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Cooperstown Is Unpleasant This Time of Year

If you haven’t been to Cooperstown, you should go. It’s a lovely town [1]. And you’ll be surprised in a way that’s unfortunately all too rare these days — the Hall of Fame isn’t a glitzy monstrosity but the kind of place that gets unlocked a minute after it’s supposed to open by a friendly guy with a mop.

You know what else is fun? Arguing about the Hall of Fame. By which I mean the fruitless but endlessly entertaining debates you can have about players from wildly different eras of baseball. The Hall of Fame includes guys who got to tell the pitcher where to throw it and guys who never wore helmets and routinely got beaned and guys who played with armored limbs. It includes white players who never played a game that counted against black opponents and black players who could say the same about white opponents, not that the black players had a choice in the matter. It includes pitchers who threw spitballs and pitchers who threw atop mounds so high they changed the rules. It includes speedsters, sluggers, guys who threw gobs of complete games, guys who rarely if ever saw an inning before the seventh, skinny shortstops, enormous first basemen, and an excess of New York Giants with friends on the right committees. It includes war heroes and gentlemen and pioneers and hypocrites and racists and drunks. It’s a crazy stew of baseball history, chronicling an ever-changing game.

You know what’s not fun? Arguing about PEDs and the Hall of Fame.

The confirmed PED users, for now, are left out of Cooperstown. So are the guys who everyone assumes used PEDs. And the guys who are rumored to have used PEDs. And the guys who aren’t rumored to have used PEDs, but were big guys when other big guys did bad things.

That’s ridiculous. But what’s the way to escape it?

Whenever I think about PEDs (which, admittedly, is less and less these days), I remember Buck O’Neil in Joe Posnanski’s superlative The Soul of Baseball. As Posnanski tells it, people were always approaching O’Neil to vent about steroids, expecting him to agree and play the role of kindly emblem of a better time. O’Neil wouldn’t do it. He said, politely but pointedly, that every player he’d ever known had looked for an edge. The beauty of baseball obscures how ruthless the men who play it are. They have to be — to get where they are they’ve disposed of hundreds of opponents, teammates seeking the same job and (perhaps most importantly of all) their own self-doubt.

I don’t say that to condone cheating — just to say I have no interest in the high-horse scolds who use columns and Hall of Fame votes to defend some baseball paradise that never existed. If I had a magic wand that could identify the cheaters, I’d happily wave it. If I had some magic thingamajig that would make whole the minor-leaguers who didn’t juice and so became civilians instead of big-leaguers [2], I’d thingamajig it.

But no one does, and no one ever will. And so we’re left with a handful of options:

1. We (by which I don’t actually mean “we,” unless you’re a Deadspin reader [3]) can squish through goat entrails and sift through tea leaves and decide that we’re voting for this player from the era of bad things who we don’t think took PEDs but not this player who we think did take PEDs, because reasons. This involves being mad all the time and knowing that none of this anger is leading to any semblance of justice. This is the situation we have now, and everybody hates it.

2. We can decide that no players from the era of bad things can get into the Hall of Fame. This seems pretty obviously unfair to me. Just for openers, are we sure we know when the bad things began?

3. We can insist that baseball maintain tough rules and penalties to make taking PEDs risky, and then decide that players from the era of bad things can get into the Hall of Fame just like players from eras of previous bad things did. We can stop talking about PEDs and decide which players get in by comparing them against their peers, talking about their stature in their era, and using a generous helping of numerical literary [4] to weigh their candidacies against players from other eras. And we can turn over the arguments about who was better or best to history.

Personally, I’d vote for 3. It’s not perfect, but it’s the injustice that offends me least. And it’s the path back to Hall of Fame arguments that don’t make me want to throttle the other guy or go lie down in the road.

The good news, such as it exists [5], is that Mike Piazza might be one of the players who gets Door Number 3 to open.

Do I think Mike Piazza did steroids? How the hell would I know? Watch a Mets classic from ’99 or ’00 and player after player looks like the love child of Paul Bunyan and the 50-Foot Woman. If that doesn’t make you raise an eyebrow, you’re a sucker. But if it makes you certain whom to declare guilty, you’re a sociopath. Since the list of confirmed PED users includes both Jose Canseco and Jorge Velandia, you tell me what to look for. In my opinion, the only sane way to think about PEDs is to make up your mind that nothing will ever surprise you again and leave it at that.

By being big and playing when he did, Piazza will always have to deal with suspicions. But what he’s never had to deal with is evidence, or anything close to it — no text messages to Kurt Radomski, no weird stories about needles and someone’s booty, no pattern of chronic injuries or sudden decline. (Unless you think Murray Chass is a qualified dermatologist.) By any fair standard, Piazza should have gotten a Hall of Fame hearing without whispers about PEDs. The fact that he hasn’t — that he’s been denied twice — is ridiculous.┬áBut it’s not ridiculous because it’s former Met Mike Piazza. It’s ridiculous because it’s ridiculous.

Let Piazza in — and Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. They’re not guilty of anything you’d present to a jury with a straight face. And then let those three be the ones who begin to put this whole thing to rest. Let Barry Bonds in, because he’s the greatest hitter I’ve ever seen [6]. Let Roger Clemens in, because much as I loathe him [7] he’s one of the greatest pitchers I’ve ever seen. And then let’s debate the merits of Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire based on their performance against pitchers, not Congressmen.

And then let’s get back to arguments we actually want to have.