The One-Way Street of Steroid Confessions

Confess, sinner! (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Is it possible to consider an argument valid while believing many of its most vocal proponents are full of it? Because I feel that way when it comes to one side of the Steroid Era debate.

There are people who believe the rampant use of PEDs in the late 1990s/early 2000s tainted records and the game of baseball itself, particularly when it comes to the "sanctity" of home run records. I don't agree with that point of view, but I know a lot of fans do, and they're entitled to feel that way if they so choose. I could certainly debate the point in a gentlemanly manner with a reasonable person who held such a view.

My beef is more with sportswriters who feel that certain players should be kept out of the Hall of Fame, even those who've never tested positive for anything and weren't named in the Mitchell Report, out of fear we may taint Cooperstown with future revelations. These feelings of "guardianship" over the sport are, at best, too little too late, and at worst, disingenuous and hypocritical.

Already in this post-Winter Meetings period, we've seen columnists writing articles about how they can't bring themselves to vote for Jeff Bagwell--not because of anything he is proved to have have done, but because he simply existed at time and place when people were doing Bad Things. It's like being thrown in jail for no other reason than you happen to live in a neighborhood with a high crime rate.

I recently discussed this with fellow AAer Jeffrey Paternostro on his podcast Metropolitan Tales, specifically in regard to Mike Piazza. Like Bagwell, the evidence that he did steroids is, at best, circumstantial. (Basically, there's a few lines in Jeff Pearlman's The Rocket Who Fell to Earth, Murray Chass's weird bacne obsession, and that's it.) Piazza's numbers combined with his position make him a no-brainer Hall of Fame vote, but we both came to the conclusion that he would, at the very least, be kept out of the Hall for one year much in the way Roberto Alomar inexplicably was--a timeout-to-think-about-what-you-did move.

Professional sportswriters are entitled to their opinions just as fans are. The difference is, unlike fans, sportswriters had a chance to do something about the evil they now decry. These people were in locker rooms for the almost two decades between when Jose Canseco became steroids' Johnny Appleseed and when the Mitchell Report came out. But if you go back and look at the historical record, articles from this period decrying steroid use, calling for investigations, accusing the game of being tainted, etc., are few and far between. They certainly don't carry the virulence and great weeping and gnashing of teeth you see about the subject beginning in the mid-2000s.

In order to vote for the Hall of Fame, you must be an active baseball writer for at least 10 years. That means anyone currently eligible to cast a ballot had to have been around for the absolute height of the so-called Steroid Era, presumably working in close proximity to players on a daily basis. Am I to believe that hundreds of baseball players were able to keep this Terrible Secret from hundreds of intrepid reporters? More likely, reporters had an inkling of what was going on, but there simply wasn't the will or outrage to report on it, and so they didn't.

There were always whispers about Canseco and other players, but no real thought that the game would be soiled by widespread PED use. For a reaction typical of this era, check out this clip from a 1988 season post mortem. Various sportswriters anticipate a Mets-A's World Series matchup, and Bob Klapisch wants to see it because he's convinced Canseco "is on steroids." He and his fellow scribes laugh at this, and move on.

The post-Mitchell Report hysteria over steroids from most writers reminds me of Mayor Quimby's reaction to "learning" there was a burlesque house in Springfield. ("In light of these recent facts, of which I now realize I was largely aware...") To explain their inability to report in any meaningful way on something they now denounced, many reporters retroactively painted themselves as dupes, or as being caught up in the childlike wonderment of the 1998 home run chase. So either we have to believe that they're lying or they're really bad at their jobs.

In order to cover their tracks, some writers engaged in a Can You Top This Outrage. It created an Orwellian nightmare scenario, where players suddenly had to apologize for things that weren't considered crimes when they were committed, to a tribunal of people who had once tacitly approved those "crimes." They sought self criticism sessions like something out of China's Cultural Revolution, only instead of Mao's Little Red Book, the accusers were brandishing their fears and bruised egos.

For instance, I was struck by how many calls there were for Mark McGwire to "confess" steroid use, particularly after his embarrassing Congressional appearance. Because everyone forgot that McGwire had already admitted it. When a reporter spotted a bottle of androstenedione (the synthetic testosterone virtually no one had heard of up to that point) in his locker in 1998, McGwire copped to taking it. And that was, essentially, that.

There was some mild debate if using this heretofore unknown substance constituted cheating, but it was all a distant memory when McGwire broke Roger Maris's single season home run record. When it was debated later if andro should be banned in baseball, Bud Selig made a point to say, "Whatever baseball decides, the only thing that concerns me is none of this should ever diminish what Mark McGwire did this year." (see link above)

Then all of a sudden, years later, the press demands that McGwire confess to something he'd already confessed to doing. Because that confession came when we really didn't care about what you did, and now we demand a real, tearful, heart-rending mea culpa.

So if we're going to keep an entire generation of players out of Cooperstown on general principle, perhaps we should do the same for the reporters who covered them. And the broadcasters, for that matter. Their capacity as journalists put them in a position to expose the evils of steroid use, but they failed to do so, which makes them accomplices after the fact. Can we really take the chance of electing a writer to the Hall of Fame now, only to find out years later he knew about PEDs in baseball but said nothing until it was expedient to do so?

This is the logical extension of the mentality of writers who would keep the likes of Bagwell, Piazza, and even Barry Bonds (who never tested positive for anything, by the way) out of the Hall of Fame. But if their track record is any indication, I won't hold my breath until I see them apply the standards they have for players to themselves.

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