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Of the 1,069 propagandizing words sent Tuesday to Baseball Hall of Fame voters urging them to just say no to steroids, none encapsulated the museum’s winning combination of self-reverence and tone-deafness quite as blatantly as the six in which it called itself: “The most sacred place in Baseball.” If, by sacred place, the Hall means one in which racists, wife beaters, drunks, gamblers and purveyors of manifold moral turpitude otherwise are celebrated, well, Cooperstown is a shining beacon of divinity set upon a hill of hypocrisy.
It was funny, after all these years of waiting for the Hall to stake out officially a position it so obviously believed, to see it arrive in an email, cloaked in the signature of Joe Morgan, as if his imprimatur would imbue something so vacuous with a little gravitas. Instead, it felt desperate. The Hall sees the rising tide of support for steroid users among writers who increasingly believe that denying entry to the best players of an era would amount to whitewashing history. This does not dovetail with the image it cares to project.
The solution was to appeal to the group whose opinions the Hall clearly doesn’t respect. This year, the Baseball Writers Association of America asked the Hall to publicly release every ballot with the name of the writer who cast it. Transparency matters, and the BBWAA voted in favor of public accountability. The Hall rejected that overture, just as it had the BBWAA’s request for the ballot to be expanded beyond a maximum of 10 votes per year to address the glut steroid users’ muddled candidacies caused.
Which is what makes the opening paragraph of the letter so distasteful. In the very first sentence, Morgan proclaims, as if called to action, that he must “speak out about the possibility of steroid users entering the Hall of Fame.” One of two things is happening here. Either Joe Morgan doesn’t realize steroid users already have entered the Hall of Fame and is thus fundamentally disqualified from writing a letter like this because it would be positively embarrassing to let someone so ignorant speak on behalf of such a cause, or he is lying and obfuscating. The latter is likelier.
To start an impassioned plea for principled decision-making with disinformation is rather inauspicious. It doesn’t get any better. The crux of Morgan’s argument revolves around the choice made by players to better themselves. He repeats himself, at one point referring to “anyone who took body-altering chemicals in a deliberate effort” and later “the deliberate act of using chemistry to change how hard you hit and throw by changing what your body is made of.”
This is essentially correct. Steroid users took man-made products to change their body and help themselves play the game better. Know who else did? Ralph Kiner. He’s in the Hall of Fame. He told me in 2005 that when he returned from World War II, a trainer suggested he try Benzedrine, the first pharmaceutical-grade amphetamine. He used them throughout his career. Willie Mays kept an amphetamine-laden drink called “red juice” in his locker. He’s in the Hall of Fame, too. Clubhouses had two coffee pots: unleaded (without amphetamines) and leaded (with Dexedrines, also known as greenies). Amphetamine use in baseball was widespread from the 1940s until testing started in 2006.
Morgan lived through this era. In fact, if his letter were a true effort to engage voters rather than didactic drivel, Morgan would have acknowledged that the relationship between baseball players and chemical enhancement dates back far longer than he cares to admit. At very least it’s worth knowing whether Morgan himself used amphetamines and his opinion on them. His teammate Pete Rose did. The same Pete Rose who in his mid-30s allegedly had a sexual relationship with a girl under 16 years old, is banned from baseball for life because he gambled on the sport and has in the past nonetheless received the full support of Joe Morgan for induction into the Hall.
It’s important to note that the point about amphetamines isn’t arguing they’re equivalent to steroids. It is true studies have shown that Ritalin can improve physical activity and that in rats, amphetamines lowered body temperature and thus delayed fatigue. And it’s worth pointing out that during the 2016 season, 105 active major league players received therapeutic-use exemptions for ADHD drugs — i.e., amphetamines. That’s 105 players who believed the drugs were necessary for them to play baseball, and plenty more who sought the same but were rejected.
Amphetamines inspire a fraction of the steroid consternation because their effects are blind to the eye. It’s impossible to see the brain; it was easy to see Barry Bonds’ head. Morgan’s argument grows emotional here. The muscles, the home runs, the shattering of sanctity: that’s the impetus behind this letter. Because we don’t know the brain nearly as well, there’s only a strong belief among doctors that amphetamines can demonstrably improve an athlete’s performance, not unequivocal proof.
Morgan reserves his judgment, then, for Bonds, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez and the others whom he didn’t bother calling out by name. They were the targets when he invoked the so-called character clause, the most farcical of the Hall of Fame’s voting tenets, one ignored for generations. Its existence is not just antediluvian. It’s dangerous. It offers a defense for those whose arguments fall shy on other merits. Struggling against those who make the case that leaving the best players of a particular era out of the Hall is not just misrepresenting that time period but not serving the museum’s purpose as an educational vehicle? Use the character clause! As long as it convinces 25.1 percent of the electorate, it’s enough to keep those players out.
And that’s the sad part of this all: There’s now an active campaign by the Hall against particular players. One Hall of Famer, who says he has the backing of plenty more, is smearing players on this year’s ballot to the group of people expected to render fair and reasoned judgments. That’s not guidance. It’s the Hall telling voters what it expects.
My ballot will arrive this week. I will not fill it out. I will not participate in this charade where the shepherds charged with telling the story of baseball want to avoid telling the ugly parts. I will not even though players like Edgar Martinez really could use my vote. Sorry, Edgar. Blame Joe Morgan’s sanctimony for this one.
All of baseball struggles with having honest, forthright, frank conversations about performance-enhancing drugs — not about what players use but why they use it and where it exists on the spectrum next to legal options and what they use it for and the million other questions that exist in a more granular, intelligent debate. It always devolves into the same lowest-common-denominator mess, wherein the aggrieved side bleats “cheater” and nothing ever gets accomplished.
People like Joe Morgan, and institutions like the Hall of Fame, prefer to retreat to the place best embodied by the postscript of the letter: “Families come to Cooperstown because they know it’s special. To parents, it’s a place they can take their kids for a uplifting, feel-good visit.”
Look, nothing says uplifting quite like the story of Cap Anson, who played an important role in keeping black players out of Major League Baseball. And if you want to feel good, how about Tom Yawkey? Not only did he resist integration, he hired a man who for years molested young, black boys at Red Sox spring training.
The most sacred place in baseball? Nah. It’s just a museum. That’s all it ever was. That’s all it ever will be.
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