Roger Clemens Acquittal Still Resolves Nothing

Roger Clemens’ acquittal on perjury charges may be a triumph of justice as the government case against him was weak. For this baseball fans should be relieved, as few fans, even those who never liked Roger Clemens, would have liked to have seen the baseball legend doing time based on a flimsy government case against him. However, Clemens’ acquittal speaks to the problems that baseball still faces in its efforts to put the steroid era in the past, because it does nothing to change the realities that Clemens took steroids and MLB did not seem to care.

Significantly, neither Barry Bonds nor Clemens, two steroid users who were probably the top hitter and pitcher of their generation, faced any formal consequences for their steroid use. Bonds was informally blacklisted from the game, but neither faced official censure or repercussions of any kind. In this sense, MLB appeared to be relying on the justice system to address the issue of steroid abuse with these two extremely high profile players. This, of course, was a ridiculous idea as the justice system exists to enforce the law and adjudicate disputes not to enforce policies for businesses like MLB. Not surprisingly, the justice system worked, but did nothing to meaningfully address the steroid problem.

MLB’s policy for bringing closure to the steroid issue is similar to what their policy was when the steroid problem was in full swing-ignore it and hope it will go away. This approach has not been entirely unsuccessful as few people seem too concerned that so many of baseball’s recently retired great players used steroids. It also helps that most known or highly suspected steroid users are either retired, almost retired like Manny Ramirez, or in the decline phase of their careers like Alex Rodriguez.

The problems with this approach is that the steroid issue is foisted back on baseball fans every year during the Hall of Fame voting and will also become more significant as the next generation of sluggers seeks to break the records of the steroid laden sluggers of the recent past. The Hall of Fame voting forces sportswriters to make decisions according to no specific policy, based on incomplete reports, their gut feeling and rumors. This is no way to determine who should get elected to the Hall of Fame.

Among baseball fans and sportswriters there is a consensus that Clemens, Bonds and Rodriguez, three of the greatest players ever, took steroids, but it is not at all clear what to do about that with regards to their place in history, potential entrance to the Hall of Fame or the record book. Moreover, in the upcoming years there will likely be more players whose Hall of Fame chances, like those of Jeff Bagwell, suffer due to circumstantial evidence and hunches.

This will inevitably lead to a Hall of Fame that reflects the quirkiness of the voters, even more than it already does, as well as their dependence on incomplete evidence. Is it really good for baseball not only that Rodriguez, Bonds and Clemens could easily remain outside of the Hall of Fame for years to come, but that inevitably at least one inferior player who did take steroids will make it in to the Hall of Fame? The subjective side of this is extremely clear as these three superstars will likely be punished by the voters not only for their steroid abuse, but for being unlikeable as well. Using steroids may be a pardonable mistake, but using steroids combined with surly behavior with the media is not.

Baseball history has already been compromised by the steroids era, most visibly by Barry Bonds’ all time home run record. Outside of the Bay Area, most baseball fans still recognize Henry Aaron, a great hitter who may or may not have used amphetamines in the 1960s, as the all time home run leader. Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Bonds all broke Roger Maris’ single season home run record of 61 in the late 1990s and early 21st century. Some fans recognize the record as belonging to Bonds, while others probably still thinks it belongs to Maris. This problem could rear its head again in the not too distant future if some steroid free slugger, for example Bryce Harper, hits 65 or so home runs, more than Maris but less than Bonds in a season.

Baseball records have always been disputed; and apocryphal asterisks have long been part of how many fans view the record book, but steroids are a problem of a different kind. It does not reflect a fundamental change in the game such as longer seasons or integration, but that for a few years cheating was okay, and then it wasn’t. No court case is going to change that and efforts to ignore it, ultimately, will not make the problem go away.