If the BBWAA has its way, the 1990s will never have happened. I would be ambivalent about this in a general sense. On one hand, I wouldn't have been shoved off the Soccer field at lunch time by some a-hole fourth grader when I was in second because I wasn't a particularly gifted athlete at that point (I like to imagine this kid is now working long hours in a silver mine, never seeing the light of day. It gives me warm feelings.) On the other hand, we never would have gotten the Carlton Dance, so it's a mixed bag.
The 90s was the decade in which I fell in love with the game of baseball. I still have vague memories of watching Joe Carter's walk off home run in the 1993 World Series. I remember crying when the 1994 strike happened. I remember being giddy whenever the Cubs played the Braves because I could flip between WGN and TBS to get two different perspectives on the game. I can remember the exact camera angle on ESPN's broadcast in my mind when Andy Benes threw the first pitch in Diamondbacks history to Mike Lansing at the plate (both names I committed to memory, no looking up on the internet for that.)
I suppose in the Pre-Diamonbacks era I was ostensibly a Dodgers fan by relation. However, I had a certain fondness for the Houston Astros. This was mainly due to the existence of the Tucson Toros, who were the Astros' Triple-A affiliate up until 1996. I remember seeing guys like James Mouton and Brian L. Hunter play at Hi-Corbett and wonder how their major league careers would turn out (terrible to mediocre, but that's besides the point.) Already established players on the Astros like Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio found their way into my consciousness. Even at a young age I knew that Biggio was one of the best leadoff guys in the league and that Bagwell was an elite power hitter.
Between the naivety of my youth and now a lot of things happened. In 2002 a Sports Illustrated Article that featured a lengthy interview with the late Ken Caminiti, also of 1990s Astros fame, who detailed his steroid use and the widespread use across the entirety of Major League Baseball. Within hours, people started clutching their pearls and started a red-scare-like pointing of fingers at any hitter that had any bulk or could hit for any power. People decried lost innocence, and won't somebody please think of the children? I vaguely recall a lot of "Oh, we should have known!" hand-wringing.
Thing is: everyone in baseball benefited in some way from the "Steroid Era". The Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa home run record chase in 1998 was cited by many people as the event that "saved baseball" after the 1994 strike. We stopped what we were doing in a Sixth grade P.E class to watch him hit number 61. Everybody, including people who weren't fans of baseball, was captivated by this. Owners were able to sell the large Home Run totals as ways to get people to ballgames, and the media got a good story to write about. Surely everyone was shocked and deceived by the PED allegations of four years later?
Here's the thing: During the 98 season, Steve Wilstein, an AP reporter, spotted a bottle of Androstenedione, or Andro for short, in McGwire's locker and broke the story. I can say having lived through it at the time: Nobody gave a rat's ass about it, despite Wilstein's efforts to drum up some hysteria. Andro was, at the time, a perfectly legal over the counter supplement. (for the sake of fairness: it was added to the list of controlled substances in 2005.) People didn't want to hear the horrifying truth then, they just wanted to see some dingers.
So what changed between 1998 and 2002? I really couldn't tell you. Maybe someone in the comments can and I will gladly defer to them. However, there was an awareness of PED use during the 1998 Home Run chase, but fans love home runs, and they ate it all up. After the steroids story broke, there were numerous congressional investigations as well as the Mitchell Report and a whole lot of other stuff that I won't bore you with the details of at this point. Many people, myself included, thought that when a lot of these players were up for Hall of Fame consideration, it would be an interesting vote.
I'll admit this right up front: I don't see the Baseball Hall Of Fame as a sort of Sacred Ground or anything of the sort. It's a museum dedicated to the history of Baseball. No history of anything is perfect, and it should be presented accurately, warts and all. I'm of the opinion that any convicted PED users that were still among the best players in their generation should still get in. If we view the HOF as a museum, we should not shy away from the Steroid Era. We should admit it happened, learn from it, but still acknowledge the people who happened to play in it. For better or worse, they're part of baseball history, and denying them is the equivalent of putting your fingers in your ears and yelling "LALALALALALALA I'M NOT LISTENING." Considering Methamphetamine users and actual on-field cheaters were inducted into the Hall without much fuss, drawing the lines at Steroid users seems a bit hypocritical.
But this is the BBWAA we are talking about here. An unwillingness to vote for steroid users is understandable, even though I don't necessarily agree with it, and the same writers profited from those players like everybody else did. However, the BBWAA has taken it upon itself to be judge, jury, and executioner for every player from that era, despite having as much evidence of PED use as you or I have.
This brings me back to Bagwell and Biggio. Jeff Bagwell was a guy who grew into being a big dude as his career progressed. Did he use PEDs? I have no earthly idea. There is no evidence that he did, his name hasn't come up in any reports, nor will it anytime soon I'm willing to bet. However, various writers have opted to use the "Well he looks like it!" prosecution. That would get you laughed out of every courtroom in America. But whatever, that's fine. You'll at least lift up the players that aren't under suspicion, right?
Nope, sorry Craig Biggio. You'll have to wait til next year, or possibly more. You might argue "But the first ballot is sacred!" or something along those lines. I think that's pure bullcrap. I'm a fan of ambiguity, but in my mind a player either is or is not worthy of the Hall of Fame. They can't do anything on a Baseball diamond between years to strengthen or weaken their case. So first ballot, third ballot, or fourteenth ballot, a Hall of Famer is still a Hall of Famer. You might think that making players wait on tenderhooks for years is fun, but I think that you should ask Ron Santo about that.
The thing that gets my goat about this year's voting are the people who sent in their ballots blank. They say that it either was just "too hard a decision" or they were doing some sort of weird protest, but in actuality it was just a ploy for attention. "Look at me, I'm taking a STAND against... something vague, but by golly it's a stand! I should be commended!" Sending in a blank ballot just increases the vote threshold for players voted on by writers who actually took the task seriously.
Also: Who the (insert very very very bad word here) voted for Aaron Sele?
We may never know who voted for Aaron Sele, so we will have to cast suspicion on all baseball writers during that era— Matt Sussman (@suss2hyphens) January 9, 2013
"Is there an overall point to this rambling?", you may be asking. Yes, it's this: The steroid era happened. There were lots of failures on the part of MLB and the Player's Union to prevent it, but it happened. By denying everybody, not just confirmed or suspected users, from that era, the BBWAA is telling future generations "These years didn't happen, don't worry your pretty little heads about it!" I accepted long ago that a good chunk of the Baseball I watched growing up may have been steroid-tainted. And guess what? I still love the game, and I still cherish a lot of those memories watching it in the 90s and early 2000s. I want people to also acknowledge it happened, vote in the best players of the era like they have of any other era, and then move on with our damn lives.
I feel like we'll go through this song and dance in next year's vote. I envision some writers saying to themselves, "Boy, that Frank Thomas was a large man. He also played with other large men who may have been on... STEROIDS! Sure, he was supportive of more drug testing, but that was obviously just to cover up his misdeeds. Boy, I am such an important person, a baseball writer!"
You may rave about the sanctity of the game or whatnot, but I've got news for you: Baseball has never, ever, not once, been as pure as the final scene in Field of Dreams. We need to accept each era of the game as it was. We don't need to punish the Craig Biggio's of the world just because some of his peers liked to inject things in weird places. Even if every player was whacked out of their mind on PCP, I would still enjoy Baseball (I might even enjoy it more, but that's another discussion.) The game is still great, it's just never been a paragon of virtue at any point in its history.
I want us to be frank and open about the steroid era. I want us to still be able to admit that it was pretty damn fun to watch Mark McGwire hit all of those homers, while still acknowledging the dangers of steroid use. This is not cognitive dissonance, it's just admittance that we're not a perfect Baseball watching society. I know the various members of the BBWAA also enjoyed many parts of it, but I imagine that if they admit they did, it will be like that terrible secret that guy tells at the end of the video for Just by Radiohead.
Then again, that was filmed in the 1990s, so maybe that reference also won't exist.