Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Charlie Pavitt: Steroids and the Hall of Fame

This guest post is from occasional contributor Charlie Pavitt. Here's a link to some of Charlie's previous posts.


I am writing today about a much-discussed topic, performance enhancing drugs and Baseball Hall of Fame enshrinement. My goal is not to defend a particular opinion about it, but rather to attempt to lay out five possible positions and some strengths and weaknesses each has. In fact, one reason why I will not defend a particular opinion is that, given these strengths and weaknesses, I am torn among several of the options.

But before I start, a few preliminaries. First, research of which I am aware provides strong evidence that steroid use significantly increases offensive performance, whereas there is little if any evidence that human growth hormone has any impact.

Second, none of this is new. Ancient Greek athletes took then-known stimulants before competitions, and nobody back then batted an eye.
Third, one must be careful throwing rocks when one’s own house could potentially, in a different context, be made of glass. When I was in graduate school, if someone had come to me and whispered, "Hey man, I have this pill you can take every day that will make you read, write, and think more quickly and efficiently," I would have been sorely tempted to partake.  In fact, one of my grad school cohort-mates imagined a situation in which you took a pill that provided you with the information you are supposed to learn from assigned reading, with lighter doses for undergraduate students and heavier doses for us grad students. Mighty tempting fantasy.
Fourth, and this is critical: Before throwing rocks, one needs to defend the claim that there is something wrong with taking performance enhancing drugs.  The fact that it may be illegal is, in my view, irrelevant, as many illegal items are not only harmless but helpful. For example, without getting into the marijuana debate, it is the case that any use of hemp has been illegal in some places, despite its many many positive applications. And taking something into the body to improve athletic performance is often a good thing. After all, a person can improve athletic performance by eating better, and perhaps taking supplements of necessary vitamins and minerals in moderation. So what’s the difference?  Here’s an argument for that difference; eating better and taking supplements in moderation promotes overall health whereas taking steroids (and overdosing on vitamins/minerals) does quite the opposite. The early deaths of many professional rasslers (I reserve the word "wrestlers" for the real sport), perhaps some football players (Lyle Alzado?), and two well-known baseball players (more on this later) has been linked with steroid use. 

One could then make the claim that it is the use of a substance that causes bodily harm that warrants rejection from the HOF. After all, the criteria for entry include "Integrity, sportsmanship, and character" along with "record, playing ability," and "contributions to the team(s) on which the player played."  

So, the argument continues, PED use is contrary to the former three criteria.  I think the best angle for this argument is that it sets the wrong example for others, particularly young people, whereas eating well and getting one’s vitamins/minerals sets the right example. Fair enough. But: Lots of HOF players were smokers or used chewing tobacco, and Babe Ruth certainly did not set a good dietary example by reportedly eating multiple hot dogs just before games.  And speaking of setting bad examples, if there is anybody enshrined who does not deserve it for absence of integrity etc., it is Adrian "Cap" Anson, who was proactive in the successful attempt to get Moses Fleetwood Walker, the first African-American major league baseball player, banned for the color of his skin.

So this argument leads to a slippery slope. But let us assume that we accept it.  Here are five possible responses, ordered from most lenient to most strict.

Position Number One: Let everyone in. The argument here is that great performers deserve entry no matter why they performed greatly. Buttressing this position is the seeming fact that until the public response to Jose Canseco’s confession among other events forced action, the powers-that-be in MLB’s establishment knew what was going on and intentionally turned a blind eye to it. After all, fans like offense, particularly home runs, and attendance was swelling, so all seemed right with the world. So if that was what baseball was in those days, goes the argument for this position, one must accept it and its great performers no matter what.  ne strength of this argument is that one must not make always-problematic non-performance-related judgments about players, as we will must for the other positions on this issue to be discussed in turn below.  The problem with this argument is that it is contrary to the "integrity, sportsmanship, and character" criteria, condones unhealthy behavior, and as such if anything encourages youthful copy cats.
Position Number Two: Let everyone in who deserves enshrinement independently of PED use. This implies that one likely accepts Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens, and Barry Bonds, because if one mentally subtracts the PED-fed "value-added" part of their performance, they are still HOF material. But one rejects those who would not have reached performance criteria otherwise: Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro among others come to mind.  Perhaps this makes some sense, but one is still condoning bad behavior by allowing in known users while making questionable judgments about whose performance would have been "good enough" without PEDs.
Position Number Three: Ban known users. So Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez, and some others who reached supposed HOF performance levels are out. Also some who approached HOF levels and might otherwise deserve consideration (Miguel Tejada, Jason Giambi) get none. In so doing, we clear the deck of those guilty of poor integrity etc.  Also, it might allow us to consider those whose performance would have reached criteria in another era; think Fred McGriff, who hit as many homers as Lou Gehrig.  But what about those suspected of use? Take Jeff Bagwell for an example. Although there is no clear evidence of his use and he has steadfastly denied it, he did get a lot bigger fairly quickly, hit way more homers than anyone originally expected, and associated closely with the first known user alluded to earlier, Ken Caminiti, whose early death has been partly linked with use. If we lower our performance criteria to allow for McGriff, it also allows for Bagwell.  So now we’ve admitted someone who may have been as guilty as Bonds et al. but whose usage (if any) has not been publicly verified. Setting the in versus out boundary is a pretty questionable judgment call.
Position Number Four: Ban everyone either known or rumored to be users.  So Bagwell and Gary Sheffield and perhaps Juan Gonzalez if you think he reached HOF performance levels and maybe even David Ortiz are out, and Mike Piazza should not have been recently admitted. Now we know we’ve kept the HOF free of those with poor integrity etc. But at least in the U.S. court of law one is considered innocent until proven guilty. Take Jeff Bagwell.  Although he got a lot bigger fairly quickly, hit way more homers than anyone originally expected, and associated with a known user, there is no clear evidence of his use and he has steadfastly denied it. Again, setting the in versus out boundary is a pretty questionable judgment call.
Position Number Five: Not only ban everyone suspected, but kick out anyone currently in who is suspected. Now we are sure everyone in baseball had the proper integrity etc.  Out goes Mike Piazza. Further, and this is the second player I alluded to at the beginning of this essay, out goes Kirby Puckett.  Jose Canseco fingered him, plus the physical problems that ended his career along with those that ended his life along with his violent post-baseball behavior sure seem to be signals of steroid use. In addition, in a 2002 article, statistician Scott Berry calculated that Puckett’s jump from no home runs his rookie year (1985) to four his sophomore year to 31 his junior year was the most unlikely performance increase in the history of MLB, with an odds of one in 100 million, much greater than similar jumps made by other known or suspected users. But this is all indirect evidence, there are other explanations for all of it (maybe Kirby started taking his vitamins or radically changed his swing between the 1986 and 1987 seasons). And if we kick out Kirby, should we kick out Adrian Anson? (Actually, I think we should, but that’s a side issue here.)  How about Ty Cobb for his racism (to be expected, natural attitudes for a Georgian in his time)?  Babe Ruth for eating all those hot dogs? I do not believe I have heard anyone support this position, but I suppose someone could.
So – as I noted at the top, I am frankly torn among several of these options. If I had a vote, my heart would point me toward Position Three, but my head would tell me that it would be hard to rationally defend relative to some of the others (particularly Four). Anyway, I hope that I’ve laid out at least some of the arguments on either side well enough that readers can have an intelligent discussion about it and maybe even add some arguments to my list, and that those who are SURE that their position, whichever it is, is obviously correct think twice about its weaknesses along with its strengths.

-- Charlie Pavitt

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