There was a time when the only debate surrounding Roger Clemens' enshrinement into baseball's Hall of Fame was over what hat he would wear. After Clemens and more than 80 other active and former players were named as users of performance enhancing substances in the 409-page investigative report by Senator George Mitchell, the hat is the least of the age-defying right-hander's problems.
But even as Clemens mounts his defense and denies the accusations, he is not alone in his distress. Even after this extensive investigation, the game of baseball itself is still suffering from the steroid scourge, and should the sport ever wish to permanently put aside the neverending scandal, some sacrifices must be made.
For all of the evidence the Mitchell Report brought to light concerning baseball's problematic steroid era, plenty more of that past remains in the dark. Nowhere in the report is Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa expressly associated with steroid use, though most believe the two sluggers — who so memorably surpassed Roger Maris's record season of 61 home runs in 1998 — used performance enhancing substances along the way. Even instances in which players were linked to banned substances, such as Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Miguel Tejada and a host of others, the evidence was far from airtight.
With so much mystery remaining, Major League Baseball is faced with a recurring dilemma of how to proceed in the long term. The news stories and the columns clamoring for players' heads will subside in time, but there are some marks from this tainted era that will not be washed away so easily.
In addition to its integrity, baseball's foremost casualty of performance enhancing substances was its history. Several records, including most strikeouts in a career by an American League pitcher (owned by Clemens), most career home runs and most home runs in a single season (both belong to Barry Bonds) are currently held by players with strong ties to steroids. In time, players such as Clemens, Sosa and Barry Bonds will come up for induction into the Hall of Fame, hallowed ground from which past cheaters — Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson among them — have been denied entry.
The Hall of Fame will take care of itself. The voters will weigh all factors of a player's career before casting a vote, and there is a very real possibility that the use of banned substances will keep Bonds, Clemens and Co. on the outside looking in. The records set during the steroid era are more problematic.
In baseball, more than any other professional sport popular in America, statistics are held sacred. This is particularly true of records, and doubly so for those involving strikeouts and home runs, arguably the sexiest statistical categories in the game. For baseball's future health, those records, optimally, should retain their validity. However, in order to move on from this steroid quagmire, those most-revered of records may have to be sacrificed.
While the evidence against players like Bonds and Clemens appears damning, it is not incontrovertible. And, as Mitchell said in his press conference last Thursday, the names listed are likely just fraction of players that may have gained an unfair advantage thanks to steroids or HGH. So how do you punish a few by banning them from baseball immortality without punishing all?
It is unlikely that Commissioner Bud Selig will ever be graced with comprehensive knowledge of the steroid abuse that has plagued baseball for the past two decades. With that in mind, Selig is faced with just one option concerning the records of players like Bonds and Clemens: Acknowledge them and move on.
I firmly believe that baseball cannot deny Bonds' season of 73 home runs, nor his career mark of — so far — 762 long balls. To do so would provide a dynamic of selective history that would only further muddy the waters. If you try to reset the single season record, would you push it back to 61 home runs or 70? Maris's mark of 61 was certainly done without steroids, but McGwire hasn't been found “guilty.” Remember his androstenedione incident? That substance was allowed at the time of the home run chase and was only later banned. Adding to the confusion is that while HGH was illegal if not prescribed by a physician, it wasn't formally banned by baseball until 2005. Steroids weren't even explicitly banned until 2003.
For its lapses of action, the Office of the Commissioner is not unimpeachable in this chapter of history. Perhaps there was no outright conspiracy to allow steroid use to rejuvenate the sport in the wake of the 1994 strike, but the attempts to reconcile the problem were feeble at best. That aversion to taking an unpopular course of action has to change for baseball to move forward.
The changes to baseball's drug testing program will work themselves out, perhaps with more help from congress. What Selig can do immediately however is state that all records set during the steroid era will stand. Period. End of story. With the hard-earned lessons of the past 20 years — and a strict new random drug testing program — baseball needs to move forward. If the Mitchell Report proves 100-percent accurate and the Hall of Fame voters still choose to induct those players named in its pages, so be it. However, in that case the only cap Clemens should sport on his Hall of Fame plaque is that of a dunce.