Baseball Wading Through Moral Identity Crisis, One Scandal at a Time

Herb Gould

That was close. Based on the ballots of some really distinguished voters, I thought this was going to be the year PED guys Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds cracked the Hall of Fame.

Not quite. Clemens (59.5 percent) came up 66 votes short of the needed 75 percent. Bonds (59.1 percent) was one vote behind him. Clemens and Bonds have two more years on the ballot, though. So it’s not over, as Yogi said, till it’s over.

For reasons I will explain below, I am not a fan of welcoming those who diminished the game by ingesting steroids into Cooperstown.

But with some baseball writers I otherwise respect—notably at my old paper, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the burgeoning Athletic—making the case for leading PED users to be enshrined—in the same year as the sign-stealing scandal(!)—my concern for ``America’s national pastime’’ was great.

In China, this is the Year of the Rat. In Major League Baseball, it was looking like the Year of the Rat’s Cousin: The Cheater.


Boston manager Alex Cora, 15 months removed from being the manager of a World Series champion, was removed for an elaborate sign-stealing scheme that involved not only the Red Sox but also Cora’s previous employer, the Astros. Which fired its manager, A.J. Hinch, and general manager, Jeff Luhnow, for the same unacceptable behavior. Another former Astro, Carlos Beltran, also lost his job as the new Mets manager, as a result of sign-stealing scandal.

That’s three managers and a GM, if you’re keeping score at home.

And what’s in the water, by the way, in Boston? First the unabashedly amoral Patriots. And now the Red Sox. What’s next? The Celtics? The Bruins? Isn’t this the city where the American Revolution began?

That’s why it was reassuring to see Bonds and Clemens denied.

You know, the guys who peed on the record book instead of peeing into a cup.

I am alternately amused and disappointed by Hall of Fame voters who have come up with this revisionist excuse: The best steroid users already had established Hall-of-Fame-worthy credentials before they started cheating.

And Nixon already knew he was going to beat McGovern before he told the Watergate burglars, ``Hi-ho. Hi-ho. Off to work you go.’’

And Bobby Knight was already a Hall-of-Fame coach before he choked a player.

Would you vote for those guys if you knew their dark secrets at the time of the vote?

Here’s an all-important distinction between the sign-stealers and the PED users: Public perception.

When a team steals an opponent’s signs with such demented purpose that it is suspected to have influenced the outcome of the World Series, that is seen as a threat to baseball’s integrity. Because it is a threat to baseball’s bottom line.

And so, the Astros have been fined $5 million and must forfeit their No. 1 draft picks in 2020 and 2021. There are many outcries for further punishment of the sign-stealers, including Houston vacating its championships.

(I’m not a fan of vacating championships and games that are already won. The games have been played. Everybody knows who won or lost when they were played. I hate phony zeroes in record books. But if they want to give back the ticket money to all the people who watched a game that no longer exists, I will rethink my position.)

Interestingly, some fans and media have called for even more severe penalties for the sign stealers.

Sign stealing is a time-honored gray area of baseball. If a runner on second base does it, use trickier signs. A guy in the scoreboard? Bad. Using video and elaborate relay methods? Very bad.

That’s where we are right now. The integrity of the game is in serious question. That’s why it was important to keep the Hall of Fame on moral high ground.

Baseball has had the means to fix sign-stealing for years. Just do the signs with with ear-pieces or Apple watches. It will happen soon. Might even shave a minute or two off interminably long games. (I do not buy the argument, by the way, that stealing digital signs would be easy. Find secure technology. And what kind of sports world are we living in, anyway?)

Just do it, already.

If people think games are fixed, they might not go to games. That’s why this sign-stealing scandal is crescendo-ing.

This is all part of the Landis Doctrine. After the Black Sox had been acquitted in a court of law for throwing the 1919 World Series, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis famously threw Eight Men Out, banning them for life.

Interestingly, that threat to baseball was followed by the home-run craze started by Babe Ruth, which brought fans back to the ballpark in hordes.

Caught in the Landis Doctrine is Pete Rose, who apparently has been banished for betting on his team to win. Not a good thing, of course. Not good at all. In my mind, a financial version of using steroids. But because it’s gambling, rather than performance-enhancing, Rose is toast.

Meanwhile, Bonds and Clemens are free to be knocking on the Hall of Fame door. Because when players start hitting home runs like prices are slashed at some cosmic sporting-goods sale, fans flock to ballparks.

That happened again in the late ’90s, after the 1994 baseball strike slowed the turnstiles to an alarming crawl.

If cheating threatens the game’s economic health, it’s a bad thing. If cheating is good for attendance, what’s the harm?

Here’s what I don’t like about it: To me, baseball is all about its sacred record-keeping.

When Sammy Sosa hit 20 home runs in June of 1998, I knew something wrong was going on. I’m a Cub fan. But I want baseball on the up-and-up. Otherwise, it’s professional wrestling.

Numbers like 755, 714 and 61 ought to mean something.

They still do to me. I refuse to recognize 762, 73 (and 70 and 66 ad nauseam).

At least 56 and .424 are still in place. Apparently there weren’t enough pills for those.

Say it ain’t so, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Under oath. At a congressional hearing.

And yet, I am not outraged that these guys are going to be in the Hall of Fame. Because I know when I’m outvoted. Everybody enjoyed their prowess. Many people believe it was good for the game.

It’s going to happen. They are going to be honored. I am merely going to care less about the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I would ask this: Where is Ford C. Frick when we need him? The commissioner of my youth ordained that when Roger Maris hit 61 home runs to top Babe Ruth’s 60, the 61 should come with an asterisk. Because Maris had 162 games to Ruth’s 154.

Put anybody you want in the Hall of Fame. Just give us a sackful of asterisks. Or better yet, two record books.

You can say this doesn’t matter. They were great hitters and they still had to hit the ball.

And I’m sorry. The amphetamines that previous generations used are not in the same league with PEDs.

Honoring cheaters matters to me. And it ought to matter to anyone who likes their sports to be special in all the right ways.

What about Aaron, Ruth and Maris?

Aaron likes the ``give-’em-an-asterisk’’ concept.

If we could communicate by a medium with Maris, who lost large chunks of hair due to the stress of his home-run chase, I suspect he would agree with Aaron.

If we could ask Babe Ruth about the use of PEDs, I believe he would say, ``Gimme some of those.’’

How many home runs would he have hit if he had been juicing?

But he didn’t have that chance.

It’s always a difficult task, comparing eras in baseball. But when you give one generation a chemical advantage over others, I smell a rat.

You can reward cheaters if you want.

I’m not going there.


755, home runs, career, Hank Aaron

714, home runs, career, Babe Ruth

61, home runs, single season, Roger Maris

60, home runs, single season, Babe Ruth

762*, home runs, career, Barry Bonds

73*, home runs, single season, Barry Bonds

56, consecutive-games hitting streak, Joe DiMaggio

.424, batting average, single season, Rogers Hornsby