I used to be really into baseball when I was a kid. I couldn’t play it, or any other sport, due to chronic awkwardness, but I collected baseball cards (I had a great collection that was stolen from my apartment’s basement in college) and followed every team with a statistical obsession from about 1986 to 1989. This chronicling urge went away late in high school, and since then, I have only watched the sport as if from a great distance, as if it were played on Mars – though I went to Fenway a few times while I was in Boston and I’ve watched a fair number of games over the years.
One of the side effects of my falling away from baseball is that I didn’t follow baseball during most of the years where it became more and more associated with illicit drug use. I remember Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, for example, as exemplar players on the 1988 A’s, as future certain Hall of Famers, not as disgraced cheaters. So I look at the current A-Rod controversy with a different eye than some.
Baseball is infamous for having an unforgiving memory. Shoeless Joe is a fixer. Forever. Roger Maris is an asterisk. Forever. Pete Rose is a gambler. Forever. McGwire, Canseco, Bonds, etc are cheaters. Forever. The same culture that enshrines men in Cooperstown for eternity is just as quick to bury them in disgrace for all time. Some of this is due to how records are made in the sport – the great players are the ones that seem incapable of screwing up anything. DiMaggio’s endless hitting streak, Ripken’s endurance, Aaron’s general inability to hit less than 40 homers for 20 seasons, all are testimony to how the sport values quantitative consistency and reliability. It’s a very conserative sport, in that sense, a position that has benefits and disadvantages. The main benefit is that it inspires players to great heights. The main disadvantage is that in such a system, success can very quickly become its own reward, and the means can become fuzzy.
In other words, baseball brought drug use on itself to a certain extent; the intense competition to maintain consistent numbers in the MLA combined with the availability of drugs that would help players produce (and continue to produce) those numbers more or less guaranteed many players would use them. There was no prexisting clubhouse culture, until recently, that frowned upon them; the game looked the other way because quite frankly, McGwire and his ilk really helped baseball by hitting a lot of home runs and reinvigorating interest in a struggling sport.
I don’t expect Bud Selig, the commissioner, to do anything that I would suggest, and I know the managerial culture, established a billion years ago by Landis and others, would forbid this on principle. But I think Selig should make an important addendum to the current hardline stance on drug use in baseball, and that’s to expressly pardon everyone who used banned substances before this year.
It would be a nice move for several reasons. One, it would firmly close the door on a sour period of baseball’s history and show that the sport is more interesting in looking forward than obsessing about past drug use. Two, it would acknowledge that baseball, well, dropped the ball on drug use two decades ago. Three, it would encourage people like McGwire to finally open up and tell their stories without fear of reprisal. Four, it wouldn’t change the way the game is played – banned substances would still be banned, but now there would be a moral charge behind not using them as well as a legal one.
Of course, this won’t happen in a million years, because baseball is something of a feudal monarchy, Selig still hasn’t figured out that pardoning Pete Rose would be magnimous, and plenty of fans and players, not to mention the notoriously picky HoF voters, would, with some justification, complain that a bunch of cheaters had gotten off soft. But it’s just a game – it’s got a ton of money in it, but there is no crime in baseball, including the use of banned substances, that rises to the seriousness level of a speeding ticket. And those are forgiven all the time.