Karma can be delicious when served on a sports dish. Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Rafael Palmeiro played a combined 8,171 regular-season games over the course of their long and celebrated careers. The number of World Series games they combined for? Seven. (All of them by Bonds, four of them losses.)
This Wednesday’s announcement of the 2013 class of inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame will stir more debate, discussion, and dissent than any such topic not centered on Pete Rose. Do players — like Bonds, Sosa, Palmeiro, and Roger Clemens — associated with baseball’s steroid era get a pass for the game’s highest individual honor if their career achievements are so grand the cheating can be viewed as incidental? (Which begs the question, is any cheating incidental?) How exactly do the Hall voters — members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) — distinguish between allegations (in the cases of Bonds, Clemens, and Sosa) and cases where a player was actually caught in the act (Palmeiro)? Most complicated of all, can voters be certain candidates for the Hall with less metaphorical smoke near their cases (Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell) never juiced?
It’s an impossible shell game, really. And I continue to deliberate over a uniform policy the Hall (and BBWAA) should adopt for stars that inflated their achievements with chemical boosters. I’ll say this: As long as Rose is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame and O.J. Simpson remains in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, ambiguity over what qualifies a former athlete for recognition will be the uncomfortable but necessary norm. (Side note: Whether or not Simpson killed two people, he’s a documented abuser of women. In my mind, a worse human being than any career steroid hound.)
There’s a component to the Hall of Fame those most passionately against the inclusion of steroid cheats must consider: The Hall is a repository of baseball history (really, nothing more) and should include the game’s entire history, however dark one era may seem in reflection. There are Hall of Famers whose numbers benefited from rosters watered down by World War II service. (And Hall of Famers like Ted Williams whose numbers would be that much greater had they not served overseas.) Needless to say, Cy Young would not have won 511 games had he not pitched for 22 years during the game’s “Dead Ball” era. And that’s the point: baseball eras come and go. They all have heroes and villains. And they all have — or should have — Hall of Famers.
So yes, I’d consider the ’Roid Rogues for Hall of Fame induction. Three of them — Bonds, Clemens, and Palmeiro (one of only four players with 3,000 hits and 500 home runs) — absolutely belong on a bronze plaque. But I’d have two qualifiers for my vote if I were selecting players to be displayed at the most famous sports museum in America:
• No election in the first year of eligibility. Some would say there’s no difference between a first-ballot Hall of Famer (like Ernie Banks) and a player who has to wait decades to get in (like the late Ron Santo). Those people aren’t paying attention. First-ballot selection is for the players you only need one name for: Ruth, Mantle, Mays, Aaron, Musial, Ripken. Their plaques should feature a distinguishing star. No player with serious steroid “smoke” near his name gets a vote on the first ballot.
• Plaques for players under a cloud of suspicion should say as much. A child gazing at Barry Bonds’ image 50 years from now might read the following: “Seven-time MVP, 14-time All-Star. Most career home runs (762) and walks (2,558) at time of retirement. Hit at least 30 home runs and stole at least 30 bases in five different seasons. Eight Gold Gloves. Spike in power numbers after age 35 called into question as part of game’s steroid era.”
Make Bonds (and Clemens, and Palmeiro, and Sosa) wait at least a year, to further consider the legitimacy of their astonishing statistics. For now, vote for Craig Biggio (3,000 hits, all in an Astros uniform) and Jack Morris (most wins in 1980s and a member of championship teams in Detroit, Minnesota, and Toronto). Every year needs a Hall of Fame class, clean or otherwise. As long as Pete Rose remains on the outside looking in, spare me the morality wall. It’s a history museum. A wonderful, inspiring history museum. But nothing more.