varied skill sets, etc.  Were the career numbers of these players 'enhanced' by the use of PEDs?  Perhaps.  But since they played in an era when hundreds of others were also using (hitters against Clemens, pitchers against Bonds and rest), in an era of franchise expansion (diluting the opposing player talent pool), smaller stadiums, a lively ball, and vast improvements in nutrition, sports medicine, and off-season training, there simply is no objective and fair way to sort any of this out.  Many players have testified that they used steroids or HGH to help them stay on the field and fight through injuries.  What if that actually turns out to be the most reliable benefit of PED use?  Is that actually cheating?

6.  Should these guys be banned from Cooperstown because they 'broke the rules'?  Did they break the rules?  I'm not so sure.  Do recreational users of marijuana break the law when they smoke a joint?  Technically, yes (though thankfully the laws themselves appear to be changing).  But outside of African-American ghettos, marijuana use is fully tolerated by our entire law enforcement apparatus, and the larger culture.  As I noted above, MLB banned the use of steroids in a 1991 memo.  All players, agents, and the union received the memo.  Presumably team owners and general managers did too.  The official message was:  you are not allowed to use PEDs.  The unofficial message, however -- the one that was in actual operational practice in clubhouses and weight rooms across the league -- was that PED use was just fine.  MLB could have enforced its official ban.  It chose not to do so (in part because they profited financially from this oversight).  There is, therefore, a sense in which trying to hold these guys accountable now constitutes an unfair moving of the goalposts, of holding them accountable after the fact for things that were tolerated by all relevant authorities at the time the events took place.

7.  The Hall of Fame is not a rule or law enforcement body.  MLB has its own procedures for that.  if MLB hasn't banned a player for life, its rules should work like laws do more generally -- you break a law, you serve your time, you're done.  No double jeopardy.  Just because our bigoted mass incarceration system locks young men of color into a lifelong 2nd class status despite having already served their time, doesn't mean baseball has to do the same thing. 

8.  PED use was seen as 'just fine' by MLB because the culture of using any edge to get ahead pre-dated the period we're discussing.  Players long before the so-called Steroid Era used PEDs of various sorts.  Amphetamines were widely used for over a half-century, by players who are already in the HOF.  Steroid use began in the 1970s, when their use wasn't even illegal, let alone banned by baseball.  Pitchers cheated by scuffing balls, using spit and vaseline; teams stole signals (most famously the 1951 NY Giants); batters put cork and rubber balls in bats. 

And don't even get me started on the fact that MLB enforced a white monopoly until 1947, which really should justify giving the individual statistics of ALL PRE-JACKIE ROBINSON PLAYERS a big fucking asterisk.  White supremacy as a PED -- how is that for an argument?  Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Ty Cobb.

9.  Bonds and Clemens are, according to most people, assholes.  That doesn't disqualify them from the Hall of Fame.

A-Rod, Raffy, and PEDs in the post-Steroid Era
My argument to this point has been aimed primarily at trying to sort out the HOF credentials of players in the Steroid Era, when PED use wasn't tested or punished, and therefore was effectively legal. 

But what about players in the post-2003 era (random testing, with punishments, started in 2004 -- there were no punishments for flunking the 2003 test), on whom we have concrete evidence of use, because they flunked a test, or because they admitted use?

If you are a Hall of Fame voter, how do you evaluate these guys?  I think you have to take them on a case by case basis.  Look at the total arc of the career, the evidence you have of use at a specific time, and then assess. 

Presumably evidence of PED use during the prime productive years of a borderline HOF player might keep him out, all things considered, but that would depend upon the player.  With Alex Rodriguez, as you'll see below, you could remove his 3 best years, and he would still be a slam dunk first ballot Hall of Famer. 

I do not think it is justified to simply refuse to consider a player for the Hall of Fame, if he has once flunked a test.  Flunking the test comes with a 50 game suspension.  Once served, he has been punished.  He has not been banned from baseball.

So we assess their entire career, keeping in mind that it is essentially impossible to tell with any degree of accuracy what impact the PED use actually had on their performance.

I'm thinking here of A-Rod and Palmeiro, but perhaps also of Manny Ramirez (and some day, Ryan Braun).  Keep in mind I am disregarding, as I have noted above, the supposedly confidential 2003 test.  Manny and Palmeiro have tested positive in the mandatory testing era.  So has Ryan Braun. 

Let's pretend I'm a HOF voter, A-Rod retires tomorrow, and its 2017 -- his first year of eligibility.

A-Rod's name was on the 2003 test I'm disregarding, but he has since admitted use over a 3 year period (2001-2003) while with the Rangers -- a 3 year period that was of course prior to when players were tested and punished.  In other words, it fell during the period when MLB consciously and actively tolerated widespread PED use, when it could have chosen not to do so.  Based on my argument so far, we should just include his 2001-2003 seasons, and move on, putting him in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

But A-Rod actually admitted use, and gave us a specific time period.  So let's be more strict than my argument would allow.

I still don't see any way that one could argue to keep A-Rod out of the HOF, when his time comes. 

A-Rod was an astonishing, awesome baseball player while in Seattle, and during his first few years in NY, and there is no evidence whatsoever linking him to PED use while he was in either place; but as I argued above, since PED was effectively legal in MLB during his Seattle years anyway, evidence wouldn't be relevant if it did exist.  He put up ridiculous numbers in 2001-2003, when he has admitted using.  But he put up the same numbers in 2005 and 2007, during the random testing era.  And from 1996-2000, when we have no reason to think he used (and again, as I've argued, we really can't argue that it would matter if he did).

A-Rod said he used while in Texas to stay healthy and on the field, to justify that huge contract.  Perhaps, perhaps not.  The reasons aren't relevant.  How should the discerning HOF voter assess this?

Let's take a harsh look at it, and eliminate all 3 years (2001, 2002, 2003).  Pretend he didn't even play.  That is almost certainly not fair to A-Rod, since his career arc before and after indicates that he would have put up terrific numbers anyway.  And again, he used during a period when PEDs were ubiquitous, and unpunished.

His career numbers WITH those 3 years:
In 19 seasons:  2900 hits.  Almost 1900 runs.  647 HRs, and 1950 RBIs.  a .300 batting average.  and just over 300 steals.  A batting title.  5 HR crowns.  2 RBI titles.  MVP 3 times, and in top 3 three other times.

His average over 162 games:  42 HRs, 125 RBIs, 122 runs, 20 stolen bases.  Over 19 years.  CRAZY.  And did the best of it while playing short, where no one else has ever put up numbers even close to this.

His career numbers WITHOUT those 3 seasons:

His career numbers:  458 HRs.  1545 RBIs.  1516 runs.  .300 BA.  Over 200 stolen bases.  2 MVP awards.

162 game average, in 16 seasons:  36 HRs.  123 RBIs.  120 runs.  22 stolen bases.

If a guy averages -- AVERAGES -- 36 homers, 123 RBIs, and 120 runs a year FOR SIXTEEN YEARS...sorry friends, he's going in the Hall of Fame, first ballot, not close.  To give you some perspective, the best year HOFer Mike Schmidt ever had was slightly inferior to what A-Rod averaged in the 16 years we're discussing...and we've excluded 3 of A-Rod's best seasons.

The Palmeiro/PED question is much easier to parse.  While A-Rod supposedly used right in the middle of his most productive years, Palmeiro flunked one test (after passing all previous ones) in 2005 -- his last year in baseball, and at least two years past any seasons you could call reasonably productive.  In all likelihood, he took a little something to help him stay on the field long enough to get his 3000th hit.

Palmeiro wasn't the player A-Rod has been (who is?), but he ended his career with over 500 HRs and 3000 hits.  His 162 game average was 33 HRs, 105 RBIs and a .288 BA.  He didn't just reach 500 homers -- he got to 569.  Palmeiro seems almost pedestrian when measured against peers like Griffey, Bonds and A-Rod.  But when measured against everyone else (and the vast majority of players in baseball history), he was exceptional.  He should be in.the Hall of Fame.

It is a fun parlor game to try to figure who used, and when.  Fans can speculate endlessly.  We enjoy it.  But when push comes to shove, I don't believe we have the evidence or the ethical grounding to keep Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, Palmeiro and McGwire out.

Fire away, boys.

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