Baseball spring training started this month, bringing Alex Rodriguez back into the minds of those who care about men hitting balls with sticks. For those who don’t follow America’s favourite pastime, Mr. Rodriguez is currently coming off an unprecedented season-long suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Specifically, A-Rod (as he is known to fans and the impatient) admitted to using steroids and human growth hormone (HGH). A-Rod, with the assistance of these chemicals, became perhaps the greatest home run hitter that baseball has ever known. Unfortunately, the guardians of baseball’s precious morality frown upon the use of PEDs, and have waged an apparently successful war to rid baseball of steroids and HGH in recent years. A-Rod is perhaps the most high-profile casualty of this inquisition.
The great PED purge is also having an effect on the most tangible manifestation of the morals of people in baseball – the Hall of Fame ballots. So far, no ex-player whose name has been tainted by allegations of steroid or HGH use has ever been voted into the Hall. This is awkward, because almost all of the superstars now eligible for entrance into the Hall have used PEDs at some point. Thus far, this has resulted in one year in which no players were elected, and others in which only second-tier players were elected, leaving big names like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens conspicuously mouldering on the ballot.
This is a problem first and foremost because, by keeping recent superstars out of the Hall of Fame, the Baseball Writers’ Association is holding them to a higher standard of ‘cleanliness’ than it did their predecesessors. While steroid and HGH use is a comparatively recent development in baseball’s history, the use of other performance enhancers has been widespread for almost the entire history of the sport. Amphetamines were the most prominent pre-steroid era PED, and they seem to have been common almost to the point of ubiquity for a time. They were only banned by Major League baseball (MLB) in 2006, after players had been using them for decades. By denying steroid-era players the honour of being in the Hall of Fame, the Writers’ Association is implying that those players violated the code of a game that is supposed to be played ‘clean.’ The Hall of Fame voters are trying to clean up the history, a sport that has always been played by cheaters and drug abusers, and played gloriously.
Many of the greatest baseball players of all time were famous for cheating. Ty Cobb, a player from the 1930s widely considered to be one of the greatest pure hitters in baseball’s history, infamously sharpened his metal cleats so that people would be afraid to tag him as he slid into bases. Another Hall of Famer, Gaylord Perry, wrote a whole book about his success with an illegal pitch called the spitball. Substance use has also been a constant part of the grand tradition. Babe Ruth was infamous for drinking too much, and he’s in the Hall, alongside countless players from the amphetamine era. Dock Ellis infamously pitched a no-hitter while tripping on acid. The idea that steroid users somehow ‘tainted’ a prevlously pure game with their substance abuse is absurd.
Another problem with MLB’s anti-PED crusade is that drug use has had no negative effect on the game from an entertainment standpoint. In fact, the steroid era was perhaps the most exciting time in MLB history. The steroid era saw the single-season home run record broken twice in less than a decade, and saw Hank Aaron’s record for career home runs shattered. Since baseball’s PED crusade started, both total home runs and total scoring have declined. Anyone even remotely interested in baseball knows that it is a sport that involves long periods of waiting between exciting moments, and the decline in offence caused by the end of the steroid era is doing nothing for the sport’s popularity or viability.
I’m not necessarily advocating for the reinstatement of drug-fuelled baseball, but I will say that MLB’s moral panic over PEDs is ridiculous, and is ultimately harmful to the legacy of the sport. The steroid-era stars deserve to be in the Hall of Fame because they succeeded in an era where steroids were as ubiquitous as amphetamines used to be. Drugs only provide a little assistance. Players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were clearly the greatest of their eras, and arguably some of the greatest players of all time. I have little sympathy for arguments that drugs ‘cheapen’ the game in some way. Baseball has always been played on drugs, and the steroid era was exhilarating to watch from a fan’s perspective. Baseball needs to come to terms with its coloulful history and realize that it has never been a bastion of moral righteousness. It’s a hell of a lot more fun that way.