James is wrong, abjectly and unequivocally. True, the rule-breaking may have been ashamedly unenforced. But that does not allow players the right to cross the line every time a head is turned. Even if 80 percent of the players were doing it, even if every member of your team was juicing, even if you knew you would never get caught: In no way does this fail to lower the ethical standard to which every player should be held.
James’s final stab dovetails from his fifth point, in that the Commissioner’s edicts were never writ in law. Thus, without law, there can be no punitive damage. These primeval PED peddlers will go without suspension, never to be found guilty in the court of the Commissioner. But that does not remove the line, lapidary and clear, which separates the clean from the crook.
The Commissioner cannot punish those who used before 2004. But the Hall can.
James knows that humans are inherently forgiving creatures, that the aggrieved, through time and penance, will find a way to pardon the offenders. The blows of the crimes are lessened; with time, grievances take on a lighter tone.
Alas, those who used steroids will not have the luxury of selective forgetfulness. Why? Because the scope of their crimes are not up for judgment. One needs look no further than baseball’s history books, at the numbers that emote anger and questions, at the staggering emptiness of 70 and 362. Numbers imbue baseball with a certain sanctity. They are the game’s bedrock. But steroids jackhammered baseball’s history, bleeding it dry and burying the game’s honor in a landfill of syringes and lies.
Maybe there will be an asterisk, maybe not. And someday, I’m sure, sympathy will begin to curdle for these frauds. But they brought the lifeblood of America to its knees. They nearly ruined this country’s greatest institution, and jaded an entire generation of Americans.
In illuminating his thoughts on steroids, James was patient, measured, and lucid, a formula that has worked wonders for his reputation. Because he’s slow, he’s often right.
This time, though, I pray he’s wrong.