A full complement of baseball’s steroid class is among the 37 players on the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot, so it was predictable that a new round of arguments would surface claiming that it is unfair, illogical, inconsistent or otherwise unseemly to exclude Barry Bonds and others from enshrinement. Predictable but frustrating: the arguments in favor of Bonds are arguments against maintaining ethical values, in baseball, sports, and American society. It is also an annoying debate to engage in, and I have been engaging in it in various forms for many years, because Bonds’ defenders typically represent themselves as modern, reasonable, and realistic, while anyone making the quaint argument that cheating on a grand scale should earn shame rather than honors is mocked as judgmental, sanctimonious and naïve. As ever, I am a glutton for punishment, and since otherwise wise and perceptive commentators like NBC Sports’ Craig Calcaterra choose to ally themselves with Bonds, I really am obligated to point out what a corrupt, illogical and unethical position it is. If I and people like me don’t persist in this, we’ll have cheating approved as a cultural norm before we know what hit us.
Calcaterra has been supporting Bonds as a Hall of Fame candidate for a while now, but the title of his latest essay, “It’s Lunacy To Keep Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens Out of the Hall of Fame” is a gauntlet that begs to be picked up. “Bonds and Clemens,” Craig writes, “ are two players who, in a just world, would be unanimous selections for induction…” I find this an indefensible, even shocking, statement, both before and after the writer attempts to defend it. In a just world, a member of a profession who achieved his prominence in part by breaking the law and the rules, as well as lying about it, should be accorded the highest honor that profession has! What an astounding point of view.
For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to leave Clemens out of this, in part because I can see a Hall of Fame voter credibly deciding that there isn’t enough evidence to conclude that The Rocket really did use performance enhancing drugs on the way to forging one of the top five pitching careers of all time, and in part because I suspect Craig of pairing Bonds and Clemens to make his various rationalizations more pallatable than they would be in defense of Bonds alone. Belief in Roger’s steroid cheating rests entirely on the testimony of a proven liar and slime-ball, his former trainer. MLB’s Mitchell Report sided with the trainer, and I’m inclined to as well, but Clemens’ unfitness for the Hall of Fame, unlike Bonds (and Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and some others), is not an open-and-shut case.
I give credit to Craig for not raising my least favorite of the Bonds defenses, that he has to be regarded as innocent because he has not been “proven guilty.” Calcaterra is a lawyer, and he understands the over-use and misuse of that cliché, as well as how it only applies when “guilty” means “you’re going to jail.” Indeed, he begins by conceding the obvious, that the evidence that Barry Bonds used steroids is overwhelming, which it is.
His first argument, however, is terrible. Under the ironic heading “Baseball Bonafides,” Calcaterra begins by reciting Bonds’ (and Clemens’) impressive list of achievements, which taken at face value show Barry Bonds to be one the best of the best, not just a qualified Hall of Fame baseball player, but an epitome of a Hall of Fame player along with such legends as Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson , Ted Williams and Willie Mays. “Put simply,” Craig says in conclusion, Bonds is an “immortal.” But he’s not-–not if he cheated, not if he achieved his historic status by corrupting his sport and lying to team mates and fans. And, as Calcaterra admits at the outset, this he did. As a result, the fact that Bonds won a record seven Most Valuable Player Awards is irrelevant. He cheated to win some of those awards. He gets no credit for them. In Bonds’s case, “baseball bonafides” are not bona fide at all.
After this stumbling start, Calcaterra sets out to rebut the most common arguments for keeping Bonds out of the Hall. The first on his list, “Bonds and Clemens may have amazing stats, but those stats were bogus due to their PED use” is countered with this:
“Sure, to some extent their statistics were inflated. But by how much? When did Bonds start using? When did Clemens start using? If, as is almost universally agreed-upon, it was during the middle-to-late years of their career, how were they so dominant early on as well?”
Bonds won three MVP awards before most believe that he began using, he points out. If you stopped Bonds’ career the day before he picked up his first syringe, he’d be first-ballot Hall of Famer, Craig notes. He would have been among the all-time greats “without the juice.”
Conceded, and so what? O.J. would be regarded as an American hero if he hadn’t slaughtered his wife and Ron Goldman. Richard Nixon had an impressive record as President before Watergate, but that breach of ethics, law and duty was sufficient to place his tenure in the White House beyond redemption. Jason Blair and Stephen Glass wrote some great articles that weren’t fabricated or plagiarized. In what other field is cheating treated as minor if everyone agrees that you really didn’t need to cheat? Rich people pull financial scams because they are greedy: have you ever heard a Bernie Madoff defended with the argument that his cheating wasn’t so bad because he would have made plenty of money without it? Can you imagine a gambler, caught with an extra ace up his sleeve, getting away with the defense that it shouldn’t matter because he was a better poker player than anyone else and was going to win anyway? If a brilliant student cheats and is caught, he is punished the same as a borderline student who cheats to keep his scholarship, and that is as it should be. Bonds, most believe, was greedy for success, money and fame. He wasn’t willing to decline with age like normal players; he didn’t want to start fading in his late 30’s, like virtually every other baseball player who ever lived; he wanted to keep earning millions of dollars. Calcaterra treats this as a point in Bonds’ favor, a neat piece of rationalization judo. Yes, Bonds was already a great player without cheating, but a career based on his legitimate and natural talents, a career that most of his contemporaries only could dream about, wasn’t enough for him. So cheated to have more. There is nothing admirable about this, or relevant to the price Bonds should pay for cheating to achieve greater prominence in a competitive sport.
“..The E in PEDs stands for enhancing, not creating,” Calcaterra writes, “and thus one cannot ignore the fact that Bonds and Clemens were unique and historic talents who, even if the final tallies on their stat sheets should be somewhat discounted, clearly would have been among the all-time greats without the juice.” This is a straw man argument. Nobody seriously disputes that Bonds’ talent came out of his genes and not a bottle, and that it was remarkable. Would Craig argue that Lance Armstrong, despite his decade of engineering an elaborate and self-aggrandizing fraud that has left his sport in tatters, should be enshrined in a cycling Hall of Fame? Presumably so. It is very possible that Armstrong would have won a lot of races without his PED use, but because he cheated, we correctly regard his entire career as tainted. That’s what the penalty is for cheating, in sports, in school, in life.
Craig Calcaterra has an answer for the penalty issue, and it is this:
“Cheating is wrong, no question. But Hall of Fame voting is not a rule-enforcement mechanism or a court of law. That’s the job of the Joint Drug Program agreed upon between the league and the union. If someone breaks the drug rules and gets caught and gets punished, it’s up to the league to punish them, not baseball writers who comprise the electorate.”
Craig could not have thought this through. The Hall of Fame has no right to punish Bonds for cheating, because it’s not an enforcement body? I see. So getting back to O.J., if he applies for a job as, say, a high school girls basketball coach, the school shouldn’t penalize him for the fact that it is overwhelmingly likely that the Juice is a double murderer, because that was someone else’s job, and they didn’t do it. Nonsense. Conduct has consequences. Killing people means that employers won’t trust you. Cheating means that places that honor athletes don’t want you. The Hall of Fame has every right to decide who is and isn’t worthy of being honored there. It isn’t kicking Bonds out of baseball, or putting him in prison. It isn’t punishing Bonds at all, if it judges him unworthy. It is enforcing its own standards, which it has every right to do, by not giving him benefits, honors and privileges despite conduct that should preclude them.
Next, Craig stoops to an unholy cross between three rationalizations, the “Favorite Child Excuse” (where one points out to a critic that some individual the critic admires or favors has engaged in similar or worse conduct), “They are just as bad,” where the fact that others have engaged in misconduct is raised as an argument for ignoring misconduct by someone else, and “the Compliance Dodge,” where one argues that since there is no rule or law against clearly wrongful conduct, the conduct is acceptable:
“The Hall of Fame has long welcomed cheaters with open arms, and no current rule says that a cheater, be he a drug cheater or otherwise, can’t be allowed in.”
The first part of the sentence is misleading. Some of those accepted into the Hall engaged in conduct that some would call cheating, or that would be regarded as cheating today. No player that I can identify would have “cheater” mentioned high on his list of characteristics as a player or manager, or was regarded as a cheater while he was active to the extent that Barry Bonds was. As I have written in an essay published a couple of years ago in “The Hardball Times Annual,” cheating in baseball is along a spectrum, with a lot of gray area between true cheating, culturally approved tactics that are not regarded as cheating within the game by tradition or practice, and gamesmanship. (I’ll e-mail anyone a file of the essay who requests it.) In addition, baseball, like football, began as a much rougher, less codified game in which chicanery of various kinds were not only encouraged but admired. “Ty Cobb sharpened his spikes in an effort to maim opposing players who would dare try to tag him out,” says Calcaterra, but that was not against the rules, nor was physical intimidation regarded as cheating, although many (though not all) felt it was “dirty” play. There is no comparison between Cobb’s furious style and Bond’s artificial mutation. The rest of Calcaterra’s support for “welcoming cheaters with open arms” is pure “everybody did it” stuff—but everybody didn’t do it, and everybody definitely didn’t do steroids.
It is funny—there was very little made of pitcher Gaylord Perry’s occasional use of the illegal spitball when he was being considered for the Hall of Fame. Everyone knew that Perry used his reputation for resorting to the pitch as psychological warfare (it is not cheating to make a player worry that you might be cheating), and that his 300+ wins were the result of his superb command of his legal pitches, not the spitball. Perry’s admission to the Hall has only begun to be challenged as Bonds defenders have began searching for evidence that the Hall of Fame “welcomed cheaters with open arms.” When Perry was caught throwing spitballs, he was thrown out of the game. And for cultural reasons, perhaps related to the fact that there was a period in baseball when some pitchers were allowed to throw spitballs and others were not, pitchers like Whitey Ford, Don Sutton and Perry sneaking in an occasional spitball was regarded more as evidence of guile than corruption. I might not have voted for Perry based on his spitball use, but the fact that a few pitchers made the Hall despite occasionally throwing an illegal pitch hardly paves the way for admitted steroid cheats.
The second part of Craig’s sentence, however, that no rule specifically excludes cheaters, is legalistic rationalization at its worst. There is no rule, I suspect, because “cheating” is such a broad and, as I just noted, sometimes vague concept, that such a rule would be a nightmare. Nor are rules necessary for voters to make rational decisions about kinds of conduct that shouldn’t be tolerated in places of honor. There is no rule that says that killing a player on the field would disqualify someone for Hall enshrinement, but I have no doubt that this is the case. Carl Mays, a pitcher whose 208-126 record over a 15 year career makes him the equal of several Hall of Fame pitchers, may well have made the Hall had he not thrown the pitch that accidentally ended the life of Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman, still the only player killed by a pitched ball. I also am certain that had Juan Marichal, one of the greatest of all pitchers, killed Dodgers catcher John Roseboro when he swung a bat at his head instead of just giving him a concussion, Marichal never would have made the Hall either. (Talk about moral luck!) No, Craig, no rule says that the Hall can’t accept a player who distorted his body, competition, pennant races, games, the record book, the careers of other players and the game itself by pharmaceutical cheating. That doesn’t mean it should.
Calcaterra’s next argument is that “there are PED users in the Hall of Fame already.” This is really two arguments, one that is worthless, and the other that has some bite. The argument that one or more players already enshrined in the Hall of Fame may have used steroids while playing is ethically and logically bankrupt, the equivalent of claiming that because some criminals get away with their crimes, it is unfair to arrest, prosecute or punish anyone whose crimes are detected. A secret and undetected steroid-user does not create a precedent for honoring a known and proven steroid-user. If it is discovered that a previously enshrined player was in fact a steroid cheat, or threw games, or poisoned opposing team members, kick that player out. Don’t admit more like him.
Craig’s better point about “PED users” in the Hall of Fame is that amphetamine use was standard, rampant, widespread and accepted within the game for decades. I won’t argue that amphetamines don’t qualify as “performance enhancing drugs,” but I do insist that while they were a routine part of clubhouse culture (as they were in show business, academia, business and other professions, much as “energy drinks” are today), amphetamine use was not regarded as cheating by anyone. The practice was unhealthy; it paved the way for a larger drug culture that helped steroids gain a foothold in the game in the 90’s; it was illegal; and the game was correct, if inexcusably tardy, to begin testing players for amphetamines as it does now. Nonetheless, it is distinguishable from steroid use, which unlike “greenies” was hidden from other players by users like Bonds, because they knew that it constituted significant misconduct and a breach of the game’s integrity.
What follows is this jaw-dropper from Craig:
“The point here isn’t that two wrongs make a right. The point is that the Hall of Fame has never cared about wrongs in the first place. Why it should start caring about them now is beyond me.”
Why should the institution charged with honoring baseball players and designating the participants in baseball’s history most worthy of memory, praise, emulation and fame care about wrongs? Every institution should care about values. Every individual should care about values. Every organization and activity in society should care about, strive for, encourage and enforce the very best values in everything they do. Even if Craig Calcaterra is right that the Hall of Fame has not done this previously—and he is not right—arguing that it should not defies all reason.
He is not right, because the Hall of Fame has rightly refused to admit to the Hall outstanding players whose misconduct embarrassed and harmed the game and its image. The Hall could choose to admit all-time hit leader Pete Rose, for example, despite his gambling on baseball while managing the Cincinnati Reds. It could admit Shoeless Joe Jackson, who was, after all, acquitted of throwing World Series games as part of a gambling conspiracy. It hasn’t done so because, among other reasons, they disgraced and harmed the game that the Hall of Fame exists to promote. So did Barry Bonds.
Craig’s brief for Bonds peters out with two weak assertions. The Hall of Fame ballot’s character clause reads,
“Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played.”
Calcaterra makes the novel argument that the character clause shouldn’t matter because of its “legislative history”—-apparently it was originally added to the Hall’s qualification standards to give borderline candidates a boost to membership if they had shown exemplary character, such as in military service. Nevertheless, that is not how the clause reads, and there have been over seven decades in which the Hall honchos could have altered the character clause’s language to specifically say that being a cheater or otherwise despicable and unsportsmanlike would never outweigh a strong statistical record. Why wasn’t the clause changed? Because being admitted to the Hall is a great honor, and the implication, embedded in the character clause, that those enshrined in the Hall of Fame are admirable human beings as well as outstanding players makes it a greater honor. Admitting Barry Bonds, in contrast, will make it a lesser honor. Or no honor at all.
Calcaterra makes the anti-ethical argument that since there are some other less-than-admirable members of the Hall it is inconsistent to keep out an epic cheater like Barry Bonds. I’m willing to discuss removing some current and even long-standing members of the Hall, if it can be shown that they did as much harm to the game as Barry Bonds, or even half as much harm. I don’t think there are any.
Craig limps home arguing how “ill-equipped baseball writers are at judging a player’s character. Indeed, the presence of all of those bad seeds shows how ill-equipped they are.” This is a “who are you to judge?” argument in an absurd context. The lowliest idiot should be able to figure out what is wrong with what Bonds did, how it corrupted other players and the sport, while enriching him. The fact that they are ill-equipped to do their joba as electors is no argument for them not trying to do it better, and in Bonds’ case, it’s not hard at all.
To oppose Bonds’ candidacy,Craig writes, “one must make a moral or ethical case based on [his] drug use and the voter’s opinion of their character. And that case will almost certainly be made from a great distance and with imperfect information.” To the contrary, forming a conclusive condemnation of Barry Bonds’ character, the fact of his cheating, its impact and wrongfulness, is a spectacularly straightforward exercise, clear, necessary and damning.
Admission to the Hall of Fame is an honor. Barry Bonds dishonored baseball, and it would be lunacy for baseball to honor him.