"Perception in our world is absolutely reality. Everybody is linked to it. You either are a suspected user or you're somebody who didn't actively do anything to stop it. You're one or the other if you were a player in this generation. Unfortunately I fall into the category of one of the players that didn't do anything to stop it. As a player rep and a member of the association, we had the ability to do it and we looked the other way, just like the media did, just like the ownership did, just like the fans did. And now this is part of the price that we're paying."
-- Curt Schilling, speaking on ESPN
Here's four words I didn't expect to be writing today: Curt Schilling is right. Such is the impenetrable toxicity of the steroid era, a period which, arguably, ranks as the worst of baseball history, in terms of wholesale corruption. This ballot marks the first of a potentially lengthy period where voters will likely err on the side of caution, when it comes to casting ballots. And that's a good thing, in my opinion:
A common defense is that "there are far worse crimes against humanity committed by those already enshrined, and performance-enhancing cheaters, too." But I don't think we can apply the morality of a previous era, which let in the likes of Ty Cobb and kept out all black players until 1962, to modern times. The indiscretions of a previous era were either nowhere near as broadly-known as Barry Bonds' and Roger Clemens' PED use, or not considered significant at the time. Cap Anson's blatant racism would be completely unacceptable nowadays, but was hardly considered a serious moral stain when he was inducted in 1939.
To some degree, this reflects a change in the way that society views, and compensates, professional sportsmen. As baseball historian John Thorn describes, early players "would be turned away from hotels. They were not considered fit for polite company. And now, today, here they are heroes and role models." Expecting better behavior as a result of this change in status seems not unreasonable - certainly, the players are now rewarded with enormously increased salaries, commensurate with their position as national icons. .There's undeniably a much greater degree of scrutiny and availability of information, to both the public and writers, than in the 1930's.
Indeed, the same applies also to players, which is why I don't think comparisons with the amphetamine-laden era of the sixties are appropriate. It truly was a different time: one where coffee was provided in clubhouses, marked "leaded" or "unleaded", as appropriate. The statement "everyone was doing it" applies far more to that period than the steroid one. The latter appears largely to have unfolded in bathroom stalls, if Jamie Moyer (among others) is to be believed. He said in 2007, "This will be my 20th year in the major leagues, and I don't even know what a steroid looks like."
Players can only be judged by the standards of the current era. And the standards of the current era are - or, at least, should be, though given the number of Bonds apologists, I'm uncertain - that taking performance enhancing drugs is among the worst of crimes, undermining the game's foundations of a level playing field. This was cheating, at its most basic level. The worst thing is, the scope of the issue can never be absolutely determined, resulting in the exclusion of those who may be clean, such as Craig Biggio. That's a shame, but it's better to err on the side of caution, especially while there is no mechanism to un-induct players once elected.
There is also the argument that Bonds would have put up Cooperstown-worthy numbers without PEDs - I think that is probably the case. It is generally believed Bazza started taking steroids after the McGwire-Sosa HR race in 1998. Through that season, Bonds' OPS+ was 164, nestling between Hall of Fame members Jimmie Foxx and Tris Speaker at the same point in their careers. Of the 19 players with 3,000 PAs through age 33 with an OPS+ at 160 or better, 15 are in Cooperstown, with three (Albert Pujols, Frank Thomas and Shoeless Joe Jackson) ineligible. And Bonds also had eight Gold Gloves to his name. Yep, it's likely he'd have made it anyway.
However, that's a bit like claiming Richard Nixon was a great president, and never mind that whole Watergate thing. PEDs define Bonds' legacy to a degree that is incontestable; think about it, this was a man for whom a Hall of Fame career was, apparently not enough. That's either a relentless quest for perfection, incredibly arrogant ambition, or something of both - at levels which this mere mortal can't grasp. It's almost Shakespearean to see a man's reputation destroyed by a desire for greatness beyond all others. For, like Jackson, it's not how you start that matters, it's also how you finish.
That's why players don't get elected at their age 33 season. They're not even eligible for five years after that last game. to allow the cooling off of whatever emotions accompanied their passing. And there's no rush: players have up to 15 years to be nominated, and who can say what information will come out tomorrow, next month or next year, that might alter perceptions? It's five years since Bonds hit 60% more homers than anyone his age had ever done. It took seven from Lance Armstrong's last Tour de France victory, for cycling authorities to acquire enough evidence, to allow that title to be removed.
Finally, this is the last chance for any kind of meaningful sanction to be applied. to stop them from, basically, getting away with it. Bud Selig certainly failed to do so. The federal government, despite throwing an extraordinary amount of resources at the likes of Bonds and Clemens, basically failed to do so. The bottom line is that inducting them would effectively set the moral of the tale to being "It doesn't matter what you do, you are still worthy of the greatest honor the baseball community can bestow..Results are all that matter." To me, that's a terrible message - not just for baseball, and the players who resisted the pressure to juice, but to society as a whole.