Bonds, Clemens must be forgiven

We don't really know what steroids do. So stars like Clemens and Bonds should join baseball's Hall of Fame today

By Allen Barra
January 9, 2013 8:28PM (UTC)
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The members of the Baseball Hall of Fame's class of 2013 will be announced around noon today. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are among those new to the ballot this year, but I’m guessing that no one will make it this year -- because baseball writers are divided on nearly every issue surrounding eligibility, including what those issues should be.

The major issue, of course, is steroids, a subject on which everyone has an opinion but scarcely anyone has any hard facts.  Except for a handful of players, we can’t be certain who actually took steroids.  We can’t agree on whether taking steroids really constitutes cheating – if there weren’t any rules against taking a certain substance, many feel, how can you actually say someone cheated?  Or so some arguments go.


We don’t even agree on what actually constitutes steroids. The truth of the matter is that very few of the sportswriters weighing in on the subject really know much about them.  We lump all performance enhancing drugs under the heading of “steroids” in an effort to sweep them aside and brand them as evil;  after years of reading about them, I am still not sure why human growth hormones are bad or why they’re banned. (I know there’s a rational answer to a question I have often asked, namely if HGH heals injuries faster, why is it wrong to use it?  But no one has yet given me an answer I can understand.)

Most important, at least to the Hall of Fame discussion, we’re not even sure how or if performance enhancing drugs enhance performance.  Yes, I know, everyone has a story about a sprinter or a minor league pitcher who got a big boost from injecting themselves with something, but I’ve been studying the effects of PEDs on baseball for years now, and I have no clear sense that steroids – no, let me be accurate here and say PEDs – really had much impact at all on baseball. At least, no impact that can’t also be explained by changes in tactics, strategy, equipment, rule changes and bandbox ballparks. In fact, most of the claims that have been made about PED effects dissolve under scrutiny.

Except for Barry Bonds, whom I may as well deal with right now. Bonds is a case unto himself. I know of no other baseball player, indeed, no other professional athlete, who, after age 35, suddenly became better than his 25-year-old self. And Bonds didn’t simply get better between the age of 35 and 40, he became the greatest player in baseball history – stronger, faster, just plain better than this young self in every way. No one even remotely fits in Barry Bonds’ category.


But Bonds’ situation was unique: He now seems to have been a virtual guinea pig for BALCO, the most advanced PED laboratory in the U.S. and maybe in the entire world.  The idea that there is some magic bullet or pill or juice that turns men into supermen is, I’m fairly certain, nonsense. For instance, in the Wall Street Journal in 2009, I examined Alex Rodriguez’s career in detail and concluded that the so-called boost A-Rod got from PEDs while playing for the Texas Rangers was simply the boost every hitter got from playing in that ballpark.

I’ve also devoted some time to studying Roger Clemens’ stats, and I’m convinced that, contrary to popular opinion, he had no late career surge. You don’t have to trust me on this; there are numerous studies on Clemens by baseball analysts that are more detailed than any I can toss at you, and they reached the same conclusion.

Oddly enough, I find that with many, enhanced performance from performance enhancing drugs isn’t really the issue, it’s the idea that the players cheated -- or attempted to cheat – in the first place. I can’t say that I don’t sympathize with these people.  Yes, cheating has always been a big part of the game, particularly cheating by pitchers who doctored baseballs with foreign or even domestic emollients. But there has always been at least some tolerance for players like Whitey Ford or Gaylord Perry who indulged in this kind of cheating if only because it took some skill to master. PEDs, on the other hand, are thought to give someone an advantage for really doing nothing at all.


I don’t suppose there is ever going to be more light than heat on this debate or that baseball writers are ever going to transform themselves into research scientists in order to learn more about PEDs and what they really do or don’t do. This means that for the foreseeable future, the Hall of Fame debate is going to break down each year into a series of emotional -- and ultimately sour and unwinnable arguments -- about who did and who didn’t used PEDs and what possible edge the drugs gave them.

And the only thing that’s going to cool tempers among baseball fans on the subject of PEDs is time. My feeling is that no matter what anyone writes or says, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire are going to be denied the Hall of Fame for some indefinite period and that the same taint will eventually attach itself to Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and probably even Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza, who have never been formally charged with anything. I’m even more convinced that when passions begin to cool in a decade or so, that Hall of Fame voters are going to take a forgive-and-forget policy toward PED users (or suspected PED users) and that all of them will eventually be voted in.


Ultimately, what other choice do we have? Putting a penalty of a few years on some players strikes me as the only sane and humane response we have to the whole sad question. What else are we going to do – ostracize them forever, go into our old age lecturing future generations on why PEDs were so evil that they demanded a lifetime ban from the hall?

If the Hall of Fame is for the greatest players, then surely someday we’ll come to the understanding that it was a greater crime to keep them out than to forgive them.

Then, perhaps, we can get back to the real injustices in the Hall -- such as Pete Rose, Minnie Minoso, Dick Allen and Tim Raines not having plaques in Cooperstown.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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