Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Clemens, his legacy, and the Hall of Fame

Those of you who are familiar with my blog know that I think Roger Clemens is the greatest pitcher who ever lived based on a number of factors. If it turns out that he did take steroids, then I would certainly emphasize that fact whenever making such a claim in the future. I don’t have a problem acknowledging his numbers. I don’t have a problem calling him the best ever. However, in fairness to every other great pitcher who has played the game who very likely didn’t take steroids (i.e. Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux), the first sentence describing Clemens’ accomplishments should include the phrase, “steroid-use.” That is really the only way I can reconcile his super-human statistics while appropriately acknowledging the players who did it the “right” way.

We may never know for certain whether Clemens took steroids or not. However, based on what there is to go on at this point, I believe that he did. With one notable exception—that being Todd Helton—whenever there has been “smoke”, there has been “fire” when it comes to players accused of taking steroids. That certainly isn’t conclusive but clearly players from the steroid-era have not earned the benefit of the doubt. I believe that Clemens is lying through his teeth to save his legacy. While I don’t condone “lying”, he clearly has a lot to lose if these allegations prove to be legit. He stands to gain a considerable amount of fanfare for the remainder of his life by being billed as “the greatest pitcher who ever lived.” The thought of losing that and losing the legitimacy of his eye-popping-accomplishments are probably too much for Clemens to simply acknowledge steroid-use without putting up a fight. However, he’ll have to factor “jail time” into that equation if he agrees to testify in front of Congress on February 13.

Preponderance of Evidence

Clemens’s former trainer, Brian McNamee, was dead-on about Andy Pettitte’s HGH-use. Clemens and Pettitte are best pals. Clemens denies even knowing that Pettitte took HGH. I find that hard to believe. I also find it hard to believe that McNamee would tell the truth about Pettitte and make up a lie about Clemens—his good friend—just to drag his name through the mud. Without anything to gain, McNamee has stood steadfast behind his allegations and has certainly come off as credible in lieu of Pettitte’s admission to HGH-use.

On the other hand, Clemens’s camp has looked incredibly suspect throughout this whole ordeal. From the multi-day silence following the release of the Mitchell Report to the lame attempts to clear his name by secretly recording a phone-conversation with McNamee, Clemens has been scrambling. He looked desperate when he played the tape of the conversation to the media because it didn’t reveal anything except that McNamee would not relent on his accusations even in a private telephone conversation with Clemens. McNamee even sounded sympathetic to Clemens on the tape and still never wavered. I’m still not sure what Clemens thought he was proving by playing the tape. It actually made him look worse. Clemens then accounted for the injections that McNamee claimed to have administered by saying they were B-12 and Lidocaine. McNamee has said that Clemens sported an abscess (don't click) from the injections which is “far less likely” to come from B-12 and Lidocaine than it is from steroids according to a doctor from the World Anti-Doping Agency. Clemens also claimed that he was unaware that his name would be mentioned in the Mitchell Report. According to Mitchell, that seems highly unlikely.

Considering the above information, I am forced to site Occam’s razor in believing that Clemens is guilty. Either I believe the following; 1). McNamee told the truth about Pettitte and lied about Clemens, 2). Clemens didn’t know that Pettitte—his best pal—was taking steroids, 3). Mitchell lied about notifying Clemens that he was in the report, 4). Clemens just happens to be the only player with a myriad of circumstantial evidence pointing towards steroid-use who turns out to be innocent, 5). Clemens developed an abscess from B-12 or Lidocaine, 6). Clemens—like Bonds as a hitter—is the only elite pitcher who not only peaked after the age of 35 but got better into his mid-40s and beyond or, I can believe that he very likely took steroids. I’m going with option #2.

The “lying” is more annoying than the steroid-use.

I am not going to pretend that taking steroids is akin to murder. In the grand scheme of things, “Joe Roidman” taking steroids at the local gym isn’t that big of a deal. Everyone makes mistakes. However, in the world of athletics, there are a number of additional dynamics in play. Competitive-sports are based on fairness and a level playing-field. If those are compromised, sports like baseball lose legitimacy. Steroid-users in the sports world are often rewarded with larger profiles and bigger paydays. On the flip side, the respective legacies of players like Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr.—players who almost certainly did not take performance-enhancing drugs—are minimized.

I don’t despise the gains achieved by taking steroids as much as I despise the fact that steroid-users take away from people who achieved success the right way. For instance, the worst part of Ben Johnson’s steroid-use prior to the ’88 Seoul Olympics wasn’t that he broke the law. It was that Carl Lewis—who, as far as I know, did things the “right” way—was denied what he had rightfully earned. Lewis was eventually awarded the “gold” three days later but only after first experiencing the initial heartbreak of losing the race. Not everyone is as lucky as Lewis. Marion Jones won five gold medals in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and it wasn’t until seven years later that she was caught.

There is no doubt that “cheating” leaves a path of destruction in the sports world. However, the thing that bothers me most about Clemens, Bonds, Marion Jones and everyone else who has denied use in the face of fairly serious evidence is the “lying.” Let's forget for a moment that nobody ever gets away with a weak-denial. Lying is such a heinous act. It's the ultimate form of insult to the American public especially when it comes in front of a Grand Jury or Congress. Then there's the fact that lying almost always ends up making things much worse than telling the truth would've yielded. Pete Rose isn’t still banned from the HOF because he bet on baseball. He’s still banned because he lied about it for so long. Bonds isn’t facing jail time because he took steroids. He’s facing jail time because he lied about it. The same goes for Marion Jones. However cliché this is to say, America does love to give people second chances. That ceases to be true when the “people” in question refuse to accept responsibility. Bonds, Rose, Palmeiro, and Marion Jones are almost universally viewed with shame in America more so because they lied than because of the “cheating” (or in Rose’s case, “Cardinal sinning”). Clemens will likely follow suit if he steps in front of Congress.

The Hall of Fame-question shouldn't be about statistics.

While my opinion of Clemens—both personally and statistically—has changed, one thing that hasn’t changed for me—and shouldn’t change for anyone else—is his candidacy for the Hall of Fame based on numbers. If you’re going to argue that Clemens shouldn’t be elected to the HOF, you’re better off leaving numbers out of the argument.

Whenever a superstar is accused of taking steroids, everyone asks, “is he still a Hall of Famer?” I think some people interpret this question the wrong way. Many rush to recreate career statistics or simply choose to only acknowledge statistics attained before the alleged steroid-use. Let’s throw aside the fact that recalculating career numbers to account for steroid-use is impossible. Nobody knows how much better steroids make a player. There are number of bad players who were still bad after taking steroids (i.e. Alex Sanchez, Nook Logan, Neifi Perez and more than half the guys in the Mitchell Report). Conversely, Bonds likely took steroids and hit 24 more home runs than he had ever hit in a single-season. The effects obviously differ from person to person so recalculating career numbers isn’t even a reasonable option. The real problem with the question is that it assumes that there actually is a player who became a Hall of Famer because of steroids. I’m not so sure that steroids can make a non-Hall of Famer, a Hall of Famer. There is a lot more to baseball than brute strength. Mechanics, instincts, hand-eye coordination, and work ethic are, by far, the most important factors in determining the caliber of a baseball player. Barry Bonds was a Hall of Fame-player before he took steroids. Roger Clemens was a Hall of Fame-player before he took steroids. Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro would’ve almost certainly reached 500 career home runs without steroids. To suggest that there is a logical way to figure out if steroid-use turned a good player into a Hall of Fame-player is a “pie in the sky” notion. I also don’t care for only looking at statistics achieved before the alleged steroid-use. For instance, even without steroid-use, it is very likely that Bonds would’ve had a good stretch from 2001-2004. It doesn’t make sense to treat those years as a total zero as some choose to do.

The question about whether a player should be a Hall of Famer in lieu of steroid-use really should be about whether any player who took steroids should be admitted into the Hall of Fame. Baseball writers across America are racking their brains trying to figure out whether various players who took steroids are Hall of Famers statistically. They should be discussing whether or not steroid-users should even be eligible for the Hall of Fame. Since there is no way to know just how many more home runs a player hit because of steroids and there is no way of knowing how much healthier a player was because of steroids, statistics should be taken at face value. Some have adopted the “if it’s even close, just say no” philosophy and others have chosen to teach steroid-users a lesson by refusing to vote for borderline steroid-users. If people want to adopt the “teach a lesson” stance, then it should be across the board. Steroid-use should either be a total deal-breaker, or eliminated from the discussion of Hall of Fame-status all together. I can respect either side. I just don’t think it’s reasonable to pick and choose. Voters who fashion themselves as someone who is smart enough to be able to decipher whether steroid-use made someone a Hall of Famer or not are claiming mathematical abilities that as far as I know aren’t even possible. The only acceptable caveat I see with “picking and choosing” is if someone wants to punish the players who lied.

There is no “right” answer but there are “better” answers.

There are a lot of reasonable opinions out there and I don’t envy anyone trying to sort all of this out. If I had to pick a side, I would choose to eliminate “steroids” or “HGH” from Hall of Fame discussions. I don’t have a problem putting an asterisk next to the names of Hall of Fame steroid-users. The future baseball fan has a right to know which players cheated and which players didn’t and the “cheaters” deserve to have their indiscretions acknowledged. Some have argued that it wouldn’t be fair to label a player with an asterisk when we don’t know everyone who took steroids. I don’t understand that logic. The players who got caught shouldn’t be spared because everyone didn’t get caught. That doesn't even make sense. I think that—unless you lie to a Grand Jury—the proper punishment for using steroids should be the permanent-tarnishing of one’s career and legacy.

Some may argue that steroids weren’t against the rules in baseball so taking a hard stance is unfair. I don’t by that for a second. Steroids were very much against the rules in baseball and in every other facet of American life. They were illegal for everyone regardless of affiliation or stature. Those players broke the law to get an advantage and that should not be lost on anyone. Too many people want to place all of the blame on baseball for allowing an environment where drug-use went unchecked. If people want to rail baseball for not being vigilant enough, I have no qualms with that. However, the responsibility ultimately lies with the players who used. They are to blame and they should pay a price. Whether that’s banishment from the “Hall” or just a permanent tarnishing of their legacy is up to you to decide. Keep in mind, other players have cheated. Gaylord Perry "doctored" the ball as did many other pitchers. There is proof of this and there is admission of this. Teams have stolen signs. There is proof of this and admission of this. I’m not suggesting those forms of cheating are better or worse than steroids. I’m just saying there has been a precedent set in the past for “cheating.” That’s something worth considering as well.

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