Many Americans are more thoughtful when choosing appliances than when choosing presidents, but the baseball writers whose ballots decide who is “enshrined” — more about that verb anon — in Cooperstown’s Hall of Fame are mostly conscientious voters struggling to unravel a knotty puzzle: How to treat retired players who are known or suspected to have used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) while compiling gaudy numbers?
Such chemicals increase muscle mass, thereby increasing hitters’ bat speeds, pitchers’ velocities, and recovery from the strain of training and competing. On Wednesday, two highly probable users, Roger Clemens (third-most career strikeouts, seven Cy Young awards) and Barry Bonds (career and season home-run records, seven MVP awards) reached 54.1 percent and 53.8 percent, respectively, up from 45.2 percent and 44.3 percent last year and approaching the 75 percent threshold for admission. Only three players have reached 50 percent without eventually being admitted (Jack Morris, Gil Hodges, Lee Smith).
Some players’ records reflect abilities enhanced by acts of bad character — surreptitious resorts to disreputable chemistry that traduces sportsmanship. But as younger writers who did not cover baseball during the PED era become Hall of Fame voters, the electorate is becoming less interested in disqualifying PED users. These writers should, however, consider why PEDs matter.
They subvert the central idea of sport — athletes competing on equal terms. Distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate athletic enhancement can be complex: The body produces testosterone and human growth hormone (HGH) that are components of some potent PEDs. Enhancements improve performance without devaluing it only if they involve methods and materials (e.g., better training and nutrition) that help the body perform unusually rather than unnaturally well.
If Cooperstown wants admission to mean enshrinement, it must embrace and articulate the Hall’s ethic.
Beyond this civic interest in honest athletics, there is a matter of justice. Many former ballplayers missed having major-league careers, or longer major-league careers with larger contracts, because they competed honestly against cheating opponents, or lost playing time to cheating teammates. These handicapped-because-honorable players could have leveled the playing field only by using dangerous PEDs, thereby jeopardizing their physical and mental health and forfeiting their integrity.
And consider Fred McGriff, who in 19 sterling seasons during the steroid era hit 493 home runs, seven short of the 500 mark that has generally opened Cooperstown’s doors to eligible players (retired five years) not suspected of PED use. There is no suspicion that McGriff used PEDs, and if he had he certainly would have hit many more than seven additional home runs. The closest he has come to Cooperstown’s 75 percent is 23.9 percent in 2012. (He received 21.7 percent Wednesday.) And there are players in Cooperstown whose careers were enhanced by amphetamines, which once were ubiquitous in baseball but now are banned.
Until baseball’s steroid parenthesis, only one demarcation had disrupted the game’s continuity, that between the dead-ball era and, beginning around 1920, the live-ball era. The parenthesis has been closed, although the financial incentives to cheat are such that there always will be sinister chemists competing to concoct PEDs that defeat the efforts of other chemists to detect them. The incentives can, however, be decisively reordered by sufficiently severe penalties, which almost all players would favor.
If Cooperstown is content, as perhaps it should be, to be merely a museum — not a negligible thing — then Bonds and Clemens belong there as important elements of the game’s story, and their story should be candidly told on their plaques. If, however, Cooperstown wants admission to mean enshrinement, it must embrace and articulate the Hall’s ethic. America has never more urgently needed the insistence that real success must be honorably achieved.
— George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. © 2017 Washington Post Writers Group