The Corner


Baseball’s Steroids Problem Is A Barry Bonds Problem

At 6pm Eastern time this afternoon, the Baseball Writers Association will announce who is joining Veterans’ Committee inductees Alan Trammell and Jack Morris in this year’s Hall of Fame class. Based on tracking of the ballots that have been publicly announced, it appears that Vladimir Guerrero, Chipper Jones and Jim Thome are all likely to get in, Edgar Martinez and Trevor Hoffman are on the bubble, and Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina, Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemens are likely to fall short, with the rest of the contenders out of the running – including big names like Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, Fred McGriff, Jeff Kent, Gary Sheffield, Omar Vizquel, and Larry Walker.

The fact that another year will go by without inducting Bonds and Clemens, and without stars like Ramirez, Sosa, and Sheffield, suggests the continuing hold that the debate over steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs (“PEDs”) still has on Hall of Fame voters. That debate’s outlines are well-known by now, and I’ll just summarize my longstanding view: while I reject the view of some apologists that steroids have no impact on performance and shouldn’t result in players being punished, I view basically all forms of cheating (steroids, amphetamines, spitballs, corked bats, stolen signs, tripped runners, watered infields, extra balls in the grass, shortcuts around the bases, etc.) as matters to be enforced at the time rather than punished retrospectively; the Hall of Fame is already stocked with rule-breakers, to say nothing of men of low character in other ways (including men who harmed the on-field product by conspiring to keep out black players for six decades), and it’s artificial to keep out players who met the Hall’s standards in their efforts to win ballgames based on an unevenly enforced subset of rule-breaking. The one and only exception, in my view, should be men who actually conspired to lose baseball games, e.g., Shoeless Joe Jackson. Frankly, a Baseball Hall of Fame without Bonds, Clemens, and Pete Rose is just not a complete story.

But in telling the story of why steroids are such a scarlet letter, it’s hard to avoid the fact that the animosity towards PEDs is in part driven by Barry Bonds – not just the animosity towards Bonds, but also the nature of his accomplishments on PEDs. To start with, Bonds was an almost universally unpopular figure in the game well before he got involved in PEDs: arrogant, loumouthed, distant from teammates, a difficult man even by the standards of high-performing athletes. (Some of his clubhouse controversies, like his feuds with Kent and Will Clark, reportedly had a racial edge to them). To a lesser extent this was true of Clemens as well, but Clemens in his Red Sox years was never quite as divisive a figure outside Boston as Bonds was almost everywhere. Bonds is also a uniquely unsympathetic case of a PED user: he wasn’t a poor kid from the Dominican like Sammy Sosa, or a guy trying to restart a career derailed by injuries like Mark McGwire, and he didn’t start “juicing” in his youth as Alex Rodriguez seems to have. Bonds came into the game as an entitled rich kid from baseball royalty (his father was a major star, and his godfather is no less a figure than Willie Mays himself), and like Clemens, he apparently got involved in PEDs in his mid-30s after having already compiled a resume that would have easily gotten him into the Hall on its own, and that had already earned him tens of millions of dollars.

For players like Clemens, PEDs helped restore them to their youthful prime, but Bonds was different: almost overnight, from age 36-39, he became a vastly better hitter than he had been at his age 27-28 natural peak, and along the way shattered a battery of records held by revered figures like Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. It was difficult for a lot of people who had formed a full opinion of Bonds between 1986 and 2000 even to process how good he suddenly was, and how transformed – and the debate over the legitimacy of his rewriting of the record books (along with McGwire and Sosa and A-Rod) ended up swamping the rest of the PED conversation because it was easier than getting one’s head around Bonds’ extraordinarily unusual career arc. Suspicion fell on Bonds long before the evidence caught up with it. Even the justice system got involved, eventually bringing federal prosecutions against Bonds and Clemens.

There’s a lesson there for the world outside of baseball, of course: controversial individuals often end up defining what the rules are, both the things they get away with and the things that get restricted to stop them. That tends to be bad for the rule of law as a system of neutral principles. Until baseball gets over Barry Bonds, the Hall of Fame steroid debate will always, on some level, be a debate about one man.


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