“What to do with baseball’s cheaters?”

It seems punishment that is eternal is doubted, anymore, if it’s from God — but not if it’s from Major League Baseball !

The lifetime ban of members of the Chicago White Sox who were supposedly betting on the 1919 World Series has never been lessened by mercy or mitigating circumstances.  History has eased up on their guilt.  Still, Shoeless Joe Jackson won’t be voted into the Hall of Fame — not even with a lifetime batting average of .356.

In our own time, the notable performance-enhancing drug users — Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Roger Clemens — are done with their careers but are being prevented from getting into the Hall of Fame because of the unspoken punishment by the baseball writers who do the voting.

Pete Rose is getting mentioned more & more as a mercy case for getting into the Hall of Fame in his older years, but the MLB Commissioner who banned Rose for life for betting on the game — Fay Vincent — isn’t budging.  He says the ban on Rose needs to remain,

One reason for the lingering punishment certainly is the lingering lies over their innocence that these players maintained for so many years — even in testimony before Congress.  Another reason is the seriousness of their offense.  Gambling is the first and most frequent warning every Major Leaguer is given.  Pete can’t say he never got the memo.  Steroid-use is banned not only for its unfair advantage but for its proven health perils.

Not only banning steroid use but chewing tobacco is what minor-league baseball has done to protect players (and the younger generations watching them).  But baseball players are stubborn in their routines, and once they arrive at the freedom of the Major League level, chewing resumes.  The early death of Tony Gwynn from cancer related to chewing tobacco hasn’t shocked hardly any of them into stopping.

While MLB continues working to protect players from themselves, the additional reason for banning performance-enhancing drugs is the attempt to protect the game itself — especially, the game’s “crown jewels” — its most famous records:  mainly, home runs.

Now we have the march of Alex Rodriguez towards the throne.  But A-Rod (or A-Roid, as some are calling the steroid scofflaw) is experiencing the Big Chill.  Years ago, when he hit home run No. 500, he was later festooned with honors and awards at a pre-game ceremony at Yankee Stadium.  That was pre-conviction.  Now, post-conviction, he has passed Willie Mays, meaning A-Rod is now fourth from No. 1.  But all that he has gotten is polite applause.

In previous years, when a player like Lou Brock broke a record (in his case for stealing bases), the game was stopped, and teammates of this beloved player charged out onto the field to congratulation him.  The same thing happened in 1998 when Mark McGwire (not yet admitting steroid use) broke the single-season home run record by Roger Maris.  The game was stopped, McGwire was given a microphone, players came out onto the field…

By glaring contrast, when A-Rod tied Willie Mays at 660 and then passed him with No. 661, his Yankee teammates stayed in the dugout.  They didn’t even take a step onto the field — they merely applauded politely,

Following up, there will be no pre-game ceremony.  Instead, Yankee management is greeting the achievement with legal action.  They don’t want to pay the $6 million bonus it promised A-Rod for this milestone back in the days when he was thought to be clean.

What’s to be done with those who have cheated?

Three possibilities.

One, should baseball resort once again to — the asterisk?

When Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs, fans were upset that somebody had barged into baseball’s Holy of Holies — a record that had stood for four decades and seemed the pinnacle of the sentiment “we hate change.”  (The same outrage arose when Henry Aaron threatened Babe Ruth’s overall record of 714 home runs.  Maris was white, Aaron was black — but “we hate change” brought misery to them both.)  A further consensus arose that an asterisk should accompany Roger Maris’ record.  He hit 61 home runs in a 1961 season that was eight games longer than the 1927 season when the Babe hit 60.

The asterisk never DID materialize on any but a few record books (like Guinness’).  But the lessening of Maris’ accomplishment stood for years.  Public sentiment changed, though.  Billy Crystal’s movie 61* was well-received, proving how much sympathy had turned in Roger Maris’ favor.

I think baseball fans and writers have had enough of the experience with the asterisk.

Secondly, could there be a way not to hide the cheating but to announce it — along with a player’s accomplishments?  In the ancient Olympics, if an athlete were found to have heated, statues of him would be erected on the side of highways proclaiming him as a cheater.

How about a Hall of Fame plaque with a line at the bottom reading, “This player was determined to be cheating by the use of performance-enhancing drugs.”

I wonder how many players would accept election to the Hall on those conditions.

Third — Major League baseball can simply admit that cheating happens, and players get away with it.

Gaylord Perry got into the Hall of Fame — and then admitted what everybody had suspected — he had been throwing a spitball all through his career.

In his book Ball Four, Jim Bouton told on Hall of Fame teammate Whitey Ford for using his wedding ring to cut into a baseball cover, thus making for a more gyroscopic curveball.

Norm Cash of the Detroit Tigers won the 1961 batting title in the American League with an enormous average of .361 — only to admit years later that he had used a corked bat (in which the core of the bat is hollowed out and filled in with cork, making the bat lighter to swing). The next season, he did not use an illegally lightened bat, and his average dropped 118 points to .243 (still a record for a batting champion’s demise from one season to the next).

And these are just the cases that we KNOW about!

My preference is:  exposure.   Nothing beats exposure.  Because we are now aware that statistics don’t make a player great.  Fame doesn’t even make a player likeable.  What makes a player a favorite of fans and teammates is — character.  The more we hear about the cheaters, the more stand out the men like Henry Aaron and Willie Mays who toiled for less pay, in harsher conditions and proved themselves better in every way than the shallow characters of today’s game.

Above all, whose is perhaps the most admired name in baseball in our day?

Someone who never challenged for a home run title — Roberto Clemente.  He does not head any category of statistics — most hits, highest batting average, RBI’s.  He’s in the mix, but not at the top of any.  But in addition to being such a complete player, Clemente did all of the little things day by day — played his heart out, ran out routine grounders — such that teammates were motivated to play harder.

And we learned what kind of not just complete player but complete person he was.

The problem with all of this controversy over records is that — just like the players themselves who are found to be cheating — we think that what matters is what’s immediate.  The success NOW, the record NOW, the wins NOW.  It all passes.  What rises to the top eventually is — the importance of values.  They trump — eventually — always.


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