This weekend David Ortiz will become the 59th person associated with “steroids-era” baseball — covering the years from the late 1980s to early 2000s — to be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
That number should be higher. Worthy players like Barry Bonds, the game’s all-time home run champion, and Roger Clemens, one of the game’s finest power pitchers, should be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame too. But the record breakers have been cast aside for their suspected or confirmed connections to steroids and held to a different standard than their peers.
Baseball was not drug testing players back then, and beyond morality and the legal and health risks, there weren’t enough good reasons not to use.
The baseball writers who vote for the Hall of Fame honorees, in electing dozens of other players from the “steroids era” while scapegoating a handful of the generation’s greatest players, have established a curious demarcation line: You could be good, but not too good, on the juice. And likability counts.
Ortiz, a clutch hitter and fan favorite who led the Boston Red Sox to three world championships, is a worthy Hall of Famer who smashed more career home runs (541) than all but 16 other players in major league history. He was elected in his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility, finishing above the 75% threshold despite having inferior career stats to those of Bonds and failing a drug test in 2003. “Big Papi,” with his megawatt smile, saw his sins atoned or ignored.
The same can’t be said for Bonds and Clemens, surly antiheroes who fell short in their 10th and final years of eligibility and face an uphill battle getting elected through a veterans committee. A similar fate awaits steroid-tarnished star Alex Rodriguez, who hit the fourth most home runs (696) but who is poised to languish on the ballot.
The greatest players should be enshrined based on their merits. It’s disingenuous for Hall of Fame voters — or fans, for that matter — to look down on a few select players, decrying them for “cheating the game” while giving a free pass to others who were secretly doing the same things.
The hypocrisy is especially thick in the case of former commissioner Bud Selig, who was elected in 2016 through the Today’s Game Era Committee, even though his ostrich-like response to steroids aided their proliferation in the game.
Reading Selig’s Hall of Fame plaque is an exercise in omission. The words “steroids” and “performance-enhancing drugs” aren’t mentioned anywhere, not even to reference that testing was instituted during his tenure as commissioner.
The omission is fitting for the Hall of Fame’s plaque gallery, which in recent years has turned into a giant game of “did they, or didn’t they?”
The truth? We don’t know. We have no idea how many Hall of Famers from the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s used performance-enhancing drugs. But they all played when steroids were awash in the game. They all could have used them.
Baseball was not drug testing players back then, and beyond morality and the legal and health risks, there weren’t enough good reasons not to use. Players used steroids, synthetic derivatives of the male sex hormone testosterone, to build muscle and bounce back quicker from injuries. They used performance-enhancing drugs to secure contracts and remain in the majors.
FOMO, or fear of missing out, was a contributing factor to the madness. If your peers were using pills, creams and injectables to become superhuman and get rewarded with money and accolades — it’s likely to make you reconsider. We can all think we’d say no. And to their credit, lots of players did say no. But when generational wealth and baseball immortality hang in the balance …
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Steroid users were peppered throughout the league, obtaining the drugs through gyms, personal connections and a whisper network of their peers. Players who use them might suggest using to a friend or introduce friends to their source.
That was the case with star third baseman Ken Caminiti, who talked openly about his steroid use with fellow players and, following his Most Valuable Player season in 1996, began sending inquisitive players to his steroids supplier. That supplier, a high school buddy named Dave Moretti, has told me he ended up doling out performance-enhancing drugs to dozens of players.
Many of his clients weren’t All-Stars and Hall of Fame hopefuls. They were everyday players — middle infielders and middle relievers, fourth outfielders and aging players seeking one more chance at glory.
How many times did Bonds bat against steroids-using pitchers?
How many times did Clemens pitch against juiced hitters?
Many players will try anything if they think it will help them. Doctoring the ball. Filling bats with cork. Soaking their hands in gross substances. Banging a garbage can with a bat to tip off teammates about the incoming pitch. Wearing a gold thong to break out of a slump — you name it, it’s been done.
Steroids were a logical outcome for players looking for an edge. That edge carried some players all the way to Cooperstown.
I wonder if any enshrinees have thanked their steroid suppliers in their Hall of Fame speeches? It’s the right thing to do, after all.