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Steroids and Cooperstown

What do you do, when you are both the repository for baseball's vast history and the ultimate arbiter of the relative greatness of individual legacies, and when much of the game's recent history and so many of those recent legacies are tainted by the stain of steroids?

When you're the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, you lean on the key word in your title -- "and" -- and you wait until time sorts through the history and the legacies.

It is Cooperstown's dual nature as both a museum and a hall of fame that allows it to deal with the Steroids Era in an immediate, objective and academic manner on the one hand, while simultaneously wrestling over time with the larger questions of context and impact. So said Jeff Idelson, president of the Hall of Fame, during a speech at the National Press Club on Monday -- less than a week since Manny Ramirez became the latest Hall-of-Fame-caliber player to be fingered in baseball's steroids scandal.

"You can't go through history without explaining this era," Idelson said, during a question-and-answer session. "But it takes the perspective of time. When baseball integrated, the Hall didn't magically have an exhibit on baseball integration. It took some time. Now, when you walk through Cooperstown, you see very clearly and poignantly how baseball in a lot of ways was ahead of the curve. Fifteen years before Martin Luther King's march, baseball integrated. It takes the perspective of time to understand, to have all the facts, and to tell a story that everyone can relate to and understand."

In practical terms, that means the museum portion of the 50,000-square-foot facility in Cooperstown, N.Y. now features a sign acknowledging the likely role that performance-enhancing drugs had on this era--"As there's a better understanding of performance-enhancing drugs and their impact on history," it reads in part, "the museum will be telling that story honestly and impartially"--while the Hall of Fame portion reserves judgment until voters come to grips with the impact of drugs on individual legacies.

The guidelines given every year to voters--10-year members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA)--include instructions to consider "character" and "sportsmanship" when evaluating prospective inductees. Thus far, only one test case from the so-called Steroids Era--slugger Mark McGwire--has appeared on the ballot, and his poor showing (his name was checked by fewer than 25 percent of the voters, far below the 75 percent threshold required for election) portends a difficult road to induction for any otherwise qualified player who has been implicated in the steroids scandal.

"By and large, those players' careers are still going on," Idelson said. "They're still being defined. When their careers end, there's a five-year waiting period [for Hall eligibility], and they can be on [the ballot] for as long as 15 years. The beauty of our system is the perspective of time. It's an era where the [voters] are having a tough time grasping, as are all of us, in terms of the Hall of Fame candidacies of certain players. But with the perspective of time, and with the rules being pretty clear, I think the tools are there for the writers to vote with their conscience and do what they believe is right."

Idelson and other Hall of Fame executives appear wholly comfortable with the way its election system is set up to deal with the steroids question--and with the Hall's own solemn role as merely the vehicle by which the answers are displayed for eternity.

But there is something about the process that is beginning to make Idelson a bit uncomfortable: the demise of newspapers.

Since the Hall of Fame began inducting the game's greats in 1936, it has been left to the BBWAA -- traditionally, an association for newspaper reporters -- to decide who gets in and who doesn't. But with newspapers folding and downsizing across the country, the BBWAA is also facing a crisis of sorts. For example, whereas once the Los Angeles Dodgers beat was populated by as many as eight traveling beat writers, now it is down to two -- the Los Angeles Times and MLB.com.

In recent years, the BBWAA has begun including Internet writers from sites such as ESPN.com, Yahoo, Foxsports, CBS Sports and Baseball Prospectus, in an effort to remain relevant. But Idelson acknowledged the Hall is keeping an eye on the BBWAA's health

"In our opinion what's important is that there's a peer review by independent voters," Idelson said. "So if that industry continues to dwindle, and sportswriting changes, we'll obviously have to examine it. ... The process has worked so well it's sad to even contemplate it. But it's about being relevant. And we have to do what's appropriate."

By Dave Sheinin  |  May 12, 2009; 8:33 AM ET
 
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Comments

Nice article in Hardball Times last Friday on projecting the future for the Dodgers, other sports, and the HOF as a result of the Manny suspension. The author fantasizes that the Dodgers use the money to add salary down the stretch and win the world series, that people notice how football has so many extraordinarily large guys but does not suspend superstars due to drugs, and that the HOF voters recognize that the playing field was fairly level in the Steroid Era and eventually vote in some of the 'roid cases.

As the author observes, we let '60s pitchers in who pitched off of 18" mounds, scuffed baseballs, and were fueled by amphetamines. We recognize pitching records from the dead ball era, we recognize records from pre-integration era when the competition was artificially suppressed, etc . . . We can say steroids are bad, testing is better, and that violators should be punished without awarding Mike Greenwell the 1988 AL MVP because the original winner was Jose Canseco.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | May 12, 2009 12:28 PM | Report abuse

In addition to the steroid "wing", it would be nice if baseball would take away those MVP and CY Young awards from known steroids users and give them to the runners up. It might be a stretch to justify taking away Bonds' awards at the moment, but they can certainly take away Caminiti and Canseco's.

Posted by: dclifer | May 12, 2009 12:32 PM | Report abuse

For instance, professional cycling takes away the Tour de France titles of proven dopers and gives to the runners up. So does the Olympic committee.

Posted by: dclifer | May 12, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

What about the geezers and their greenies? Don't go asterisking up the juicers until you also take into account their antecedents in better-living-through-chemistry.

Posted by: HardyW | May 12, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Seen with the perspective of time, the Hall of Fame already has it's share of alcoholics and racists, and probably gamblers as well. The "acceptance" of these character issues has changed with the perspective of time.
But PED's are cheating the game, a character issue that should disqualify from the HOFin any time period.

Posted by: rick18 | May 12, 2009 1:39 PM | Report abuse

rick18

First we must examine why steroids help. If you are a high skilled players like a Bonds or Clemens you are going to be HOF calliber either way. Steroids are performance enhancers because they allow you to perform better at your training which leads to you producing at a high level for a longer time during the season. But if you dont have the skill or the motivation to take advantage of the enhancement level the drugs may give you then you will be no better off, in fact worse because of potential side affects. But just because you take them does not mean you are any more skilled than if you did not. You have to train harder and practice harder to benefit from them. Barry Bonds did not get more skilled from the cream and clear, he was able to train more and practice more without wearing down as fast. He was just as strong at the end of the seasons as he was in the beginning. Baseball is about skill more than size and speed. Steroids help them in their endurance through their training and the season. Thats the advantage. You see it when they get off of the steroids, they become injured. See bonds, canseco, McGuire, Giambi. All guys who were hurt the season after they quit taking steroids. Then compare them to Ken Griffey a guy who never took them. His body broke down before those guys who did.

Posted by: ged0386 | May 12, 2009 2:46 PM | Report abuse

I guess it makes you appreciate Aaron, not just for his HR record but for being able to perform at a high level for that long without taking steroids. He was around 20 seasons without steroids. I dont condone steroids but I think that sports that depends more on size ans speed have a more unfair advantage during compitition. Sports like football and track and field where the drugs gives you an advantage in training as well as during compitition. If you give a golfer or basketball player steroids will they really be better? No because they still have to have the skills more than the athleticism to stand out. In basketball you can be 7'1 on steroids with no skills and you will just be big. In golf if you give Tiger Woods steroids will he be able to sink a 30 foot put under pressure any better? I put baseball under the same catagory.

Posted by: ged0386 | May 12, 2009 2:56 PM | Report abuse

Since there seems to be a tendency towards leaning to give the Steroid Players a break of sorts, maybe this is the time to resurrect Pete Rose and make him eligible for the HOF. At least his stats are legit.

Posted by: interactingdc | May 12, 2009 3:10 PM | Report abuse

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