Many people have written a lot more about the Hall of Fame voting than I will write today. But for the most part, the expansiveness of the literature has merely muddled the dialogue. The goal of this short post is to simplify and clarify this discussion.
The first step towards such a clarification is to realize that there are really two different discussions. The question of whether certain individuals deserve to be in the Hall differs from whether certain individuals should be in the Hall. This proposition, at first glance, seems counterintuitive. But it will become clearer as we explore this further.
Do Bonds and others deserve to be in the Hall?
Bonds, Clemens, Sosa and the other known cheaters do not deserve to be in the Hall.
Getting to this point first involves a decision on whether they actually cheated. Many philosophers have argued that their behavior did not constitute cheating for a couple of reasons. First, they argue that the high level of steroid usage during their playing days diminished any unfair advantage. The lack of enforcement in the era and the high usage supports this argument. After all, advantages disappear whenever a substance is widely available. Second, some argue that there is no clear link between steroid usage and performance. Some statistical support exists for this argument, but physics and medical studies greatly contradict this argument. In short, I dismiss this argument.
As I write more thoroughly in a forthcoming law review article, this positivistic stance is unsatisfying. There must be a moral component to the approach towards cheating in baseball, and this moral component should be reflected in Hall of Fame voting. Yes, usage was rampant. Yes, the rules were not enforced. But this still involved a moral choice. Players knew that their behavior was wrong, and yet they chose to behave in such a manner anyways. And they were rewarded handsomely for this immoral choice.
Since this is a blog on life in the minors, imagine that you are a Triple-A baseball player. We'll say you are an outfielder. You have similar skills to another outfielder in the organization. You choose not to use steroids; your teammate chooses to use steroids. Your teammate suddenly hits more homeruns, steals more bases, and covers more ground in the outfield. The team promotes your teammate while you continue to languish in the minors. Your teammate makes millions of dollars, maybe makes two All-Star teams, and enjoys pension benefits for his lifetime. You go home after a couple more years in the minors and struggle to find a job to feed your family.
This was the basic moral decision that thousands of ballplayers made. The players who chose to take steroids made an immoral choice. They benefited greatly from that immoral choice over the course of their careers, and they continue to benefit from that choice.
These cheaters should not be recognized any further for their tainted greatness. They should not win any more awards. The greatest of them should not be in the Hall of Fame.
Should Bonds and the others be in the Hall?
This is a separate and more difficult question to answer. While the cheaters do not deserve to be in the Hall, it is almost impossible to separate the cheaters from the non-cheaters. Where is the line drawn? On positive tests alone? On connections to performance enhancing drugs? All of these standards have their problems.
The era was so tainted with suspicion that it is difficult to label any player. Almost any standard will result in a plethora of false positives and false negatives. Thus, it's difficult to find any workable standard.
It might be best to look at history. Again, as I discuss thoroughly in my forthcoming law review article, organized baseball has a rich history of cheating. Previous pitchers who openly doctored baseballs have been admitted into the Hall. For instance, Gaylord Perry wrote an autobiography called "Me and the Spitter," and yet writers inducted him into the Hall. He achieved his greatness through known cheating. Even though his cheating involved an external manipulation in the form of ball doctoring instead of an internal manipulation in the form of body morphication, his achievements were similarly tainted. And yet he, and other traditional cheaters, have been admitted.
History thus supports the admission of these players into the Hall, even though they don't truly deserve such admission. Moreover, the lack of a workable standard supports such an admission.
At the end of the day, baseball writers must make a moral choice. Those that tell them to "get off their high horse" are simply wrong. Cheating is a moral issue. The players made a moral choice when they decided to use performance enhancers. The baseball writers must assess the effects of this moral choice when making their decisions.
Are the baseball writers then judging the players? Yes, in a way they are. Would many of the baseball writers have made the same choice as the cheating players had they been players? Undeniably so. But that does not make their current decision hypocritical, as it is a hypothetical discussion. One must instead deal with realities. The baseball writers are the ones to make the choice, and it must be a moral one.
Again, Bonds and the others do not deserve to be in the Hall. Even though this would be a retroactive reaction, deterrence supports such a retroactive reaction. At a basic level, it differs only slightly from stripping Tour de France titles from a certain cyclist.
For this reason, I would be more than fine with these players not being in the Hall. But because of the history of admitting other cheaters, and because of the lack of a workable standard, these players should probably still be admitted.
Maybe we'll give them a separate wing in the Hall, where they may forever congregate in a Hall of Shame.