Including the Excluded: The Hall of Fame, Steroids, and the Summer of ’98

A couple days ago, the Baseball Writers Association, for the first time since 1996, elected not to elect anyone to the Hall of Fame this year. It did not come as a shock to anyone; after all, the men up for election – Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds – were either suspected or admitted performance-enhancing drug users. These are not the first suspected dopers to be denied entrance, and they won’t be the last. But one must consider: is this really necessary? This generation of players just happened to play in an era where steroid use was not only commonplace, but for a good amount of time swept under the rug, perhaps even encouraged. One must also consider what these men did for baseball while they played. In our exceedingly attention-deficit society, we all crave action constantly. It seems the number of people who appreciate the sacrifice bunt, the hit-and-run or the pitcher’s duel is dwindling. But these men who were denied entrance – and a few who have already been denied, namely Mark McGwire – carried the sport on their broad, possibly enhanced, shoulders. And we all supported it.

The summer of 1998 was probably the last magical season baseball ever had. The game still had its innocence. Players did well without suspicion. Now whenever a player does well, he is automatically assumed to be on steroids (Jose Bautista as Exhibit A.) But in 1998, we watched the game with child-like enthusiasm as two Goliath’s slammed their way toward the single-season home run record. McGwire and Sosa, of the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs, respectively, battled their way toward the mark of 61 set by Roger Maris in 1961. Every newspaper in the country had the “on this day” square to compare the numbers of the three at a given point in the season. But eventually, this square became unnecessary. On September 8th, McGwire came into the night tied with Maris at 61 homeruns. With over 20 games left, the question was not if he would break the record, but when.

There are moments in one’s lifetime when we remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when something happened. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first heard of the terrorist attacks on September 11th (8th grade science class, about to watch “Bill Nye the Science Guy”.) I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when Mario Chalmers hit the Shot Heard Round the World in the 2008 championship game (at a friend’s apartment on 11th and Louisiana in Lawrence, praying for a miracle.) And I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I watched Mark McGwire achieve history. I had just gotten home from baseball practice after getting a lift from my good friend Charles and his father. The game was on TV and I, ever the avid fan, knew exactly what was going on. My father waved me over and said, “Hey, you’re just in time.” It was almost as if we knew he would do it on this at-bat. I watched as he cranked a line drive down the left field line, and it barely disappearing over the fence. I leapt for joy just the way Mark did as he trotted his way around the bases. The genuine excitement he felt as he picked up his son at home plate was felt by all fans everywhere.

But that’s not the way we perceive it now. In the minds of most, there are asterisks all over that historical season, as with so many others in a given player’s career. If we had our choice, Hank Aaron would still be the home run king, and Maris would still be the single-season title holder.

These men used steroids. There is no doubt. They could be seen by everyone, almost like it was on display, on the top shelf in McGwire’s locker. But let’s think about this for a moment. As fans, we harbor suspicion of everyone now. If I were to conduct a poll, I believe everyone asked would estimate 90 percent of players at least dabbled with steroids during the PED era, which has been labeled as being between 1989-2010. A number that high never seemed so fathomable. But consider: 90 percent of players. This would include pitchers, yes? Not to sully the good man’s name, but how do we know for sure the pitcher who gave up homerun number 62 to McGwire wasn’t on steroids as well? To me, the playing field was level. Do we discredit any of Ruth’s numbers because he never had to face Satchel Paige, or any other black player not allowed in the major leagues? To me, it was just the mark of an era. I guarantee guys like Ty Cobb, Joe Jackson, or Jimmie Foxx would have used steroids had they played in the 90s.

If everyone was doing it, then why do we take away from the accomplishments of those who just did better than all the rest? Steroids don’t help you hit a curveball, they don’t magically help your hand-eye coordination, and they certainly don’t make the bat bigger.

I’m not championing steroid use. I’m not trying to defend those who used them to get an “edge.” It was just the mark of an era. Even Craig Biggio didn’t get enough votes purely because he played at the same time as these guys. Still, McGwire and Sosa, two of the classiest athletes to ever be involved in such a frenzied, media-hysteric competition, revived baseball that summer. Four years removed from a strike that cancelled the World Series, fans still watched with skeptical optimism. But those two brought the fans to the ball park in droves. They brought the edge-of-your-seat thrill back to the game. However, they are not honored for their accomplishments of that season. Rather, they are viewed with distain and disgust. Consider though: if everyone was doing it, shouldn’t that equal a level playing field? I think so. The old-timers won’t like it, but to me, the competition of each era of a given player was fair and balanced. Give McGwire, Sosa, Bonds and Clemens their due. They deserve a plaque in the Hall.

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