I have just mailed in my Baseball Hall of Fame ballot and while several of the names on it required some thought--Mike Piazza (yes) and Don Mattingly (no), for instance--a few were no-brainers. I am speaking of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro.
I voted for all of them.
Not that any of them will be elected to Cooperstown, of course. Sportswriters, and I have been one my entire working life, tend toward great moral judgments and just as they guarded the sanctity of Cooperstown against the threat posed by Pete Rose, they can be counted on to do their duty against the scourge of steroids represented by Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, McGwire and Palmeiro.
They cheated, you see. They used illegal drugs and lied about it. They gained an unfair advantage over their opponents. They threw the record book into disrepute. They sullied the game. They played fast and loose with the affections of the fans. They should be forgotten or ignored.
I have a different view.
I believe the steroid generation of players, of which these five players are among the most conspicuously accused, may well have saved baseball. I also believe these players' greatest achievements will outlast not only their careers, but their lifetimes.
Those of us who covered baseball during the strike that wiped out the 1994 playoffs and World Series well remember how bitter the players, owners and fans were then, and how dire the outlook for the game's immediate future seemed. We also remember how the home run battles between Sosa and McGwire wiped away this bitterness in an instant and brought the fans running back to the ballpark in forgiveness and delight. Bonds' assault on all-time home run records in the seasons that followed was equally transfixing as was Clemens' age-defying march to 354 victories.
The owners and fans of the teams in San Francisco and St. Louis remember this period, too, and, if caught in a moment of candor, will agree that the modern ballparks in which their teams now play might not exist but for the civic excitement, which translated into civic funding, created by Bonds and McGwire. The Giants, who at one point had agreed to move to St. Petersburg, are today baseball's reigning dynasty and play in the most beautiful ballpark in the land.
I was in Chicago at the height of Sosa-mania and can testify to the jolt it gave that star-crossed franchise. Indeed, all of baseball benefitted mightily from the accomplishments of the steroid generation: new ballparks, record attendance, soaring franchise worth, huge television contracts. If, as we are told, dirty players threaten the very fabric of the game, why is it more popular than ever?
But weren't the home run pyrotechnics of Bonds, Sosa, McGwire and Palmeiro, so much flim-flam? Shouldn't the numbers they put up be marked not with asterisks but scarlet letters? Didn't they make a mockery of the game by tilting it so far in favor of it hitters?
Well, here's a funny thing. When, after much delay, baseball finally put a steroids-testing policy into effect, the majority of the first group to be caught (my memory tells me it was 10 out of 11) were pitchers, who have occupied their fair share of the suspended list ever since. So you could argue that Bonds, Sosa, McGwire, Palmeiro and the rest were simply leveling the playing field.
Are the players who took steroids, particularly after baseball adopted rules against it, blameless? Of course not, but I wonder where in the game's lily-white, indentured-servitude, amphetamine-dispensing past, we can find total purity. Speaking just to the matter of drug-abuse for the moment, here's former major-league pitcher and USC pitching coach Tom House in ESPN The Magazine:
"Enhancements have been around forever. In the '70s, it was greenies. I took greenies. Guys were launching them with wine and alcohol. A pitcher on our team in Atlanta was called in by our manager halfway through a summer and was asked, 'Are you taking greenies?' The pitcher said, 'No, Skip, I haven't touched one for two months.' The manager said, 'You better start because you're going to get released.'"
But this is, as I say, a losing battle. Bonds, Clemens and Sosa are on the ballot for the first time this year and though they would make the Hall of Fame's Class of 2013 the most distinguished in recent memory, they will not be in it.
McGwire, who is on the ballot for the seventh time, was named on only 19.5 percent of those cast last year (75 percent is required for election the Hall), his lowest percentage yet. Palmeiro, now in his third year of eligibility, was named on just 12.6 percent of the ballots last year.
Recently, McGwire, who will be the Dodgers' hitting coach next season, said in a radio interview with Dan Patrick that he wouldn't vote for himself if he had a Hall of Fame ballot.
So I guess I'll have to do it for him--and for Bonds, Clemens, Sosa and Palmeiro, too. I will leave it to others to turn backs on an entire generation of ballplayers, one includes some of the greatest ever to play the game. They say this is necessary to protect the integrity and good name of baseball. I say it is foolish, shortsighted and ungrateful.
Now about Lance Armstrong...
Ron Rapoport covered the Dodgers and Angels for the Times in the 70s, and wrote a sports column for the Daily News in the 80s and 90s. He was also a sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times for 20 years.
Photo: Walter Iooss/Sports Illustrated