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On Andy Pettitte's Hall Pass

The morning after Andy Pettitte announced his retirement, I was woken up (as I often am) by the sports update on CBS News Radio. Jared Max led his update with the news, then immediately asked this rhetorical question: Does the Yankees lefty deserve Hall of Fame consideration? He seemed to have already decided "yes," since he recited Pettitte's vital statistics while making special note of his work in the posteason. Max concluded by wondering aloud, "I wonder if Pettitte will pave the way for performance enhancing drug users to get into Cooperstown."

Well, that certainly jarred me out of bed. Did a sportscaster just wonder if Pettitte could "pave the way" for other exposed PED users to get into the Hall of Fame, as if that would make him the Jackie Robinson of HGH? Yes, he did.

I can't imagine anything remotely similar being said about Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa or Roger Clemens, or any other potential Hall of Fame candidate who used PEDs. But then again, Andy Pettitte has long been an exceptional case, someone who doesn't suffer from the same judgments cast on other players tainted by the Steroid Era.

Max was far from alone in his Hall of Fame speculation. Pettitte's retirement caused many sportswriters to ponder the same question. Some considered him a no-doubter, while others thought he came just short of Cooperstown. Very few of them considered Pettitte's admitted use of HGH an important part of the discussion. This stood in marked contrast to the way many of them discuss other people involved in PED use, even those only tainted by rumor.

On Friday, ESPNNY's Ian O'Connor wrote a lengthy appreciation of Pettitte. He acknowledged that Pettitte's excuse for taking HGH "wasn't any more redeeming than the explanations offered by other performance-enhancing cheats." But he also credited the lefty for confessing "his not-so-venial sin" and testifying against former BFF Roger Clemens at Congressional hearings. "Even at his lowest moment," O'Connor insisted, "Pettitte was hailed for his integrity and credibility."

Compare that with O'Connor's take on other people connected to PEDs--Sandy Alderson, for instance, from whom he demanded an apology for steroids in baseball when he was hired as the Mets' new GM. While he seems to believe Pettitte's character outshines "one reckless choice," he does not think the same of the Yankees' third baseman, to whom he addressed an article entitled "Alex Rodriguez's steroid stain will last forever."

ESPN's Buster Olney wrote something similar two years ago ("A-Rod now tarnished forever"), but that didn't prevent him from discussing Pettitte's Hall of Fame chances on a pure statistical basis, with only a passing reference to HGH. Kevin Kernan of the New York Post, while admitting Pettitte's HGH use is a "huge negative," compared his Hall of Fame case to that of Whitey Ford. This time last year, Kernan ripped Mark McGwire for his appearance with Bob Costas on MLB Network and called him "still one of the biggest cheats in baseball history."

Danny Knobler of CBS Sports caused a stir last year when he wrote a column in which he said he wouldn't vote for certain unnamed Hall of Fame candidates because he believed they had built their credentials through "cheating." His evidence? "It’s just strong suspicion, or word of mouth. It’s nothing I can prove, and nothing I’d feel professionally comfortable writing in a story." But when admitted "cheat" Andy Pettitte retired, he discussed his Hall of Fame chances at by focusing on his postseason success. Knobler did not once mention PEDs.

In the Hall of Fame discussion, Pettitte's merits as a player are being debated first, with HGH mentioned mostly as a sidenote. That's fine in and of itself, as far as I'm concerned. I tend to agree with Joe Posnanski's take: It seems unfair to give him more consideration for playing for such a high profile team, but it also seems unfair to completely dismiss what he did in the postseason. I fall on the short-of-the-HOF side of the fence, but I don't think it's crazy to debate the matter.

The problem is, the courtesy Pettitte receives--dismissal of his HGH use--is extended to literally no other player. Performance enhancing drugs are a central part of the Cooperstown debate even for players who are simply rumored to have used them (see: Jeff Bagwell). How did Pettitte get a PED hall pass?

Is it due to the fact that he fessed up? That's often cited as a show of his character, although it's not like he revealed this sin because of a guilty conscience. Pettitte was named in the Mitchell Report and forced to make an accounting of himself. Admitting something you've already been caught doing is not really confession. It's basically just one small step better than continuing to lie about it.

Is it because he used them only a few times, and only to recover from injury? That requires us to believe the word of someone who'd been quietly "cheating" for years. And if you want to get technical, everyone who takes PEDs does to recover from injury.

For the most part, I think Pettitte gets a pass in this regard not so much because people believe his excuses for using HGH, but because people simply want to let it slide in his case. He's been portrayed and perceived as a Nice Guy for so long, nothing he does can be seen as coming from a Not-Nice place.

I have no doubt Pettitte is a nice guy. The writers who've covered him have nothing but good things to say about the man, and I've never seen any public actions or heard any whispers that suggest otherwise. In a baseball-mad city like New York, you'd think if Pettitte so much as tipped a barista poorly once, we'd hear about it. As a Nice Guy, we're inclined to believe him when he says he did HGH for selfless, team-oriented reasons, no matter how flimsy that excuse looks under even the most basic scrutiny. If it's not entirely true, I'm sure he sincerely believes it is.

Players with different reputations receive different treatment from the media when it comes to PEDs. You don't have to look hard to find writers who think Barry Bonds destroyed the game of baseball. It has less to do with what Bonds actually did to baseball and more to do with how terribly he treated the fourth estate. It also doesn't help that he is, by all accounts, a miserable human being. Roger Clemens enjoyed a better relationship with the press, but he also had a reputation as a win-at-all-costs type. That was once celebrated as a virtue, even when he did something insane like throw a shattered bat during a World Series game. But when it was revealed he used steroids, that do-whatever-it-takes-to-win mentality took on a much darker cast.

What about Mark McGwire? He was considered a nice guy too, but when his PED use was revealed, he became irredeemable in many HOF voters' eyes. This brings up another important point: Pettitte benefits from being a pitcher. Among baseball's many unshakable creeds, one of the biggest and most sacrosanct is that home runs are holy relics. Anyone who interferes with their purity commits sacrilege.

People are less sure what to think about pitchers who take PEDs, even though you could argue their use benefits that position more than any other. The very act of pitching is harmful to the body. Your arm is not made to do what a starting pitcher does to it every five days. Steroids can help a pitcher recover between starts and provide the kind of "rest" that time can not. So while home run hitters get the most scrutiny and scorn for steroid use, you could say that pitchers who take them are artificially enhanced far more than sluggers. Not every hitter who takes steroids will automatically club taters, but every pitcher who takes them will benefit from healing their tired arms much faster.

Whether Pettitte enters Cooperstown or not does not really concern me, but it will be interesting to see what happens in a few years, when Bonds and Pettitte are on the same ballot. Some voters should bone up on their math right now, because in order to vote for the latter and snub the former, they're going to have to do some highly advanced rhetorical calculus.