When the same people who shunned a whistleblower for publicizing steroid use in 1998 are also the same people denying Barry Bonds entry into the Hall of Fame, there's a problem with American society. Likewise, when team profits and MLB attendance figures skyrocketed because of the steroid era (making the 1994 strike a distance memory), it's fair to question the sincerity of a league that waited until 2003 to test for performance enhancing drugs. Factor in the tacit acceptance by fans and owners of "greenies", spitballs, batters stealing signs, cocaine use, alleged juiced baseballs, corked bats, the overuse of painkillers and salaries that pay sluggers more money, then simply saying "Barry Bonds cheated" loses its righteous tone.
If three key issues pertaining to the notion of fair play are addressed within the moral framework employed to condemn Barry Bonds, then his on the field dominance should overshadow any concerns about steroid use or cheating.
1. How many players in the Hall of Fame took greenies? Is there a difference between amphetamines and steroids?
No, steroid use isn't alright simply because players of an earlier generation took amphetamines. However, when steroids represent everything wrong with baseball and greenies are completely overlooked, then a value system (promoting fair play) becomes merely an arbitrary code of conduct. According to ESPN, amphetamines "share many central nervous system effects with cocaine" and improve both "alertness" and "confidence." Baseball is a sport where alertness and confidence could be the difference between a home run and a strikeout, so amphetamines have probably altered the game more than we can imagine at the moment.
According to The Baltimore Sun, Jim Bouton believes that greenies were widespread in baseball during the 1960s. Mike Shmidt has stated amphetamines "have been around the game forever." Tony Gwyn once estimated that 50 percent of position players were using amphetamines and Bud Selig remembered hearing about greenies in the 1950s.
So when did Major League Baseball begin testing for amphetamine use? The first time baseball players were tested was in 2006, fifty years after Commissioner Bud Selig first heard about greenies in the Milwaukee Braves clubhouses. In an article titled Yup. Still waiting for distinction between greenies and 'roids, Rob Neyer makes the argument that there's little distinction between amphetamines and steroids within the context of fair play:
I still cannot see any distinction, integrity-wise, between using amphetamines in 1980 and using steroids in 2000. In both cases, players were using drugs illegally. In both cases, players were hoping to become better baseball players. In both cases, players were, wittingly or not, hoping to gain edges over players who were not using those same drugs...
Which leads me all the way around to where I started: I continue to wait for a Hall of Fame voter, just one, to draw a meaningful, Hall of Fame-relevant distinction between amphetamines and steroids.
If greenies enhance the performance of baseball players, yet amphetamines aren't equated with steroids, then values become subject to a popularity contest. Bonds, McGwire, Sosa and Clemens turn into villains while a generations of ballplayers are exonerated for their use of a drug that helps immensely with "hand-eye coordination."
Like David Schoenfield writes in an ESPN article titled Death Match: Greenies vs. 'Roids, the baseball world has made a vapid distinction between two performance enhancing drugs:
If the Hall of Fame voters' arguments against the steroids users were performance-based, it would make sense to engage in detailed analyses of the relative effects of amphetamines and steroids. But that's not the argument...
When Hall of Fame voters penalize players from the (so-called) Steroid Era while giving a free pass to every player who ever cheated with amphetamines, they're drawing a line that -- and yes, I'm going to say this once more -- is intellectually indefensible.
Therefore, how many games were won by players using greenies? How many batting titles, Gold Gloves, and Hall of Fame votes were earned from performances enhanced by amphetamine use? If you don't know the answers to these questions, don't be so certain that Bonds doesn't deserve the Hall of Fame simply because you believe he cheated. If cheating is cheating, then amphetamines are an egregious offense.
2. Major League Baseball not only didn't care about steroids in 1998 or 2001, but Commissioner Selig showed "no willingness" to test for steroids. Why?
The recent outrage over PEDs is a relatively new phenomenon and ignores the fact that everyone from the National League president to the White drug policy director praised the same player that Hall of Fame voters today view as a cheater. An article from The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1999 illustrates how Mark McGwire was treated after he stopped using androstenedione:
"The message Mark McGwire sends to our young people by walking away from this substance is a powerful one," Barry R. McCaffrey, the White House drug policy director, said Thursday.
...Meanwhile, neither baseball commissioner Bud Selig nor union officials have shown a willingness yet to ban andro or test for anabolic steroids.
Selig on Wednesday declined to talk about McGwire's decision, but NL president Len Coleman praised the Cardinals' first baseman's act.
"Mark's focus is on contributions to society," Coleman said. "He leads by example. The youth of the world are well served by Mark's value structure."
It speaks volumes that McGwire (whom I think should also be in the Hall) was lauded for his decision to stop using a PED, while Bud Selig showed no willingness in 1999 to even test for steroids. If you think Barry Bonds should have an asterisk near his home run title, remember to put that same asterisk near the value system displayed by Selig, sports writers, fans, and everyone else in baseball during the late '90s.
3. The baseball world shunned a courageous whistleblower and waited until 2003 to test for steroids. Why?
Detractors of Barry Bonds should acknowledge the reasons Major League Baseball waited until after the 1998 and 2001 seasons to test for steroids. People can't simultaneously be appalled at cheating and blissfully ignorant of the factors (attendance increased 50 percent from 1990-2000 even with the 1994 strike) that led to baseball executives willfully ignoring the bulging biceps and massive homers of the steroid era. As a result, an ESPN report titled "Who Knew?" explains how Steve Wilstein was treated after breaking the andro story in 1998:
The revelation threatened to unmask the slugger as more Frankenstein's monster than Popeye. Before that could happen, though, the manager, the team and the press all shifted blame to the messenger.
...Wilstein was disappointed by the reaction, but he knew he hadn't touched anything in the locker.
... So on the Monday after Wilstein's story ran, Selig publicly ignored the effects of andro: "I think what Mark McGwire has accomplished is so remarkable, and he has handled it all so beautifully, we want to do everything we can to enjoy a great moment in baseball history."
To claim Bonds should be barred from the Hall of Fame without acknowledging Selig's praise of McGwire or baseball's desire to "enjoy a great moment" at all costs is to engage in a vile form of selective memory.
As Bill James writes in Life, Liberty, and Breaking the Rules, society must also judge is prosecutors:
So now it is Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds in the crosshairs of the prosecutors, and the question I would urge you to think about is not only "Are these people guilty?" It is also, "Is this prosecution necessary and appropriate?"
Cheating in baseball never took place in a vacuum; 1998 and 2001 were euphoric years in baseball history for specific reasons. Baseball's gatekeepers looked the other way during the steroid era and they too should be judged; not just Bonds. To say in 2015 that only Barry Bonds must pay for the excesses of the 1990s is to whitewash history.
We've had many chances to take a stand against PEDs: in 1998, 2001 and during the past 60 years of amphetamine use in baseball. Cheating, like Gaylord Perry's celebrated spitball, is difficult to grasp when values are scuffled with Bud Selig's concern for profits or journalists ignoring the obvious during freakish home run chases. One defends cherished principles even at the expense of "great moments," not at the expense (when outrage over steroids is fashionable) of Bonds, McGwire or any other deserving player.
To deny Barry Bonds entry in the Hall of Fame, simply because voters and fans wish to uphold their values retroactively, says more about American society than it does about Barry Bonds, cheating, or steroids.