Some kids want to be astronauts, firemen, architects, or all of the above.
I wanted to vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
That’s embarrassing to admit, because I should have known better. Architects make good money. They are also able to work with numbers that don’t lie. If Edgar Kaufmann’s house in rural Pennsylvania (better known as Fallingwater) didn’t have enough weight resting in the rest of its structure, its cantilevered deck would collapse into the waterfall below. There’s no ambiguity about those numbers.
I’m not a Hall of Fame voter; I don’t have the required 10 years’ tenure in BBWAA. But I know that my voting colleagues can’t place the same confidence in their numbers. Not when those numbers are statistics compiled by steroid users in a country that considers steroid possession illegal, in a game that didn’t enforce the same rules as its government.
Let’s take a moment to break down that contradiction. It’s important to the dilemma. It’s half the dilemma actually — taking responsibility to make a moral judgment; the second half is deciding what to do with that responsibility. Some BBWAA voters, it should be noted, have chosen not to take the responsibility at all. Murray Chass, who’s a bit of a living legend, believes making moral judgments about baseball players should not be the duty of the journalists who write about the players. I can respect that argument; at age 74 Chass chose to renounce the responsibility that I longed for as a 7-year-old. It must have been a powerful urge.
The specific moral dilemma goes deeper than whether or not to vote for cheaters. The more personal question: Can you condemn doing something that most of us would do in the exact same situation? And if so, how harshly do you condemn the behavior?
Ken Caminiti said in 2002 that about half the players in the game were juicing. Jose Canseco put the number at 85 percent, Eric Gagne at 80. I’d put the number in the middle, around 65 percent.
That number wasn’t pulled from thin air. It was derived from the results of Stanley Milgram’s seminal 1963 experiment on obedience. You may be familiar with the premise of the experiment, but here’s the Cliffs Notes version: The subjects were instructed to turn a dial that would administer electrical shocks in increasing amounts, up to 450 volts, to a person they believed to be sitting in the other room, out of sight. After administering each intense “shock,” the person on the receiving end let out a scream that was audible to the subject. Unbeknownst to the subject, the screams were real but the shocks weren’t being administered to a real person. Good thing, too, since 450 volts constitutes a lethal dose of electricity. Nonetheless, 65 percent of subjects chose to obey the instructions, to administer the killer electric shock. Most chose to kill. If you believe that killing is wrong, you’ve just made a moral judgment against most people who participated in the experiment. A follow-up study showed the 65 percent obedience rate holds up consistently among different subjects in similarly designed experiments.
The lesson is not that most people choose to do wrong. It’s that, when given permission to do something we know is wrong, most of us will wrestle with our conscience but ultimately not err on the side of caution. And Milgram’s scenario did nothing to replicate the competitive atmosphere of professional sports (though the firm instructions from the “authority figure” do something to replicate peer pressure). Here’s what I take from it: Odds are, both you and I would probably administer the 450-volt shock in the same scenario. Likewise, with no consequences from MLB for using steroids — only the possible health and legal risks — I’d probably take the steroids in search of the competitive advantage. Sixty-five percent of people reading this would, too.
But someone has to judge whether this alarmingly common behavior, which happened to ensnare Major League Baseball from roughly 1992 to 2006, violates the Hall of Fame’s so-called “character clause.” It’s not much of a clause. Here are the exact instructions: Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.
Those instructions leave quite a bit to the imagination, and it’s every voter’s job to use his. So does taking performance-enhancing drugs, something most of us would do, constitute a violation of the character clause? I don’t know. Point is, this is a question every voter has to answer for him or herself. If the answer is no, you don’t believe that taking illegal drugs to gain competitive advantage violates the character clause. If the answer is yes, you’re voting to deny someone a spot in Cooperstown because they did something you or I would probably do in the same situation.
So the voting process inherently requires a moral judgment, a choice between the lesser of two evils. This is the definition of a lose-lose situation for voters. It’s one that is rarely — if ever — acknowledged by the armchair pundits who apparently think sports writers don’t have the capacity to make this moral judgment. Listen, someone has to make this choice. Apparently, it’s us.
Once the choice is made, what to do?
Do you meticulously research the evidence regarding each candidate’s PED use, like Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci?
Do you decide to exclude “Steroid Era” players from your ballot altogether, like MLB.com’s Ken Gurnick?
Do you figure that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were Hall of Famers when they were skinny, like ESPN.com’s Mark Saxon?
Do you vote them all in, like I did?
About my choice: That was for the Internet Baseball Writers’ Association of America. The IBWAA doesn’t have an actual Hall with plaques and an admission fee. In fact, in the IBWAA Hall of Fame, Jim Rice’s plaque can be half the size of Babe Ruth’s, the building can be structured like a pyramid with the all-time legends housed on the top floor, and the Steroid Era players — PED users or not — housed in their own syringe-shaped closet.
In Cooperstown, none of this is possible. It’s a place where parents and children walk around in reverence of bronzed heroes. Where Ty Cobb and Jackie Robinson are forced to get along. Where lessons in history and sportsmanship and morals are passed down from one generation to the next, however uncomfortable those lessons may be.
Who are the writers to say you shouldn’t be forced have the steroids-is-cheating conversation with your children in Cooperstown? Who are we to say you should?
It’s a tough job. Not the one I dreamed about as a kid. But someone’s got to do it.