The National Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, N.Y., is more than a shrine to the great players of the past; it’s a museum of the history of the game, from its mythical beginnings in a nearby cow pasture. The small-town setting evokes baseball’s connection to rural America; there is only scant mention of the big-city corruptions that tainted the game, such as the say-it-ain’t-so fixing of the 1919 World Series.
But now the Hall of Fame has little choice but to address another stain on the game: the period that has come to be known as the steroid era. From roughly the late 1980s until the early 2000s, the use of steroids, growth hormones, and other performance enhancers was rampant in baseball. Assessing the extent of the problem will require intensive fact-finding, because players are still lying about their use of illegal substances; for some stars, it’s a way of preserving enough plausible deniability to get elected to the Hall itself.
Putting the steroid era in proper perspective is important for the sport, beyond the immediate question of whether to elect possibly tainted players to baseball’s highest honor. The Hall of Fame, a distinct private institution, stands apart from the bureaucracy of Major League Baseball and might be the best venue to amass a team of historians, sportswriters, and investigators to finally come to grips with a scandal of uncertain dimensions.
It’s also a problem that’s fallen into the Hall’s lap. Three superstars of the steroid era — Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Sammy Sosa — are first-time candidates for enshrinement in the Hall this year. Votes are to be cast by Monday. To be elected, players must receive the support of 75 percent of the sportswriters who cast ballots.
With so much at stake, the writers should be especially reluctant to vote for steroid-tainted players. Under Hall of Fame rules, candidates remain on the ballot for 15 years. There should be no rush to honor Bonds, who hit the most home runs in history; or Sosa, the only player to top 60 home runs in three seasons; or Clemens, who pitched two of the three 20-strikeout games in baseball history. At the very least, the decision should wait for a fuller accounting of the steroid era, and their fate should depend on how they respond to it. Only time and distance will provide the perspective necessary to determine if they deserve enshrinement in the Hall.
Allegations that Bonds and Clemens had lied about steroid use led to criminal charges for both. Bonds was convicted of obstruction of justice, and Clemens received a hung jury on a perjury charge, was retried, and found not guilty. Despite large amounts of evidence, the trials did not yield a definitive verdict on the question of did-they-or-didn’t-they. And some defenders insist it would be wrong to vote against them on the basis of steroid use when it wasn’t proven in court. They’re innocent until proven guilty, the argument goes.
But the Hall of Fame isn’t a court, and voters can use their eyes: Bonds and Sosa morphed in mid-career from normal-sized players with excellent but not eye-popping stats into coiled springs of muscle, launching baseballs over fences with mere flicks of their wrists. Clemens changed, as well, his upper body swelling to a hulking mass, enabling him to throw as hard in his late 30s as he did in his late 20s.
Red Sox fans who fondly remember how Clemens lifted the team onto his shoulders for the 1986 pennant run may be inclined to support him on that basis alone; unlike Bonds and Sosa, he seemed a natural Hall of Famer from the get-go. But fans must consider what it would mean to ignore the mountain of evidence suggesting he violated baseball rules later in his career, and how his brash denials poisoned the atmosphere around the game. If people believe he used steroids, they shouldn’t forgive his furious defense as an expression of pride: True competitors play by the rules and tell the truth.
That’s why the Hall of Fame needs a fuller picture. If steroid use was so rampant that one could believe the failure was beyond individual culpability — that everyone was doing it — then writers might at least feel comfortable in honoring the best players of the era, on the grounds that they stood out even among the inflated statistics. But by far the stronger suspicion is that some players used steroids regularly, others experimented, and still others resisted entirely. Hall of Fame voters should be wary of justifications that end up rewarding the cheaters and punishing those who played by the rules.
The use of banned, performance-enhancing substances was as much a blight on the game as pay-offs from gamblers were almost a century ago; injections of mysterious serums may not have “fixed” games as directly as the wads of cash handed out before the 1919 World Series, but they corrupted play nonetheless. They killed some players’ careers and boosted others. They also exposed players to health risks and set a dangerous example for young people. Say it ain’t so, indeed.
Baseball’s image of purity, so perfectly evoked in Cooperstown, depends on its ability to determine what went wrong and why, to draw a circle around the steroid era and say “never again.” The Hall of Fame is the best place to begin that momentous task.
For the record: An earlier version of this editorial noted that Roger Clemens received a hung jury on perjury charges; he was later retried and found not guilty. Also, Barry Bonds’s personal trainer pleaded guilty to intent to distribute steroids but didn’t testify at Bonds’s trial.