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The dangers of dismissing the Steroid Era

Attempting to invalidate the history of the last 25 years risks alienating the fans who enjoyed it

Jim McIsaac

My earliest clear memory of a professional baseball game took place in a tent sale for housewares, of all places.

Hey, I didn't have a choice in the matter. I was 7 years old.

Fortunately, the proprietors had anticipated a lot of dudes in my situation, because somebody set up a 13-inch TV tuned to Game 4 of the ALCS between Oakland and Toronto.

Back then, the A's were my team. I followed the Sox because everybody else did, but the A's commanded my attention because they had all the guys who were fun to imitate in the backyard -- Rickey Henderson's deep crouch, Dave Stewart's intense glare, and just about everything associated with the Bash Brothers.

Jose Canseco stood out to me more than anybody else, which is how he became my favorite player. He recorded baseball's first 40-40 season as I started to understand numbers. Nobody on the White Sox created that much excitement, and nobody could cut that menacing of a figure at the plate (Frank Thomas would come along a year later).

And, at that Saturday afternoon tent sale, I literally couldn't recall anybody hitting a baseball the way Canseco teed off on Mike Flanagan. It's my first moonshot.

Now, this moment is supposedly tainted. The most notorious steroid user hits a towering home run, then celebrates with a fellow steroid user who went on to double in size and break Roger Maris' single-season home run record nine years later.

(That's another TV moment I won't forget. I skipped an SAT preparation class on the chance that Mark McGwire would hit his 62nd homer, and McGwire rewarded my decision with a line drive that just snuck over the wall in left.)

I can't feel bad about any of it, though. When I watch Canseco's SkyDome shot, I'm seeing the flecks of static from the 13" color TV next to boxes and boxes of, I dunno, spatulas? That's my nostalgia. It's still real to me, dammit.


I don't regret being a Canseco fan. In fact, I could argue that following Canseco while growing up is educational experience that results in finding better role models.

Moreover, if I had to do it all over again, I hope I wouldn't have avoided the A's. Maybe I end up writing a second-grade essay about Harold Baines' quiet professionalism, but chances are better that my interest in baseball is more casual. And if I didn't like baseball as much heading into 1994, perhaps I don't come back to it in 1995. A lot of White Sox fans sure didn't.

Looking back at the last 25 years, it's entirely possible a healthy chunk of the formative moments of my baseball life were assisted by steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. I can accept that, because it's not like I had any say in the matter. I had a bedtime.

The parties that did have pull didn't exercise it. Not the league, not the union, and not those who documented it. Over at Grantland, Bryan Curtis posted an excellent examination of the way the media turned a blind eye and/or a Vaseline-covered lens to the power explosion.

The relationship between reporter and subject was never more vivid than between 1988 and 2010. In 1988, a Washington Post columnist leveled the first serious charge of steroid use in Major League Baseball. In 2010, McGwire confessed his own use and put a period on the era. (Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez continued the story from there.) Below, I recount scenes from that span in the form of a detective story — one in which the detectives were brilliant, buffoonish, or thoroughly uninterested in the job. For baseball writers, this period is when innocence was lost, when their jobs changed forever. The Hall of Fame vote is not some new expression of professional grief. It is an echo.

Curtis provides a balanced look -- sympathetic because nobody would go on the record, and damning because of "the reporters' failure to write, 'This doesn't look right.'" For reasons valid and flimsy, everybody invested in the system made colossal judgment errors, and those errors went on to shape an era.

Except ... mistakes shape every era. Large or small, they're a major ingredient in context. Raising the mound was a short-lived change that was reversed, but Bob Gibson's 1.12 ERA still stands. The color barrier is a stain on human history, but there's never been a movement to expunge lesser early Hall of Famers for thriving in a limited talent pool. We try to reconcile, and we figure out how to adjust.


When it comes to the last 25 years, though, many Hall of Fame voters refuse to do either. There's a lack of enthusiasm for modern candidates, and it's especially prevalent in the group who didn't make their ballots public. It's presumed that a good number of these private ballots are from voters who aren't as engaged in the game as they used to be.

As a result, the voters are making the same mistake they made two decades ago by attempting to sanitize the game. For instance, here's Rick Morrissey boasting about his unwillingness to vote for anybody he thinks wasn't "clean," regardless of proof.

So I had a big, fat, chemically augmented "no’’ for Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro. And I had an agnostic "no,’’ if there is such a thing, for Steroid Era guys such as Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Luis Gonzalez and Jeff Kent.

I can’t emphasize this enough: I’m not sorry about any of it.

Don’t blame me for the people who didn’t get into the Hall. Blame an era. Blame the dirty players (and there were a lot of them) for creating an atmosphere heavy with distrust. Blame Major League Baseball if you think it was either complicit in the Steroid Era or looked the other way. I don’t care.

I get to vote how I want, for whom I want and by whatever yardstick I want. That’s how it works when you walk into a voting booth, isn’t it? You bring in all your experiences, opinions and prejudices. Same thing here.

Two particularly revealing aspects of this column:

No. 1: He blames an era, dirty players, Major League Baseball ... but not the media.

No. 2: He later writes, "I also don’t care that there has always been cheating in sports."

It's impossible to create an effective context with this rationale, especially because it discards one of baseball's strongest constants. Players have always sought an edge, whether it's taken the form of spitballs, corked bats, monkey testosterone, amphetamines or steroids. It's why Hall of Famers like Bob Gibson and Mike Schmidt couldn't say for sure that they would've made it through the 1990s untarnished, because their peers leaned on uppers for the same reason. The tools change, but the drive remains. If you don't rely on constants to inform your judgment of variables, you're just guessing. Then again, Morrissey is extremely satisfied with guessing, which isn't something a journalist should brag about.

So why do voters like Morrissey care so much about cheating now? There's the lingering embarrassment over being duped, and now they're vowing they won't get fooled again. But they can also disconnect themselves easily from the last 25 years because it's not their nostalgia -- and some may resent that their nostalgia was trampled by my nostalgia.


The end result poses a problem for the institution of the Hall of Fame, because it's in the nostalgia business. These voters may envision nobility by summarily discounting or dismissing the Steroid Era, but while they're doing that, they're also throwing out the Era In Which Baseball Fans Younger Than 35 Developed Their Love And Understanding Of The Game. That's not valiant -- that's irresponsible, and maybe even dangerous.

Perhaps this situation will resolve itself, but the current conditions that determine the electorate aren't favorable. The voter base will always skew older and less engaged as long the BBWAA requires a 10-year membership minimum and allows all legacy voters to participate, regardless of interest.

That means the motives between the voters and fans have never been further apart, and the Hall is supposed to serve the latter. There's a sizable contingent of Houston fans in a holding pattern because voters are still stinging from the embarrassment of fawning coverage about non-Astros 15 years ago. They want to make sure Craig Biggio or Jeff Bagwell won't make them look stupid, and the same goes for Mike Piazza and Edgar Martinez and every other player for whom a clean enough narrative can't be constructed. These shoddy forensics are messier than the real deal.

The last 25 years (not the Steroid Era) can't be corrected. Given that the previous generations of cheaters have avoided such retroactive judgment, it'd be more consistent if voters stopped assuming guilt where tangible evidence didn't exist. Let the last 25 years be the last 25 years, and future observers will adjust. Current fans shouldn't be punished for enjoying baseball since the late 1980s. Many of us had no other option. It's the only history we have, and it's just as valid as the rest.