Imagining Hall's post-steroid era
The 2033 World Series was perhaps the greatest ever, right down to the last, unforgettable swing: Victor Jose Martinez launched a Game 7 walk-off home run onto Waveland Avenue, as his father — the former All-Star catcher — watched from the box seats at New Wrigley Field. The Chicago Cubs vanquished the Cleveland Indians to win their first world title in 125 years.
“Took me a little longer than in Boston,” quipped Theo Epstein, the 59-year-old club president, after breaking his second curse. “But I’m so fortunate to have worked for two of the most patient owners in sports — Tom Ricketts and Eddie Vedder.”
Chicago Mayor Ozzie Guillen wore a Cubs hat during the Michigan Avenue parade, claiming political victory because he had, in his words, “strongly advocated for” a new stadium since the early 2000s. Many Cubs fans didn’t know quite how to celebrate, having had their hearts broken in 2003, 2007, 2008, 2015, 2017, 2019 … and a few more times after that.
One man from Northbrook, Ill., observed the historic championship in a fitting way: He took his 12-year-old son to the Baseball Hall of Fame. They drove, which gave them plenty of time for a man-to-man talk. Good thing, too. There was much to discuss.
“Hey Dad,” the boy said as they crossed the Indiana state line, “What does it take to be a Hall of Famer?”
At one point in baseball history, that answer was straightforward. Cooperstown was meant for the greatest of the great: Ruth and Gehrig, Williams and DiMaggio, Mantle and Mays, Robinson and Robinson, Ripken and Ryan.
Baseball writers covered the games, talked with the players, looked at the numbers … and often listened to their guts. The process was imperfect. But more often than not, the right players got in.
Then it all became impossibly complicated. In the 1980s — a half-century ago — steroids infiltrated the game.
To this day, no one knows for certain who took performance-enhancing drugs and who was clean. The problem festered for years, until a suspension-enforced program began in 2005 and reversed the trend. Baseball has tried to preserve a level playing field ever since, with testing programs for HGH and restrictions on innovations brought about by genetic engineering. But none of the measures restored credibility to the steroid era, which began in the late 1980s and continued into the first years of the new century.
Steroids had a substantial impact on Hall of Fame voting beginning in 2007, when slugger Mark McGwire appeared on the ballot. McGwire was viewed as a likely Hall of Famer during his playing career, particularly when he hit a then-record 70 home runs in 1998. But accusations of steroid use — ultimately confirmed by McGwire — prevented voters from embracing him.
McGwire was seen as a steroid-aided, one-dimensional slugger from an era in which steroid-aided, one-dimensional sluggers were commonplace. And so he was never elected.
But the task of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America became particularly difficult in 2013. That’s when Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens — proud superstars who stubbornly denied steroid use against strong evidence to the contrary — first hit the ballot.
At that point, the BBWAA could no longer equivocate about the steroid era while reviewing Lee Smith’s Hall of Fame résumé for the umpteenth time. Fortunately, before the ballots went out in the winter of ’12-’13, the writers found their way.
“That was a really important time in baseball history,” the father told his son, as they continued along I-90. “It was up to the writers to help the Hall of Fame stay relevant for the next generation. And they did the right thing.”
Finally, the organization faced up to its responsibility as the initial gatekeeper to Cooperstown. As the influence of newspapers in American society waned, to punt on such a privilege would have been foolish and self-defeating. The writers resolved to do what was expected of journalists on a very basic level — provide a thorough account of history using the information available.
So, in the months leading up to the crucial ’12-’13 ballot, a number of conscientious voters agreed on two key points that guided the consideration of players from the steroid era.
… The full name of the brown brick building in Cooperstown is the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The BBWAA thought about its obligation to the “museum” and how strange it would be if there were no mention of Bonds, Clemens and Alex Rodriguez among the game’s all-time greats. The writers realized that — while Bonds and Rodriguez clearly made poor decisions — young baseball fans would expect to see plaques for the top two home-run hitters of all-time. (A museum that tells only part of the story is not a credible museum.)
… The writers decided they would apply a different standard to players — particularly hitters — from the steroid era. When steroid use was at its most rampant, in the 1990s, it became easier for players to muscle up and hit scores of home runs. Huge power numbers in the ‘90s and an abrupt retirement when the testing program came into play in ’05 did not constitute an elite career. It aroused suspicion.
A comprehensive plan arose from those basic ideas. The truly great players — such as Bonds, Clemens, Rodriguez and Mike Piazza — were enshrined. Those who fell short after 15 years on the ballot — like McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Rafael Palmeiro — were eligible for a separate steroid era exhibit, as determined by a committee of writers, players, baseball officials and Hall of Fame representatives.
So, whether on the plaque or in the exhibit, it was noted when a player (a) admitted to using steroids, (b) tested positive for PED use, or (c) was deemed to have used PEDs by a court of law.
It wasn’t a perfect solution. But it was the best one, maintaining the Hall’s exclusivity while being as forthright as possible about what occurred during the period. More drastic measures (“no one from the steroid era should get in”) and naïve fallacies (“good guys didn’t use steroids”) were equally unrealistic approaches.
“I kind of understand,” the young Cubs fan said after hearing the explanation, “but it still doesn’t seem fair to me.”
“Well, you’re right. It’s not entirely fair,” his father told him as they pulled off the interstate. “Players who cheated got into the Hall of Fame. That doesn’t mean it’s OK for you to cheat. The mistakes they made are mentioned right on their plaques. In some ways, that gives them more accountability than if they had been ignored altogether. Their names are here — listed with their achievements and flaws — because we need to understand the history.”
It wasn’t easy for the BBWAA to determine the future of baseball’s past. The electorate included voters of varied ages, backgrounds and regional biases. But they were able to agree on a simple idea: To remain legitimate, the Hall had to recognize on-field excellence while putting context behind the numbers.
In retrospect, the 2013 ballot was a turning point. Rather than grow frustrated with the process, the voters embraced their role in explaining the steroid era. The end result was a Hall of Fame that has aged well — and a thought-provoking place worth driving 12 hours to see. Cubs fans, of all people, have understood how to soak in the good while accepting the bad.
So it made for the perfect father-son journey in the fall of 2033, a chance to learn more about baseball, about life, and about how to pick the fairest solution from a collection of imperfect options.
And as they bought tickets — $40 apiece, because inflation in the 2020s got a little out of hand — they noticed someone in a Cubs hat just ahead of them, who had made the same pilgrimage for perhaps a different reason. He wore glasses, a green turtleneck, and an awkward contraption on his head that the boy had never seen before.
“What’s that?” the 12-year-old whispered.
His dad smiled.
“Son,” he said, “that is a Walkman.”