OPINION: The Steroid Era in Cancel Culture Times

By IAN WILSON

As the clock ticks down on the Hall of Fame hopes of the Steroid Era’s best players, the National Baseball Hall of Fame has reached a crossroads.

This is the 10th and final year of eligibility for Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds – the poster boys for what can be achieved in baseball with some chemical enhancement – to gain entry to the Hall through the balloting of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA).

They, along with others on the ballot, require 75% of the total BBWAA to be inducted.

Of course, there are last chances and there are last chances. Even if they are punted from the ballot, players can gain entry through the Today’s Game Era Committee.

Should the steroid users be immortalized in Cooperstown, New York?

For our purposes, let’s focus on Bonds and Clemens and save the case of someone like former Calgary Cannon Alex Rodriguez for another time, seeing as A-Rod will be on the ballot again next year.

And before we really get into it, I should note that the Hall of Fame debates with baseball are part of what makes the sport so amazing. Other sports don’t see the same kind of passion and eloquent lobbying that baseball does when it comes to recognizing the greats of the game.

DIAMOND DISLIKE

Full disclosure: I don’t like Bonds and Clemens. As good as they were at baseball, they often came across as repugnant, selfish, and generally unpleasant in their dealings with those around the game.

But who cares what I think, right? I’m not a member of the BBWAA and I don’t have a Hall of Fame vote to contribute.

No matter how they acted outside the lines, there was no question of how dominant they could be when they stepped between them.

If this were just about a person’s character, we know that Ty Cobb would have faced more scrutiny before his Hall of Fame induction. And if it was about taking joy in your work, we know that the eternally miserable Bill Belichick would never be considered for inclusion at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

My opinions on the Steroid Era have changed over the years. What used to be black and white is now grey. The notion that they cheated so they don’t deserve to be honoured, doesn’t fully stick anymore. Make no mistake, they cheated.

CHEATING THE GAME

People who skulk to hidden corners of ballparks to inject, well almost anything, are rarely up to any good.

Yes, well Major League Baseball (MLB) turned a blind eye to it. This is true and it’s deplorable. The powers that be don’t deserve a free pass on this either. They knew what the Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire home run chase did for the game and they didn’t care what it took to keep it going. It was more than just steroids that were being injected into the game in 1998. That homer-happy season was fun. It was thrilling at the time, no matter what your opinions of it are now.

1998 cover of commemorative Sports Illustrated edition dedicated to the homer race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

So, there is some revisionist history around that. If I’d known then what I know now. That kind of thing.

But everyone was doing it! This is a laughable defence that has been debunked by parents through the ages. Shall I retort with, “If your friends jumped off a bridge …” or can we just move on from this one?

Players may not have been subtle about their chemical romance at the time, but they also didn’t go out of their way to broadcast it either. Why not? If it’s not much different than a cortisone shot, why not bring it up in media interviews? Why not just say, “Yeah, I caught a hold of that ball, but you know what really helped it clear the fence? The steroids I’m using!” We know why players were elusive and sheepish about it. Because it’s cheating.

ROID REASONING

Look at Jose Canseco and his twin brother, Ozzie. They are almost identical in their genetic makeup, they both juiced, but only Jose was a superstar at baseball. It wasn’t the ‘roids, it was Jose’s talent.

This argument is certainly more clever than the “everybody did it” defence, but it can also be debunked. Jose was, indeed, better at baseball than Ozzie, but that doesn’t mean that steroids didn’t give them both a competitive advantage over their peers. Despite their bond, they are two different people. Their training and the coaching they received during their baseball journeys may have been similar, but it would not have matched up entirely. Would Ozzie have played at the MLB level without taking steroids? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Cover of Jose Canseco’s 2006 book, Juiced, which revealed widespread use of steroids in baseball.

Performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) weren’t banned in baseball during the Steroid Era, though? That comes up a lot. Only thing is, it’s not true. They were added to the banned substance list in 1991, but testing of players didn’t happen until 2003. The possession and sale of anabolic steroids without a valid prescription is also illegal in the U.S. and has been since the early 1990s.

But Clemens and Bonds didn’t start using PEDs until later in their careers. They were already on track to make it to Cooperstown.

This is a talking point that I find infuriating. That is a vote against them, in my opinion. If you are already elite, if you are already at the top of your game but it’s not enough, that is a serious character flaw. Athletes should be looking inward at that point for solutions. The confidence and the strength to move forward should be born from that integrity, that belief, that what has made them special will continue to sustain them. Cheating at this point is a major failure. To cut corners late in the game is to cheat on yourself, your achievements and everyone who has helped you along the way.

Also, star players like Bonds and Clemens didn’t need to cheat. By that, I mean they weren’t trying to escape the minor-league grind and provide for their families by breaking into the big leagues. They were established players with sterling resumes who didn’t need PEDs to accomplish otherworldly things. They had the talent and the ability without steroids. In that sense, the fact they turned to the needle is even more unforgiveable.

COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGES

If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.

Right, right … it’s a popular mantra. Of course, it is a game of “stolen” bases and sign stealing. So maybe we should just accept that everything isn’t on the up and up in baseball.

I’m reluctant to climb too high on this soapbox and invoke: “But what about the kids?” It’s often a fake and overused rallying cry. That said, the kids are watching and mimicking what they see. So are the adults. What happens in MLB is often imitated in leagues at every level around the world. Do we want the overriding message to be that it’s OK to cut corners and that cheating is acceptable? Or would we prefer to inspire in fans that hard work, perseverance and preparation are worthy approaches to the challenges we face?

The reach of a man like Barry Bonds isn’t limited to San Francisco or Pittsburgh, the two cities he played for in the majors. Early in his professional career, Bonds launched a grand slam against the Cannons at Foothills Stadium in Calgary. He also took the field at John Ducey Park in Edmonton. There are a few Albertans who may remember his visit to our province in 1986. For the younger baseball watchers, Bonds certainly reached a much wider audience when he set the all-time home run record with 762 long balls.

And we surely can’t ignore the 354 wins and 4,672 strikeouts recorded by Clemens.

No, we cannot ignore these achievements, dubious and ill-gotten though some of them may be.

That’s why these two unlikeable, loathsome even, characters of baseball do indeed belong in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Wait … what?! But they’re cheaters!

They are, and so are the Hall of Fame managers and commissioners who piggybacked off of their success. Tony La Russa is in the Hall, isn’t he? So is Bud Selig.

Hypocrisy is always a bad look. Everyone in MLB knew about widespread use of PEDs as it was happening. They did little stop that train. Even when efforts were made to put the genie back in the bottle, steroid testing never caught Clemens and Bonds red-handed. And if they did, they certainly didn’t do enough to punish them at the time. It’s a little late to do it effectively now.

THE RIGHT KIND OF RECOGNITION

That said, there are ways to recognize Steroid Era stars appropriately.

I’m not much for tearing statues down and destroying them. Relocate them, sure. Change the plaque that adorns it, OK.

In recent years, we’ve started to think differently about historical figures like Christopher Columbus.

Perhaps we need to take a similar approach with our sporting heroes. We don’t need to cancel them, but we can look at them in a different light.

I come not to bury Bonds and Clemens, but I also don’t want to praise them either.

So, let them in. They have the stats to back up their cases. And, even though the stats may lie to some degree in this situation, it’s a little weird to not have the home run king be properly recognized. The same can be said for the man who sits third all-time in strikeouts.

However, let’s use their Hall of Fame plaques to talk about issues like PEDs and fairness in sport. Include photos of these players at various phases of their careers so fans can see the body changes. Put their cleats and ball caps on display and let observers question the size differences over the years. Run video footage from congressional hearings into steroid use in baseball. Print excerpts from PED reports that involved Bonds and Clemens.

We don’t have to like everything about members of the Hall of Fame. We don’t have to celebrate all of them, but the debate doesn’t need to end after they’re inducted.

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