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Why even an illegal PED confession shouldn't be relevant to the Hall of Fame

Based on the numbers, Mark McGwire has a

Based on the numbers, Mark McGwire has a strong case for the Hall of Fame. But his use of performance-enhancing substances have kept him out so far. (Feb. 17, 2010) Credit: AP

The Hall of Fame always generates good discussion in the yakosphere (trademark Neil Best), and the release of my HOF ballot yesterday received plenty of feedback, the majority of which - as far as I could tell - was positive. I appreciate all feedback, of course, but sure, I like positive better than negative.

Predictably, what there was of the negative feedback concerned my feelings about illegal PEDs. Much about aiding and abetting cheaters, and the like.

I know the sentiment. I used to feel precisely that way. That's why I did not vote for Mark McGwire my first three years as a voter, which were also his first three years on the ballot. And shoot, this was before his public confession. This was just based on what came out of his apearance at the infamous 2005 House hearings.

So what changed for me? An appreciation of history, fairness and consistency.

After all, McGwire isn't the only person among the all-time home run leaders to make such a confession. 

Hank Aaron, without public pressure or visits to Capitol Hill, wrote this in his 1992 autobiography, "I Had a Hammer." The "case" to which he refers is his "battle" with Willie Mays over who was the better player:

"Actually, the 1968 season wasn't the best time to present my case. It was the first time since my rookie year that I didn't drive in or score 100 runs. I was so frustrated that at one point I tried using a pep pill ”a greenie” that one of my teammates gave me. When that thing took hold, I thought I was having a heart attack. It was a stupid thing to do."

(hat tip to Cosellout for the passage)

Why doesn't anyone stump for Aaron to be booted out of Cooperstown? Why is he held up as a paragon of virtue, the anti-Barry Bonds?

"He tried them only once"? OK. No athlete ever lies about this sort of stuff, right? 

"Greenies aren't steroids"? The impact might be different, although we probably don't know as much about steroids as we think we know. More to the point, greenies are like steroids in one very important way, the way that seemingly drives the anti-"cheater" crowd. Both are illegal.

My friend Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe published his ballot yesterday, and he shared these two thoughts, among many others: 1) "Ignoring drug use seems unconscionable"; and 2) "The argument that baseball didn't have drug testing until 2004 is a silly one in my opinion. To use steroids or PEDs, a player had to break the laws of the United States by illicitly obtaining a drug and then secretly use it over a period of time to obtain the benefits. They knew what they were doing was wrong whether their union tacitly approved or not."

In response to both, I would point to Aaron and the greater history of amphetamine usage in the game. Wouldn't those opinions apply to that era, as well? 

Ultimately, the illegal PED users are guilty of trying to be better. Trying, ultimately, to help their team win. As opposed to say, Pete Rose, whose motives were seriously in question when he bet on selective Reds games.

It's bad, in other words, but there are worse baseball crimes.

The laws of the land? Not terribly interested. As a Hall of Fame voter, I'm not charged with considering the laws of the land. If I were, then I'd have to eliminate the whole cocaine crowd (Tim Raines, Keith Hernandez, Dwight Gooden) even though no one considers cocaine to be a long-term, performance-enhancing drug.

I'm concerned only about the laws of the game.

Am I glad there are now rules and drug-testing in place? You betcha. The game is better off without blatant illegal PED usage. I think the HGH testing is dumb - the drug doesn't accomplish much and is extremely difficult to detect - but hey, if players are willing to get stuck with needles to help eradicate a perception, that's their choice.

McGwire confessed because he wanted to get back into the game as the Cardinals' hitting coach in 2010. St. Louis felt it was a necessary step to avoid constant media scrutiny. 

There are plenty of McGwire's contemporaries out there, we can assume with just a tiny jump of faith, who have no interest in getting back to the game, and who are living with the knowledge that they used illegal PEDs. Perhaps they feel guilty. Perhaps not. But we won't get confirmation, because they won't choose to tell us.

Confessions are great for informational purposes and more. It's always helpful to learn from our past, to provide more perspective. Shoot, Ken Caminiti's confession to Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci, back in 2002, got the ball rolling for bona fide testing.

But I think the Hall of Fame ballot is about something else. It's about judging a player's performance against his contemporaries, and it's about considering and understanding the times in which they played.

Like it or not, the times in which all players played were quite imperfect. They probably are now, too. It's life. We're human. Better to deal with the known, in my estimation, than to rail against the unknown.

--Here's a story about the Mets warning R.A. Dickey to not climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. If Dickey actually does suffer a serious injury during his climb, which he still plans to make, then the Mets probably would have the ability to convert Dickey's contract from guaranteed to non-guaranteed and, provided they release him no later than 15 days before Opening Day, pay him just 30 days salary, which would be about $710,000.

I don't think Sandy Alderson is losing sleep over Dickey's climb. I think the letter the Mets sent Dickey's agent was more of a friendly reminder: "Hey, Adventure Boy, if you mess up, you ain't getting paid."

--Have a great day.

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