The Sluggers of Steroids are eligible for Baseball's Hall of Fame this year. You know them -- Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens. Yes, there are others too, some whose drug use we know about, some we may not. Forgetting their actions, honorable or otherwise, once they left active duty in baseball the big knock against their admission to the treasured Hall is simple -- they took performance enhancing drugs. The meaning of that phrase strikes one immediately. We can see it. These players ingested or injected pharmaceutical substances that made them better baseball players. Their performance on the field of play -- not in front of Congress or in a courtroom somewhere -- was therefore artificially enhanced. The result was and remains obvious. Each of them achieved statistical feats, home runs and pitching victories, they otherwise could not -- would not -- might not have accomplished without their performance being apparently enhanced.
The cry of the Baseball purists is -- "Don't let them in!" By "in" of course, they refer to the cherished Hall in Cooperstown, New York. Unlike many readers, and I suspect quite a few Hall of Fame voters as well, I have actually been to the Hall of Fame. It's not easy to get there. Unlike a lot of travel in the United States you do not drive to the nearest on-ramp for the Interstate, get on and keep driving until you've somehow magically "reached your destination" -- Cooperstown. No, instead you must navigate the country roads in the farmlands of upstate New York, drive past fields of corn, stretches of apple orchids and fields of hay. You find yourself turning onto tiny two-lanes that take you past hilly dairy farms with cows munching grass as you drive by. Only after hours of this quite magnificent scenery do you suddenly come upon the sight of a very large lake and there it is -- Cooperstown. You drive straight in, and the Hall of Fame sits there in the middle of town in a plain red brick building on a street crowded with cafes and baseball souvenir shops.
Inside is a baseball lover's paradise. You find Ruth, Williams, Mays, Mantle, Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax and Walter Johnson... all of them, all the Greatest of the Great. You look about in awe and soon you'll also find, enshrined in this temple of diamond worship, the likes of Ed Delahanty, Fred Clarke, Jim O'Rourke, Ray Schalk and Zack Wheat. If you search for the player with the game's highest lifetime batting average or the player who had the most hits in the whole history of organized professional baseball, you will not find either of them here. Shoeless Joe Jackson, who batted .356, not for a single season but for his entire career, was declared persona non grata in Baseball following the White Sox scandal involving the World Series of 1919. "Say it ain't so, Joe" ain't in the Hall. And Pete Rose, who hit safely more often than anyone who's ever stepped up to the plate, but who also bet on baseball games and may well have bet on games he was involved in, he too, like Joe Jackson, is banned from Cooperstown. Zack Wheat and Fred Clarke are there. The leading hitter and the man with the most hits of all-time, they're missing.
There are quite a few drunks in the Hall. You know who some are and if you don't know others, as Casey Stengel used to say -- "You could look it up." And yes, there are many men in Cooperstown who were racists, open, vocal, ugly and proud of it. It's not the Hall of Saints, after all. So what's the big fuss about PEDs? And what exactly is a performance-enhancing drug? How about antibiotics? Before we had them, when a player was stricken with a bacterial infection -- you know, like the flu or a bad cold, or a sore or open wound that became infected and wouldn't heal -- that player either lost playing time or played at less than their best. If they played, they played sick. Does that make today's modern antibiotics and cold medicines PEDs? Even an extra strength Tylenol, which relieves a bad headache and allows a player to play these days, is something other players didn't have in decades past. Is Tylenol a PED?
And how do we classify medical procedures? Lasik eye surgery certainly enhances vision. Hitters can see the spin of the ball as it leaves the pitcher's hand with greater precision. But is Lasik prohibited by Baseball as a "performance enhancing procedure? In days gone by a pitcher was said to "throw his arm out." It was a career ending injury. But today that pitcher has Tommy John surgery and resumes his career -- often better than he was before. Are we banning all such pitchers from the Hall of Fame? How many players have knee surgery? Or shoulder operations? How many get cortisone shots? And how many take painkillers, appropriately prescribed by doctors? Are we banning all of them from the Hall? Why then steroids, HGH, testosterone or beta-blockers? Answer this: what makes a pitcher better -- steroids or surgery? And which of those keeps you out of the Hall of Fame?
Steroids and other perhaps more exotic drugs may indeed enhance performance. Well, so what. Let's drop this silly notion that some performance enhancing "methods" are acceptable and some are not. How about a good night's sleep after traveling by charter jet instead of taking the train from New York to St. Louis? What about a good meal in an air-conditioned hotel suite? How much help is that? I'm pretty sure being a multi-millionaire with a long-term guaranteed contract enhances performance too when compared with being paid a few thousands dollars a year on a one-year deal.
So, let's drop all pretense. Have an up or down vote on Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose. C'mon, is there anyone who thinks either player's alleged gambling affected their hitting? And if gambling is so evil why do we bet so much, so often? Let's vote too on Mark McGwire and this year's crop of "druggies." Was Sammy Sosa a better hitter than Fred Clarke? If Barry Bonds took steroids, what about all the others who took them too and never managed to hit 73 home runs in one season? Let everyone in or keep them out based on what they did between the lines. Forget about what they did in the bathroom.