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Bill James Comments on Steroids

Columns — By Scott Ham on July 23, 2009 1:22 pm

It has been a long time coming, but Bill James has written his thesis regarding steroids:

For the last ten years or so people have been asking me to comment on the issue of
steroids and the Hall of Fame. To this point I have resisted addressing these  questions, arguing—as I do with the Hall of Fame status of active players—that there is nothing to be gained by trying to guess where objects still in motion will eventually land. With the passage of time the dust will settle, and we will see the issue more clearly.

After ten years, however, the dust does not seem to be settling very rapidly. There seem to be as many different and contradictory opinions on the issue now as there
were five or eight years ago. We are all tired of arguing about it, but we still don’t agree. In any case, I am finally ready to say what I have to say about it. It is my opinion that, in time, the use of steroids or other Performance Enhancing Drugs will mean virtually nothing in the debate about who gets into the Hall of Fame and who does not.

The discrimination against PED users in Hall of Fame voting rests upon the perception that this was cheating. But is it cheating if one violates a rule that nobody is enforcing, and which one may legitimately see as being widely ignored by those within the competition?

It seems to me that, at some point, this becomes an impossible argument to sustain—that all of these players were “cheating”, in a climate in which most everybody was doing the same things, and in which there was either no rule against doing these things or zero enforcement of those rules. If one player is using a corked bat, like Babe Ruth, clearly, he’s cheating. But if 80% of the players are using corked bats and no one is enforcing any rules against it, are they all cheating? One better: if 80% of the players are using corked bats and it is unclear whether there are or are not any rules against it, is that cheating?

The “rule” against Performance Enhancing Drugs, if there was such a rule before 2002, by-passed all of these gates. It was never agreed to by the players, who clearly
and absolutely have a right to participate in the process of changing any and all rules to which they are subject. It was not included in any of the various rule books that
define the conduct of the game from various perspectives. There was no process for enforcing such a rule. The punishments were draconian in theory and non-existent
in fact.

It seems to me that, with the passage of time, more people will come to understand that the commissioner’s periodic spasms of self-righteousness do not constitute
baseball law. It seems to me that the argument that it is cheating must ultimately collapse under the weight of carrying this great contradiction—that 80% of the players are cheating against the other 20% by violating some “rule” to which they never consented, which was never included in the rule books, and which for which there was no enforcement procedure. History is simply not going to see it that way.

James is dancing a bit of a line here, I think.  For one, he never really expresses an opinion about the use of steroids or other performance enhancing drugs.  In his opinion, I’m sure, he doesn’t have to as his personal feelings on the matter are beside the point. What you or I think makes little difference compared to what is and what will happen.

Using that approach, what James leaves us with is more of a prediction about how history will judge the steroid era.  His conclusions are based on how we currently view the past, how societal and medicinal changes in the future might change people’s perspectives on steroids, and sort of a Veteran’s Committee effect that will apply the Old Boy’s Network in eventually enshrining known steroid offenders.

It’s an interesting exercise in trying to predict the future, which in the end is a matter of opinion.

Regarding the medical questions, James’ essential point is this:

How, then, are those people of the future—who are taking steroids every day—going to look back on baseball players who used steroids? They’re going to look back on them as pioneers. They’re going to look back at it and say “So what?”

Will society be more dependent on steroids and other medicines to not only prolong life but make us healthier?  Probably.  There could be some debate as to how accessible those types of resources will be across all economics levels.  Magic Johnson has been able to fight off the HIV virus for twenty years, by most accounts because his financial resources have given him access to treatments that most people can’t afford.  Given the high cost of pharmaceuticals now, what are the chances that the lower and middle classes will be able to afford these types of medications?  For all we know, there could be a real divide in society between the haves and the have-nots which would ultimately sway the majority’s opinion a completely different way.

James’ states that in the event that this premise is completely wrong, society’s opinion may matter little because, eventually, a player will a steroid background will somehow make it into the Hall, which will in turn open the floodgates to many.  Or, someone will be enshrined and it will be revealed afterward that they had used steroids, leading to the floodgates opening up.  This also presumes that there will be some method in place, a la the current Veteran’s Committee, that can elect players currently not on the ballot.

This argument from James makes the most sense from the standpoint of past history.  One of the barometer’s for enshrinement to the Hall of Fame has been the membership of the Hall itself.  It is easier to argue for Don Mattingly’s election when Kirby Puckett and his similar bottom end career numbers are already there.  The shame of the situation is that Puckett probably shouldn’t have been elected.  To this point, it hasn’t aided a similar player like Mattingly but the precedent has been set and could open the door for a borderline player in the future.

The same reasoning could apply to steroid users should someone finally be elected.  The problem may lie in contradiction to another point by James, where he states “History is forgiving. Statistics endure.”

Is history that forgiving?  James cites Shoeless Joe Jackson as an example of forgiving history, stating:

In 1950 no one thought Joe Jackson should be in the Hall of Fame. Now it is a common opinion—perhaps a majority opinion—that he should. People question whether he “really” did the things that he clearly admitted doing. His virtues are celebrated; his sins are minimized. Perhaps this is right; perhaps it is wrong. It is the way of history.

That approach sounds like the opinion of the casual fan.  James himself states that Jackson “clearly admitted” what he did, leaving little doubt as to his guilt.

When it comes to the Hall of Fame, the casual fan has no input into who enters and who doesn’t.  The process, at the moment anyway, is left to the BBWAA, which does not always seem like the most educated of groups.  It is also a group made of dozens if not hundreds of Murray Chass types, who eschew modern statistics and Internet resources as tomfoolery.  The nature of that little club is already changing.  By 2040 or 2050 (James’ time line), one would think the approach of the same organization will be a little more enlightened by the younger generation that grew up with the resources that keep facts like Shoeless Joe Jackson’s guilt alive.

History has been somewhat forgiving to this point because so much of history has been lost to memory.  There are people spending years of their lives trying to rebuild the details of baseball games played less than a hundred years ago because a lot of the particulars were either lost to time or never recorded.

We won’t suffer that same fate with the history we are creating now.  We live in a period of time where everything is documented and saved on at least a hundred hard drives across the world.  If you have any doubt as to whether Pete Rose actually bet on the Reds, you’ll be able to access the Dowd Report online or through whatever iteration the Internet has morphed to through the end of time.  There will be little doubt.

History forgives what is easily forgotten.  We’re entering an age where memory and paper are no longer the keeper of history.

Finally, James addresses the issue of whether steroid users were actually cheating:

It seems to me that, at some point, this becomes an impossible argument to sustain—that all of these players were “cheating”, in a climate in which most everybody was doing the same things, and in which there was either no rule against doing these things or zero enforcement of those rules.

I have a hard time backing this argument.  Let us apply James’ use of society as a proper metaphor for what happened in baseball.

What if the members of Congress were aware of the fact that many of it’s members were accepting excessive amounts of money from lobbying interests and adjusting their voting and policy based on these financial buyouts.  The governing party is aware of this action but does little to enforce it because everyone is benefiting.

What if a local police department is aware that there are a couple of drug dens in the middle of a neighborhood but does nothing about it because there are personal ties to some of the individuals.  Does that make the crimes any less illegal?

The implication that there was no rule against doing steroids is flawed.  There is no rule on the books in Major League Baseball that killing a man on the field is punishable.  That doesn’t protect baseball players from the rules of society where murder and steroids are both illegal.  Is it Major League Baseball’s responsibility to produce an exact copy of the penal code in it’s rule book to ensure that player’s abide by society’s rules?

We’re not addressing punishment here.  We’re addressing whether players can be judged as cheaters, and by cheaters we mean people who have violated the rules of the game in order to gain an advantage.  Yes, by definition, there was no rule in place until 2002 that stated players could not take steroids.  Should we as fans of the game be bound to forgiveness because what was morally objectionable and illegal in society wasn’t committed to parchment in Major League Baseball?  Do we have to accept the bad judgment and selfish acts of hundreds of players over the last two decades because, technically, it wasn’t written down that steroids are bad?

Regardless of whether these players cheated, history will be less forgiving to these players.  We have seen the spike in performance through that era.  We have seen records fall that previously seemed impossible.  We have seen players return to the norm around the age of 32 as James states while steroids made old men young again.  We have witnessed the before and after and will see more of it as time marches on.  The longer we go, the louder this blip in baseball history will become, the more obvious the differences between the steroid era and each era before and after.

The statistics will endure and they will tell the story of a generation of players unlike any generation before and hopefully afterward.  And we will all know why.  History won’t forgive because the statistics will never change, the differences will never diminish.  It will always be there for us to see, to remind us that these players were different because they broke a law and lied to society.

Tags: Bill James, PEDs


  1. Ron says:

    This writer seems to miss the essential point of the argument, probably because James himself muddied the waters. There was no “cheating,” prior to 2002, because there was no rule. The so-called “Vincent edict” carried no force of law.

    What on earth is so hard to grasp about that? Anyone who claims a player cheated by taking steroids before 2002 is committing slander.

    Have you got that part?

  2. Scott Ham says:

    Why should players be held to a lesser standard than the rest of society? If steroids are illegal in society, and a player has taken an illegal steroid to gain a competitve advantage, that should be morally ok because MLB didn’t negotiate punishment with the players union? Do I have to curtail judgment against a player that beats his wife because MLB can’t suspend him for it?

    Sure, it’s easy for me to sit at a keyboard and point fingers at guys who used steroids and call them cheaters. If I lived and worked in the same environment, I would certainly be as tempted ad anyone else. But let’s be realistic about the climate these players created: nobody spoke about it, nobody was honest about it, people received their steroids from the Ridomsky’s of the world. For a mass of people who supposedly didn’t break any rules, they certainly acted like a bunch of guys who didn’t want to get caught doing steroids while playing baseball. Even if they technically weren’t cheating, they knew and acted like they were doing something wrong.

    With that type of behavior, if they weren’t cheating, what were they doing?

  3. Kirk says:

    Seriously, why do you need a rule to forbid the use of something that is ALREADY ILLEGAL in this country. This is highly flawed logic. Does baseball have any rules against using crack?

    A much better argument would be to say that it was not, up until recently, illegal to use ephedra in MLB and thus since there was no rule about it in 2000 AND it was not illegal in the US, players used it and should not be punished for it. However, NOW ephedra is illegal in MLB but not the US so a player can be punished for using it even though it is currently legal.

  4. joe says:

    seriously I think players should be LLOWED TO USE SEROIDS JUST TO BOOST THEIR PERFORMANCE. they should make a steroid league only.

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