This week, our nation was abuzz with talk about the recent decision of the Baseball Writers Association of America not to elect any former Major League players to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The voting scribes snubbed hardball greats such as Roger Clements, Barry Bonds and Jeff Bagwell, players whose performance in prior decades would have easily qualified them for immediate admission, because they believe that these players probably used steroids and other performance enhancing drugs and, therefore, are somehow undeserving of this ultimate honor.
One can understand the writers’ reluctance to award bad behavior. The problem is that no one knows for sure whether most of these players ever actually used drugs to improve their performance.
Let’s start with Roger Clemens, the man I contend is the greatest right handed pitcher in American League history. Clemens denied under oath ever using drugs. When he was hauled into court and charged with perjury allegedly for lying to Congress, he was acquitted.
To be sure, there is ample evidence of drug use in the last twenty odd years. For example, there are players that have tested positive for drug use, including Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez. There are players that have admitted using drugs, such as Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. I would be the last person to argue to quarrel with the claim that some baseball players have not used artificial means to get stronger the last twenty or so years.
When it comes time to voting players into the Hall of Fame, the players associated with drug use give writers fits. But still, the players that – at some point in their careers – tested positive for drug use, or later admitted to drug use, would seem, on their face, to be easier cases. If the writers believe that the drug use significantly enhanced the performance of these former stars, leaving them out of the Hall of Fame would strike me as reasonable.
The more difficult issue involves players who are believed to have used drugs on account of their production. The most cited examples are Sammy Sosa, who blossomed from being a singles hitter to one of the game’s great sluggers virtually overnight, and Roger Clemens, who appeared to be in “the twilight of his career” in his late thirties when he suddenly experienced a rebirth while pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays.
The problem with the argument that drugs are the only explanation for sudden increases in player performance is that it ignores the fact that throughout baseball history, players have – at a variety of ages – changed overnight their level of production on the field.
I remember former Boston Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski. Yaz averaged 16 home runs his first six seasons in the league. He was a very good player – not a great one. Suddenly, in 1967, Carl’s power numbers increased dramatically – he hit 44 home runs that year and would hit 40 twice more in 1969 and 1970. Why did his power increase so suddenly? I always thought he just got stronger and started trying to drive the ball to hit for more power. I do not recall thinking it had anything to do with drugs.
As for late career improvements in performance, we have the much beloved Henry Aaron, who averaged about 33 home runs over the course of his career when suddenly, at age 35, he starting hitting homers at an even higher rate. His total for ages 35-39 was by far the best five year total of his career. And who could forget the great pitcher Warren Spahn, who won twenty games six times after the age of 35? Or, how about a more recent example – Jamie Moyer – a rather slight and physically unassuming pitcher that accumulated more than half of his 269 wins after the age of 35?
Another argument raised against players is that they have, these days, incredible physiques. That is true. But can we really assume that every player with Herculean muscle tone is, by definition, a drug user? Lou Gehrig played in the 1920’s, and he is said to have been built like a tank. Do we believe that the Pride of Yankees was “on the juice?”
My point is not to defend Clemens, Bonds, or anyone else that may have used illegal or improper substances to gain an advantage. My point simply is respond to all the knuckleheads in the media who claim that one can determine whether a player used drugs simply by citing rather unusual up-ticks in his production or examining his biceps.
The biggest problem with this issue is that it is not going to go away any time soon. Players retire every year and for the next twenty years or so, we are constantly going to be having these debates.
So to solve the problem once and for all, I have volunteered to draft and now publish two simple rules to guide Hall of Fame voters in future elections.
(1) If an active player ever tests positive for performance enhancing drugs, everything he did before the positive test is not considered in evaluating his performance. That might seem harsh, but it is the price the player must pay for testing positive. If he can demonstrate that he was clean at every point thereafter, and his production thereafter qualifies him, I will reconsider. But everything before the positive test would be out. That means you Alex Rodriguez. You too David Ortiz.
(2) If the player never tests positive for drugs, and never admits to using drugs, and is never shown by other clear and convincing evidence (e.g., a doctor’s testimony) that he used drugs, then he is eligible. Period. I will not care if he has muscles coming out of his earlobes. If his production qualifies him, and the stewards of the game (management, testing labs and medical personnel) clear him to play, I will not see any reason to discount what he does on the field.
That was easy.