The preeminent baseball thinker of his generation, the voluble Bill James, has never been known for his rapidity. He concocts his arguments, seeds through data, massaging the numbers until he can articulate the who-what-whys of the game of baseball. He is methodical, almost prudish, unwilling to compromise until he’s waited and tested and seen just how his argument holds up.
Thus, leave it to James to wait out the decade to opine on steroids, letting all the barking dogs settle before entering the discussion on the greatest scandal in nearly a century. Almost a decade after Sports Illustrated first aired the game’s dirty laundry, James has finally made his opinion known.
Surely, one would assume, James would renounce the needle-pricked players who turned a once-clean game into Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. Surely, as the harbinger of baseball’s numbers, James would swat down the insolence with which Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa bludgeoned the record books. Surely, these were cheats, and they deserved every ounce of scorn James deigned to heap upon them.
In his recent essay, “Cooperstown and the ‘Roids,” James delineates his thoughts on the staginess of these drug users. More precisely, he informs the readers why, and how, every tainted member of the Steroid Era will soon find themselves cakewalking through the halls of Cooperstown. Not Jim Parque, mind you, but those whose numbers were enough to merit consideration.
James lays out his case in a simple format, with five points on his Pentagon of Perfidy. All of these points, which are easily (and necessarily) rebutted, stem from James’s haunting, all-too-true claim that “steroids keep you young.”
Granted, you’d be hard-pressed to find an argument otherwise: With muscled bodies lasting well past their expiration dates, primes are extended. Youth is the golden calf of life – everyone is trying to reverse the steady brunt of time. It’s a natural human condition, and people will go to all ends to replenish the empty cup of their youth.
Even, James claims, if your tendons shred and muscles wither. And especially if it can be accomplished with drugs.
In a turn that would make H.G. Wells proud, James’s essay describes a sci-fi future, one we can “reliably” anticipate. Soon “everybody is going to be using steroids” (his italics), a fact that could turn Manny into Methuselah: once everyone is on steroids, “people will start living to age 200 or 300 or 1,000, and doctors will begin routinely prescribing drugs to help you live to 200 or 300 or 1,000.” All farcical science aside — and forgetting the fact that James seems to overlook anyone who would want to live an alternative, “normal” lifestyle — James’s utopia heralds the current crop of baseball cheats not as abjured scum, but as “pioneers.”
Technically, this jarring description would be correct: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a pioneer is “one who begins, or takes part in beginning, some enterprise, course of action … a forerunner.” These cons are certainly the ones who began the movement — we don’t know who Player Zero is, but we know that if the steroid movement continues then these current cozeners would have helped pave the way.
Both James and the OED seem to miss the fact that pioneers, colloquially, are wrapped in a moralistic blanket. Those who are considered pioneers (Neil Armstrong, Jonas Salk, Jackie Robinson) bore untold burdens and achieved their success for the good of others, not themselves. Granted, there was surely a part of Armstrong that sought glory, or Salk that sought profit, but these whims were drowned out by the valor with which they accomplished their goals.
But ‘roiders are not pioneers. To call them such is to sling mud on the legacies of those who cleanly achieved such heights. These are frauds, much like the earliest tax evaders, bank robbers, and on-the-take New Jersey mayors. No society will ever hold them in esteem.
Misnomers and misjudgments aside, James believes that the future inevitability of steroid usage will land “some players” in the Hall. Bonds, McGwire, Sosa — all will eventually be enshrined. Failing that, he believes that a player currently in the Hall will one day admit to being a card-carrying contributor to the Steroid Era. And when that day comes, the dominoes will begin to fall in the direction of inclusion: “Once some players who have been associated with steroids are in the Hall of Fame, the argument against the others will become un-sustainable.”
James’s lands his readership on a dichotomous, two-way street. On the one hand, baseball writers will preclude all steroid associates from the Hall. On the other, the steroid issue will become as immaterial as Lima Time. No room for gray, not in James’s mind. Once the first user is admitted, stigma is erased, and all others deserve fair shots.
Of course, this second point can’t exist without the success of James’s first point, that one will eventually make it in. Thus, we can move on to his third notion: History is forgiving. This is James’s most salient, sound argument; if justification is needed, look no further than the sympathy George W. Bush has encountered in only a few short months. In the case of these steroid users, future-America will see these druggies less as villains and more as victims. Perhaps they will have broken bodies. Perhaps they will have pleaded for forgiveness. Or perhaps, writes James, we will just look back on them like we see Pete Rose or Shoeless Joe Jackson.
Again, James’s future eludes reality. Rose maintains his sympathizers not because he came clean (á la Alex Rodriguez) but because he never bet against his team. Meanwhile, Jackson was acquitted of his crimes, and managed to bat .375 in the eight-game World Series. But it would be foolhardy to say those who used performance-enhancing drugs did so with the pennant in mind. To them, numbers were the endgame, and juiced egotism reigned supreme.
Nonetheless, by 2040, James says, the Hall will fall. The Baseball Writers’ Association of America will open its hearts to the (purportedly) poor, broken souls who have suffered long enough through the decades of purgatory. This claim, though, is nothing more than a toss-up.
By the middle of the century, those allowing the players in will be arguably the most aggrieved faction the Steroid Era. The Millenials and Generation Y’ers, looking back on the game they were raised on, will remember a false time filled with empty moonshots and surly, numbers-hungry money-grabbers. They will feel used, tricked by the arrogance of the Era’s “greats.” In all likelihood, once this generation comprises the bulk of the BBWAA, they will keep Cooperstown shut, repaying the vitriol and disdain with which many of their childhood “greats” played.
The rosy, forgiving future that James sees won’t come. A dour outlook, certainly – but a fair one. In spite of a future crop of baseball players speaking on behalf of their outlawed teammates – James’s fourth point, by the way – an entire generation of Americans will yoke steroid usage with Hall banishment.
But it won’t be easy enough for these writers to simply say “no.” They will have to unearth the Will Clarks, Frank Thomases, and Edgar Martinezes of the Era, those whose remarkable numbers were never buoyed by steroids and whose accomplishments were constantly overshadowed. Those who never earned the honors they deserved. Those who never cheated. On this sub-point, James is correct.
Still, in a final display of twisted logic, James puts forth a belief that those who cheated, well, actually didn’t. “Is it cheating,” James writes, “if one violates a rule that nobody is enforcing, and which one may legitimately see as being widely ignored by those within the competition?”
I’ve read this sentence dozens of times, and I’m still confounded. Perhaps it is because I’m still in the thralls of academia, but I can’t help but picture a fellow student using this excuse with his professor: “But, sir, you left the classroom, and since there was no way you could see if I had snuck notes for the test or not, well, it’s not really cheating, is it?”
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.