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The Cooperstown Paradox: When Morality is an Issue, but Historically a Blindspot

Bonds and Clemens are in their final year of Hall of Fame eligibility, and the odds of both players getting in are slim. Why? Morality.

Barry Bonds by Andrew Magee is licensed under CC BY SA-2.0

The Cooperstown Paradox: When Morality is an Issue, but Historically a Blindspot

Estimated Reading Time: 5 Minutes

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are in their final year of Hall of Fame eligibility, and the odds of both players getting in are slim. Why? Because a group of writers, the vast majority of whom benefitted from Bonds and Clemens use of performance-enhancing drugs, feel the need to take a moral stand against steroids and steroid users.

That’s it. That’s the entire reason. Not their careers. In fact, you could argue that both players are two of the best to ever take the diamond. Barry Bonds might just be the greatest home run hitter of all time, and Clemens dominated opposing hitters on a level we’ve seen only a handful of times in the game’s long history. But morally? Both of these players are bankrupt. Isn’t that right, BBWAA?

Baseball loves to prop itself up as the moral compass of the sports world. A sport where decorum is the name of the game and everyone who buttons up their jersey is the perfect specimen of what an athlete should be. Every player needs to be a role model, a hero because kids need someone to look up to, right?

Sure. Then let’s take Cap Anson and Kennesaw Mountain Landis out of Cooperstown. Seriously, do it.

In December of 2020, after the national reckoning with racial injustice and systemic racism that has run rampant in our country, the Baseball Hall of Fame came to a decision on how to deal with the harsh racist past of some of their inductees. Rather than expelling players who were trying to keep pace with the rest of the league’s tactics, why not remove those who actively keep baseball white?

Or really, if the Baseball Hall of Fame is going to put up small informational plaques in the museum, but not the “hall” itself, explaining the roles certain figures had in refusing to segregate the game, why not do the same with players like Bonds and Clemens?

If you’re going to force a scarlet letter on Bonds and Clemens, but only give proven racists a slap on the wrist, then we’re truly not doing anything productive. Instead, we’re creating a double standard that makes the Hall of Fame feel okay about not fully acknowledging their dark past.

To be clear, I’m not saying Bonds, Clemens, and other players who will soon find themselves in similar PED-related balloting situations are equitable to racists like Landis and Anson. Absolutely not. But by claiming the use of performance-enhancing drugs is a moral issue, members of the BBWAA are doing just that.

When you claim morality as a reason to keep a player out, that needs to extend to every player, whether elected or not.

SportsNet’s Jeff Blair dropped his ballot recently, listing all four of the PED adjacent players as recipients of his votes. In his explanation, Blair clarifies that he’s at fault in this scenario as well and that he can separate the issue from players who played during that era and beyond.

“As someone who should have been more skeptical when they covered the game as a reporter — who was, however, lied to by more than one player when asking them to their face whether they’d juiced — I’m just not comfortable declaring anybody ‘clean.’ Only an idiot would think everybody in the Hall of Fame is clean. But it doesn’t damage my appreciation of the game and the people who played it. Athletes do what they feel they need to do to win. Just give me effort. Show up. Be remarkable. Whatever it takes to make you remarkable? Have at it.”

– Jeff Blair, SportsNet – “Why Jeff Blair only has four players on his 2022 Hall of Fame ballot”

Sure, there are others who have been banned from Baseball’s most hallowed temple of excellence. Pete Rose is maybe the most famous player to have found himself on the outside looking in. However, in today’s MLB climate the majority of fans think Rose deserves a spot in Cooperstown. If he’s going to be selected to the All-Century Team, hired to commentate on games, and continue to be a big part of the game and its history, it’s difficult to not see how the man has changed. Pete Rose did his time, admitted to his crimes, and has reconciled his image with the public. The only people who seem to be keeping him out are those who have pledged to guard the sacred temple that they call the Baseball Hall of Fame.

If morality is an issue that keeps players out, then why isn’t reconciliation grounds for reinstatement?

Baseball has a problem with its history, but the bigger problem may just be how they intend to address that very history. Over the last century, baseball has blurred out the problem areas of their pristine facade, hoping you wouldn’t notice. By claiming the use of performance-enhancing drugs as a morality issue, Cooperstown is once again blurring the line between accountability and enabling. No one cared when Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire put baseball back in the public eye with their steroid-fueled home run race in 1998. And if Roger Clemens was juicing, then why did the BBWAA award him seven Cy Young Awards, more than any other pitcher in MLB history. How about all of those NL MVP Awards Barry Bonds won in his career? You know the ones, they all have “Kennesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award” emblazoned on the front.

If these two men share the same morality issue, then why are they not allowed to share the same Hall of Fame? If keeping Cap Anson and Landis in Cooperstown is meant to shed light on the negative aspects of the game’s history, then why shut out PED users?

So what is the Baseball Hall of Fame supposed to do?

If it were up to me, remove those who kept the game from advancing forward. Anyone who was a vocal fan of segregation or worked to keep players of color out of the game needs to have their plaque removed. If Cooperstown is meant to lift up and celebrate those who pushed the game to new heights then the BBWAA should be reminded of that.

Because right now, the BBWAA is just being petty and vengeful against men who played the game during their lifetime. And those same voters applauded players like Clemens and Bonds back then, but can’t do so now? And if Clemens and Bonds are so awful, then why did Bud Selig, the commissioner who oversaw the steroid era, get a plaque in recent years.

I’m gonna vote for “Seems like grandstanding,” because that’s what this is.

Justin Colombo is a 2017 Broadway Show Softball League All-Star at 3B/SS. He's essentially the Manny Machado of the Kinky Boots team. Justin has been writing about Baseball since he was a little kid. Now that being an actor in NYC has given him a lot of free time, in 2015 he decided to take his passion public and founded Three Up, Three Down as a way to express his love for the game. From there, Three Up, Three Down grew from a hobby to an obsession. After years of growth and one insult from MLB's Historian, Justin launched The Turf, a way to expand into all areas of the sporting world. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter. LET'S. GO. METS.

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