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In baseball, trying to run from our errors

By Peter St. Onge

I was a rookie sports columnist 20 years ago when I wrote about another youngster – a shy baseball player from Oakland named Mark McGwire. He was 28 years old then, and he’d been hitting home runs for a handful of years already. But in May of 1992, he had 17 homers in his first 41 games, enough to gather a crowd around the batting cage on a May Saturday at Boston’s Fenway Park.

I wrote that day about McGwire being on the edge of something special. His once-skinny body was fulfilling the promise his broad shoulders had long ago made. Baseball was about to witness something it hadn’t seen before.

Fast forward eight years – a trip with my wife to San Francisco, where we saw McGwire in our hotel lobby. He was bigger then, of course, with arms as thick as my thighs, and like many, we wondered if that bulk might be less than naturally acquired. But when McGwire hit a long home run that night, we dodged those thoughts and roared from the stands.

This week, Hall of Fame ballots went out to more than 600 voting members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. On the ballot for the first time are Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, the biggest stars of their era, each suspected of using performance enhancing drugs. They join McGwire, who has been eligible for the Hall since 2006.

McGwire has made it easy for voters. He admitted in 2010 to using steroids during his career, including when he slugged a then-record 70 homers in 1998. Bonds, Clemens and, to a slightly lesser degree, Sosa, bring strong suspicion of drug use, but not quite certainty. That makes this year’s Hall of Fame election perhaps the first true referendum on baseball’s messy steroids era.

So what do some in baseball want to do about that?

Dodge it.

There’s a growing sentiment among baseball writers and observers that Clemens, Bonds, Sosa and eventually McGwire could and should make it into the Hall. The reasoning? Steroids and PEDs were so widespread in the 1980s, 1990s and early last decade that Hall voters should only elect candidates based on strong comparative performance vs. their peers (who probably also were using.)

Also, because we don’t know for sure who was tainted and who wasn’t, it’s fairer to just exclude the subjectivity of suspicion.

Problem is, a Hall of Fame election is an exercise in subjectivity. It’s a collective vote of baseball observers with varying levels of time spent observing baseball, and each with his own formula of statistics and non-statistics that determine the greatness of a baseball player. Suddenly we need court opinion on a ballplayer’s steroid use before we disqualify him?

Here’s what the Hall says: “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” Surely, the strong possibility of cheating fits somewhere in that subjective jumble of criteria.

Does that mean that non-users might get unfairly penalized? It may already be happening to Jeff Bagwell, the Houston Astro who is on the Hall of Fame ballot for the third time but is dogged by suspicion based on little more than his having big muscles during the PED era.

It’s unfair. It’s messy. But consequences aren’t always fair, and they are rarely tidy. Instead of facing them, however, we’ve become as adept at avoidance as we were at ignoring the problems in the first place. We rue the financial irresponsibility that plunged us into a recession, yet chafe at rules that might protect us from the same behavior again. We clamor about the growing debt Washington has allowed to threaten our country, yet howl when the prescription involves pain for people or programs we favor.

Baseball – and that includes its players and fans – decided long ago that it preferred to look up at towering home runs than at the reasons why they were coming so frequently. Now our bill has arrived – the best players of a generation are locked out the building that recognizes them. It’s messy. It’s unfair to some. It’s difficult for the sport we love. And we deserve it.

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