In spite of itself, baseball remains the national pastime— so it’s only fitting that with America mired in crisis, the game would find a way to do the same. Alex Rodriguez’s belated confession that he used steroids from 2001 to 2003, along with Miguel Tejada’s guilty plea for lying to Congress about an ex-teammate * and Barry Bonds’ upcoming trial for perjury, has brought Major League Baseball to the tipping point. Almost 100 years ago, a renegade group of baseball owners launched the short-lived Federal League. Soon, it will be possible to do that again, and sell the naming rights to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
As Tim Marchman points out, no one is shedding any tears for A-Rod, whose career earnings of around $1 million for each forevermore-in-doubt home run make him one of the highest-paid liars in American history. But as William Saletan explains, A-Rod is just the tip of the juiceberg: In 2003, 103 players failed the same test as he did. That’s one out of every eight players, or about three per franchise. Baseball now must confront a Wall Street-size systemic failure: What do you do with everybody when it turns out that, in fact, everybody did it?
Both baseball owners (who looked the other way through the A-Roid era) and the players’ union (which covered for it) will be tempted to ride out the current storm, confident that the long-term fundamentals of the game are sound. They don’t know how much the economic downturn will hurt their bottom line, but the past few years have brought record attendance, strong profits, eye-popping salaries, and plenty of genuine excitement.
But with the revelation that at least one-eighth of its players and most of its marquee stars were (and might still be) faking it, the World Series now looks more like World Wrestling Entertainment. Once the 103 names of A-Rod’s fellow failures become known—along with countless others bound to emerge in the Bonds trial and inevitable congressional investigations—major league rosters will resemble the balance sheets of major banks. The Yankees have A-Rod on contract for the next nine years, and no matter how often he apologizes, he’ll still be the sporting world’s biggest toxic asset.
Without a sharp break in its culture, baseball risks becoming the American equivalent of the Tour de France, a beautiful sport no longer trusted to be on the level. As a prominent White Sox fan might say, baseball needs change we can believe in.
To clean up its act, Major League Baseball must adapt a strategy of shock and awe, instead of surprise and denial:
First, the league needs to change the culture of baseball by punishing steroid use as a team crime, not just an individual one. When the NCAA finds major violations involving a college player, the player isn’t the only one to face sanctions; the college can be ruled ineligible for post-season play. Major League Baseball should apply the same principle to steroid use: If a player tests positive, the player will be suspended for the season—and the team will be barred from taking part in the playoffs or the World Series.
After Rodriguez’s confession, Rangers team owner Tom Hicks said he felt “betrayed” by A-Rod’s actions, and the Yankees no doubt feel the same way. No matter how genuine those feelings, let’s face it: The culture of baseball rewarded everyone—the commissioner, owners, managers, players, sportswriters, fans—for looking the other way. That culture will change in a hurry if everyone in the system has everything to lose by looking the other way.
Second, to stop its currency from being permanently devalued, baseball needs to save the Hall of Fame for heroes. For more than 100 years, baseball has been one long friendly argument about statistics—which ones mattered most and which players, teams, and eras measured up best. Thanks to steroids, the game is now an experiment with a decade or more of bad data. The sabermetricians can’t even tell us how much of Barry Bonds’ head size is real, let alone how many of his 762 home runs would have cleared the fence in any other era.
Major League Baseball can’t rewrite the box scores from those years. The only standard it can hold onto is the Baseball Hall of Fame, its pantheon of heroes for the ages. The Hall of Fame will never be perfect: Some mediocrities have snuck in over the years, and some players who’ve been left out were more deserving. But to fans, it still means something, and it means the world to players. Pete Rose was banned from consideration for gambling on his own team and has spent the past 20 years trying to get in.
Entry into the Hall is based not only on a player’s greatness on the field but also on “integrity, sportsmanship, [and] character.” Under the late MLB Commissioner Bart Giamatti, the board of directors of the Hall of Fame declared that Rose’s crime rendered him ineligible.
In the past few years, the sportswriters whose votes determine entry into the Hall of Fame have imposed a collective ban against suspected steroid users. Mark McGwire, whose statistics would otherwise make him a cinch for the Hall, received just 24 percent of the vote in his first two years of eligibility, and 22 percent% this year. But Commissioner Bud Selig has not said whether illegal steroid use should trigger the character clause.
If I were commissioner of baseball, I’d ask the Hall of Fame board to put every player found to have used steroids onto the permanently ineligible list. For my money, Barry Bonds is one of the three greatest hitters in history, along with Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. But if he is guilty as charged, the Hall of Fame is not the place to honor him. Likewise, A-Rod should not be allowed to spend the next nine years trying to crawl into Cooperstown by waging a war of contrition. He couldn’t even get through his first confession, to ESPN’s Peter Gammons, without touting his Hall of Fame credentials. Ironically, that may be one reason he started taking steroids in the first place: to bolster his case that he belongs among the greatest ever.
If baseball can’t bring itself to enforce an across-the-board ban, it should protect the integrity of the Hall of Fame another way. Under the current system, players become eligible five years after they retire. That’s a strange way to assess a player’s place in history. We don’t put presidents on stamps five years after they’ve left office. In most fields, candidates for the Nobel Prize have to wait decades for their achievements to be recognized.
As baseball tries to make sense of what went wrong over the past decade, it should lengthen the Hall of Fame waiting period to 10 or 20 years after retirement. That will give people time to put the A-Roid era in perspective. And, besides, by then most players should be out for good behavior.
Correction, Feb. 12, 2009: The article mistakenly stated that Miguel Tejada lied to Congress about his own use of performance-enhancing drugs. He is accused of giving false statements about a teammate’s use of the drugs. (Return to the corrected sentence.)