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On PEDs and the Hall of Fame

Given that at least some of those writers charged with electing players to the Hall of Fame see themselves as guardians of propriety, the PED fixation shouldn’t surprise anyone. As more and more players of the contemporary era hit the ballot, the steroids issue is only going to become more of a consideration. The puzzling lack of support for Jeff Bagwell (and the pathetic speculations surrounding his candidacy), says to me that it’s already too much with us.

Not that I have anyone’s ear, but for those voters who will take PED use (admitted or formally alleged or concocted from vague suspicions) into heavy account in the coming years, I’d make a few points …

• Insofar as the effect of PED use on the numbers, we simply don’t know, and we never will. We’ll never have wholly accurate timetables of use, and we’ll never have all the names. Even if we did, we’ll never know how PED use distorted statistics, if it even did. Any guesses to that end did are just that — guesses, most often half-baked in the extreme. Again: None of us has any idea.

• This is hardly a “breaking news” sort of observation, but we already have PED users in the Hall of Fame. They range from Pud Galvin in the 19th century to the scores of amphetamine users of the 1950s and beyond. Regarding the use of amphetamines, they make a difference by reducing fatigue (or dulling hangovers in many cases) and increasing reaction times. Those things matter when it comes to baseball performance.

• To state the obvious, it’s not just the hitters. There’s a reductionist tendency in mainstream circles to attribute the offensive uptick of the late 90s and aughts to PED use. However, pitchers account for almost half of the suspensions meted out under MLB’s new drug policy, which was implemented prior to the 2005 season. Sure, it’s possible hitters derive more benefit from steroid use than pitchers do, but there’s no evidence to suggest that’s the case. The refrain: We simply don’t know.

• Many of us like to conflate the use of all PEDs into the same category. This is reinforced by MLB’s drug policy, which treats anabolic steroids and HGH as equals, and by the self-interested scolds at WADA, who work tirelessly in the service of blanket condemnations. But the best evidence suggests that HGH does absolutely nothing to enhance athletic performance.

I’m not saying that voters should completely dismiss the moral element or that everyone should care as little about PED use as I do. After all, Hall-of-Fame voters are tasked with considering character (even for an institution that already includes its share of drunkards, misogynists and Klansmen). However, I do think the process needs a bit of these things: some consistency with regard to the past and some humility with regard to how much we can and do know.