On Cooperstown and Forgiveness

Alex Rodriguez
Yankees fans seem ready to forgive Alex Rodriguez despite his suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. Will the Hall of Fame voters one day do the same? Brian Snyder/Reuters

Major League Baseball suspended New York Mets pitcher Jenrry Mejia for 162 games on Tuesday for using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). The penalty comes less than a month after Mejia returned to the Mets' bullpen following an 80-game suspension that was levied in April.

Mejia is one of only three players to have received suspensions for banned substances in 2015. (He's joined by Ervin Santana of the Twins, and Braves pitcher Andrew McKirahan.) While only one player was suspended in 2014, eight players—including stars such as Nelson Cruz, Ryan Braun and Jhonny Peralta—were penalized in 2013. In 2012, the number was seven, among them notables such as Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon and Marlon Byrd. At the time, this felt normal. After the league ramped up PED testing in the mid-2000s, we grew accustomed to every year discovering that a new handful of our favorite players were doping. Now, for the first time, the "problem" of PED use seems to be a thing of the past. Marginal players like Mejia will get caught here and there, but the game's stars appear to be clean. Baseball is moving on.

From a historical perspective, the most problematic issue to rise out of the steroid era is the desecration of the game's hallowed record books. The second most problematic is whether known PED users belong in the Hall of Fame. So far the answer is no, but the door hasn't been shut completely. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, the two most reviled villains of the era, garnered 36.8 and 37.5 percent of the vote, respectively—up slightly from the percentages they received in 2014 (75 percent of the vote is required for induction). Despite the overlarge impact drug users like Bonds, Clemens, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa left on the game, the period is still well-represented in the Hall.

On Sunday, Craig Biggio, John Smoltz, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez were inducted, and they fondly reminisced about their memories of the game during this so-called tarnished period. The time frame of each of their careers—from the early '90s to the late 2000s—essentially defined the steroid era. Martinez's induction plaque describes the time in which he pitched as an era of "high octane offense." The Hall is nothing if not willfully ignorant of any unsavory aspects of the game's history.

The league has always been vigilant when it comes to protecting the "sanctity" of Cooperstown, and it's not until you visit the small upstate New York town that you truly understand why. It's as close to paradise as you will find in the United States, and its wholesomeness is almost comically extreme: Every square inch of the town is pristine. There is a main street; there are ice cream shops; there are scenic views of verdant, rolling hills. During the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Boy Scouts collected discarded water bottles to take back to the recycling tent their troop set up next to the hotdog stand. People played catch in front of a cornfield backdrop. As the inductees were speaking, fathers stood next to sons, pointing to the role models onstage. This is what the game is all about, read the proceedings' subtext. For someone who grew up collecting baseball cards and autographed balls, it was awe-inspiring.

Cooperstown is indeed baseball heaven, and some crimes are apparently beyond repentance. Though in 2015 the public has all but forgiven Pete Rose—the Reds just announced he will have his own bobblehead night in September—the passage of time hasn't winnowed his transgressions or their severity in the eyes of Major League Baseball. I had always rolled my eyes at the league's obstinacy when it came to Rose. Why shun a man who played the game with more passion than we've ever seen, while at the same time glorifying virulent racists and boozers? But basking in the All-American purity of the Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Sunday, I understood. I still feel like Rose should be in the Hall, but as sappy as it may sound, for someone who gambled on the game to stand in front of the legends who gather behind the new inductees every July would have felt slightly incongruous with the spirit of Cooperstown. A PED pariah like Bonds or Clemens doing the same would have felt like an abomination.

But it's not Major League Baseball that decides who goes into the Hall; it's the baseball writers (except in the case of Rose, who was banned from the league). So far, they've been reluctant to accept PED users as Hall-worthy, but a recent development may have greased the wheels for a potential shift in thinking. On Tuesday, the Hall of Fame's board of directors announced that writers who have been inactive for 10 or more years will not be eligible to vote—which means there will be fewer fusty old traditionalists determining who gets enshrined. For now, the change is mostly inconsequential, but years down the line, if baseball writers who never experienced the steroid era decide to soften their stance on the worthiness of PED users, it's going to be easier for them to push through whom they deem worthy; the old-school writers will be out of the picture. Bonds and Clemens seem out of the question now, but as time passes and the era becomes a distant memory, some may indeed feel that because they were sure-fire Hall of Famers before they started doping, they deserve to make it in. The era was so murky, how can we definitively know who was using PEDs and who wasn't?

The last remaining vestige of the superstar doping era is Alex Rodriguez, who is in the midst of an improbable comeback year following a year-long suspension he served in 2014. The 40-year-old currently ranks in the Top 10 in the American League in home runs, runs batted in, walks, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Once hated, he's now something of a fan favorite. He served his time and has come out on the other side a new player. During the ESPYs, he participated in a self-deprecating apology bit with Ken Jeong. He apologized for real too, of course, both for using PEDs and for lying about it in a previous interview. His case is a complex one, but unlike fellow all-time greats Bonds and Clemens, the general public has more or less come back around to A-Rod. Though he's still going to hear boos whenever he steps to the plate in a visiting ballpark, he's redeemed himself in the eyes of many—or at least he's made every effort to try to redeem himself, which is more than a lot of former PED users can say.

In five or six years, when he starts to appear on Hall of Fame ballots, it probably won't be enough. But say he plays another year after this one and his public image continues to convalesce. Say after he retires, he remains active in the game. Maybe he even becomes an anti-doping spokesman. In 10 or 20 years, with ample perspective on the steroid era and Rodriguez's career, it's not inconceivable to think he could—and maybe even that he should—one day be enshrined. It's still a radical proposition when considered in the context of Cooperstown's wholesomeness, but who's to say a father couldn't point up at A-Rod and tell his son that despite his mistakes, that man was given a second chance and made the most of it. After all, these are ballplayers, not clergymen. And though the Hall of Fame may be baseball heaven, the writers who decide who may enter it certainly aren't gods.

On Cooperstown and Forgiveness | Sports