More Bonds Thoughts

So, I wanted to go a little bit deeper into my thoughts on Barry Bonds -- we begin with the comments from Brilliant Reader Shagster:

Bonds and Clemens chose to cheat. Then they made even worse choices to hide it. Like the rest of us they have to live with the consequences of their choices. Based on their paychecks, I think they’re still ok with it. The story of their choices, and the consequences of those choices, is told every day they are not in the Hall. Heck, by you.

Once you or some other silly writers put them in, then they stand as a record, and how they got there goes away. Don’t take my word for it;. Ask King Tut how it works. Entombed. Enshrined. (Enigma). Remind me again the names of all those other pharaohs?

Said another way. Lets put the kid who cheated and became valedictorian ahead of the kid who worked his ass off/was simply smart. Once first kid was caught, he trashes the teachers and kids around him. Hey, a 4.0 is a 4.0! Amazing! ... Kid gets to remain valedictorian?

Should we cry any tears for Bonds and Clemens? You can try to make it so, but there is no requirement that they be enshrined in the Hall. They made choices. There are consequences. ... In terms of the their relevance to baseball, as it stands their story is told every time it is pointed out that they are not in, I think most of us are ok with it too. Sure beats enshrining them for it. Some fair points in here (though I immediately thought of Ramses as the most famous Pharaoh) but what struck me about this is something larger than a point-by-point disagreement. It’s something I’ve been trying to get my arms around for a while now ... this comment I think helped me focus on it.

I’ve think that many times in sports and life, we get into arguments and it never registers that we are not actually arguing about the same thing. This happens a lot in marriages. The argument rambles all over the place because the points of the debate have not been clarified. People will argue back and forth about a point that they generally AGREE upon because they can’t quite get to the point they DISAGREE upon.

This Clemens and Bonds in the Hall of Fame argument, I think, is a good example. I think Bonds and Clemens belong in the Hall of Fame. Shagster (representing the majority opinion, I think) disagrees with me. But where is the disagreement? Where specifically is the dispute?

The most obvious point of friction would seem to be about cheating itself. Shagster (and from here on I’m not referring specifically to Shagster but using him as a general opinion) might argue that he just has less tolerance for cheating than I do -- that this debate comes down to how seriously you take cheating. And let’s say up front it IS possible that Shagster has less tolerance for cheating ... but it’s also possible he doesn’t. I don’t like cheating. I don’t like cheaters. I get comically grumpy when I see people cutting in line. I don’t believe cheaters should get away with their cheating, and I certainly don’t believe they should be rewarded for their cheating. If Shagster and I disagree about the evils of cheating, then it’s a very small disagreement. I’m all for harsh punishments for cheating.

So,I don’t think that’s really where we disagree. Well, where else could the argument be? It could be about the specific KIND of cheating Bonds and Clemens did. There probably is a bit of divide on that one. Shagster -- and again, I’m referring to the overriding point of view and not Shagster’s specific opinion -- is that cheating at baseball in the 1990s is like other kinds of cheating, like cheating on a test. Shagster did explicitly compare Bonds and Clemens to the kid who cheats to get a 4.0 GPA.

And it’s true: I don’t think this cheating is quite the same. The kid who cheats to get the 4.0 GPA presumably s in a situation with clearly defined rules, harsh punishments and an unquestioned moral base. Cheating is seen as just about the worst thing he can do academically. There are mechanisms in place to catch him. If he’s caught, he will be thrown out of school. This is as close to a clear-cut world as we are capable of making.

Baseball in the 1990s was nothing like this. Bonds and Clemens did not “get away” with using PEDs (we are working on the assumption that they did). There was nothing to get away with. Nobody was trying to catch them. Even if someone had been caught by mistake, there were no defined punishments in place. This is my big problem with how people view the Wild Wild West show that was baseball then -- we have focused more or less all of our energy on the PLAYERS who cheated. But in my view, the whole game was broken.

1. Steroids and other PEDs were accessible. 2. There was no testing in place so the chances of getting caught were tiny. 3. There were no explicit rules and no punishments in place even if they did get caught. 4. By choosing NOT to use PEDs they were accepting the probability that they were going to face a huge and perhaps insurmountable disadvantage. 5. There was little-to-no peer, media or public pressure to not use steroids.

Under these conditions, there’s no surprise that players used. If we would somehow find out that 90% of players used PEDs of some kind, I would just kind of nod and say, "Yeah, sounds about right." If there’s a road in America where people KNOW there are no highway patrolmen, many people after drinking would use that road. If there’s some special hotel where people KNOW they won’t get caught, many people would pay exorbitant room rates and cheat on their spouses. If there was a secret way on the Internet to manipulate ATMs and get free money with no chance of anyone finding out, many people would rob banks.

That’s not to downplay how wrong it is to drink and drive, how immoral it is to cheat on your spouse, how criminal it is to rob a bank. In the end if you get caught, you will pay a price. But the system was broken ... even more than the extreme examples I offer because I think there was tacit ENCOURAGEMENT for players to use PEDs before the public knew or cared.

But to our larger point ... I don’t think this is where our disagreement lies either. We might disagree on division of blame for the PED mess but I do think the evidence points to Bonds and Clemens cheating. And I have no problem at all with there being consequences for their cheating. If those consequences are tainted legacies, so be it.

So where is the real disagreement?

Let me throw out a third possibility. The Hall of Fame -- and by Hall of Fame, I’m referring specifically to the plaque room of the greatest players -- can be thought of as different things.

The Hall of Fame exists to honor the best players ever.

The Hall of Fame exists as a historical record of the best players ever.

These two sound alike, but they are two different statements. When it comes down to it, I think this is the core of our argument. Shagster thinks the Hall of Fame is the first thing. And I think the Hall of Fame is the second thing.

Most of the time, the concepts of identifying the greatest players and honoring the greatest players do not conflict. Take Greg Maddux. He will get inducted this summer, and this is both a historical marker (designating Maddux as one of the greatest pitchers of all time) and a great honor (celebrating Maddux for being so awesome). In his case, it doesn’t matter because he’s so deserving of both. The tension comes when you have a player who is clearly one of the best ever but who has done something that makes him (in many people’s minds) undeserving of the honor that goes with the Hall of Fame.

This is the case with Bonds and Clemens. As players, no matter how many value points you want to take off for PED use, Bonds is one of the greatest everyday players and Clemens is one of the greatest pitchers. At the same time, if you believe they used PEDs, then you may strongly believe they simply don’t deserve the honor of going into the Hall Fame.

The Shagster thinking puts the honor first. They don’t deserve to be rewarded so they don’t go in.

I put the history first. They are all-time great players and should be recognized as such in the Hall of Fame.

Of course, nothing is black and white. I’m well-aware that the Hall of Fame is a great honor -- the greatest honor many have called it -- and I’m not 100% comfortable with Bonds or Clemens (or Pete Rose, for that matter) being up there on induction day and having teary-eyed reminiscences about their baseball lives.

But I think the history is the main reason for the Hall of Fame to exist -- otherwise, why would you induct people 50 or 75 years after they’re gone? The Hall of Fame, in my view, should feature the greatest players in baseball history; and as people who love baseball we should work hard to identify those players, even if they spent their careers in the Negro Leagues or in Japan or in the 19th Century. Some of them were wonderful people. Some were crummy people. Some cheated to get ahead. Some played with the utmost sportsmanship. Some sullied the game. Some defined the game. I think if they were the very best players, they should be remembered as such.

And I think that’s the disagreement. I expect a pretty overwhelming majority of people disagree with me; they see the Hall of Fame as an ultimate reward for a game well played and a baseball life well lived. I suspect if we were starting all over again, someone like Cap Anson would not get elected because of his role in segregating baseball. I imagine Ty Cobb would get elected but at a much lower percentage than the 98.2% he received because Cobb was a tough character. I imagine Gaylord Perry would not get elected, seeing how he used spitballs, and Don Sutton and Whitey Ford might have some trouble with their scuff-balls, and Mickey Mantle might get dinged for trying steroids in 1961 and so on. And if somehow we would get at the truth, I imagine we would find a surprising number of players in the Hall of Fame who used PEDs to improve their games.

I’m not saying this stuff doesn’t matter. It does matter. I’m not saying it isn’t cheating. It is cheating.

I’m saying that to me the Hall of Fame plaque room should reflect the real story of baseball and not some fairy tale we tell ourselves. As long as people have played baseball people have cheated. They have corked bats and spit on baseballs and spread vaseline on baseballs and mixed dried monkey testicles in their drinks and popped amphetamines and used steroids and wired elaborate methods of stealing signs and play acted to fool umpires. If there’s a way to cheat, players find that way.

I don’t want Bonds and Clemens and even Rose in the Hall of Fame because I think their character merits it. I think they should be in the Hall of Fame because they were among the greatest players in baseball history. If you see the Hall of Fame, first and foremost, as a reward ... then sure, I understand exactly why you don’t think Bonds and Clemens belong. It seems pretty clear to me that this is the place where we disagree. We see different Baseball Halls of Fame.