Manny Ramirez retired over the weekend. This in and of itself is pretty noteworthy to me, since Manny is among many players whose monumental debuts and stratospheric heydays I remember. So to me, Manny hanging up his spikes serves as another signal of the relentless march of time. Baseball!
Of course, Manny’s retirement is made even bigger by the fact that he did so to avoid a second suspension for PED use. The immediate reaction among most fans and writers was that this was an intensely stupid thing to do, and that retiring instead of taking his medicine (ahem) was a chump’s exit, both of which I agree with to an extent.
Many also feel Manny’s legacy is irreparably tainted, and that this means no Hall of Fame for him. This may be true, considering the generally old-school views of HOF voters, but probably shouldn’t be.
Sooner or later, somebody who either tested positive for PEDs or admitted to using them is going to get into the Hall of Fame. Maybe Andy Pettitte. Maybe Alex Rodriguez. Maybe Mark McGwire. It will happen, and once it does, it’s going to be virtually impossible to argue that some PED users are more guilty than others. To do so requires verbal and logical gymnastics that no one is mentally limber enough to perform.
Case in point: The Manny news prompted Bill Simmons to tweet, “How roided up was Manny during his crazy ’08 Dodgers run? Had to be on par with Ivan Drago or Arnold in Predator, right?” Maybe, but who’s to say he wasn’t just as “roided up” when he played for Boston? Simmons (who is a Red Sox fan; I’m not sure if everyone’s aware of that) is assigning a blemish to Manny’s time with the Dodgers, while implicitly saying that Manny’s years with his own favorite team are untainted.
We’ve already seen Hall of Fame voters do essentially the same thing. The matter of Barry Bonds getting into Cooperstown is seen as so beyond the pale, it isn’t even discussed. But when Andy Pettitte retired, his chances to get into the Hall were soberly discussed, with his use of HGH mentioned only in passing, if at all.
It may seem ridiculous to put Pettitte and Bonds in the same sentence when it comes to PEDs. But is it, really? They both have the same level of “guilt,” which is being named in the Mitchell Report. Neither ever failed a drug test. There are a few differences, of course. Pettitte publicly admitted to using PEDs (after being caught), whereas Bonds never has. The other big difference is that Pettitte is well liked, and Bonds is a horrible human being. But if we’re going to keep terrible people out of the Hall of Fame, we’d have to retroactively kick out some of the best players ever (Ty Cobb being one huge, racist example).
And if we’re going to keep every “steroid cheat,” real or imagined, out of Cooperstown, we’re going to have some very lean Hall of Fame classes in the years to come. In the last HOF vote, Jeff Bagwell just missed out on induction in his first year of eligibility, despite some Hall-worthy stats, because there have been whispered accusations of PED use about him. He’s never been seriously accused, never failed a drug test, was not named in the Mitchell Report, and yet the vague notion that he may have done something at some point in his career was enough to keep certain voters from selecting him. How is this kind of lunatic reasoning better for baseball than possibly letting in a “cheater”?
The current sanctimony on the part of writers is a far cry from how steroids were discussed at the height of their use. While working on The 1999 Project and In The Year 2000 the last few years, I’ve pored over hundreds of articles written about baseball during those two seasons. You know how many times those articles mentioned PEDs? Zero. Not once. At the absolute zenith of steroid use in baseball, no one in the press was talking about it. In fact, when Steve Wilstein noted the unpleasant fact that Mark McGwire kept androstenedione in his locker during that “magical summer” of 1998, he was roundly criticized–most loudly by his fellow reporters.
The retroactive outrage was spurred in large part by Jose Canseco’s tell-all tome, but Barry Bonds was a huge factor as well. It wasn’t until Bonds, a player everyone outside of San Francisco hated, “threatened” sacred home run records that writers got concerned. In order to take steroids seriously, reporters needed to find a target who they enjoyed digging up dirt on, and who the public would enjoy seeing torn down. Then, for good measure, they ripped McGwire for being a “cheat” to atone for enabling him years earlier.
If you want to keep all PED users out of Cooperstown, I don’t agree with that stance, but I understand it. I find that point of view much more acceptable than the Animal Farm route, where some PED use is more equal than others. Jumping through hoops to explain why a certain player’s “cheating” is more acceptable than another’s is just shorthand for I LIKE THIS GUY BETTER THAN THAT GUY. And if that’s how you want to play the Hall of Fame Voting Game, just own it, rather than trying to justify it through flowcharts and moral calculus.