Juicier heroes — we get what we deserve

“Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played.” – (From the instructions written on ballots for the National Baseball Hall of Fame.)

It’s a nightmare for the National Baseball Hall of Fame – all of the big-name steroid brontosaurs coming up on the same ballot, with numbers that can’t be ignored.

What is a Hall of Fame to do? Tack on a halo and ban several of the great record-setters in the history of the game for cheating – without absolute legal proof, when some of these substances weren’t banned by the sport until 2004, and knowing plenty more players have probably done the same but not gotten caught? Or lose its integrity by letting athletes widely held to have prospered under performance enhancing drugs be voted in and usher in all the tainting and asterisks that this implies?

We’re talking Cooperstown here, sacred ground. Ruth and Gehrig, Mays and Mantle, DiMaggio and Aaron and Jackie Robinson. Ogden Nash once wrote of the Hall, “These men are the game.”

This is the very Hall of Fame that runs the nationally lauded program, “Be a Superior Example” encouraging athletes to help young people stay drug-free. How incredibly hypocritical would it be to honor a class full of athletes like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and holdovers Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmiero when they are widely believed to be steroid abusers? What kind of message does that send to the Little Leaguers running around dusty fields in Webster County?

Holy snikies, what a quandry.

If you are going to start picking and choosing players on lifestyle issues, the Hall has more than a few people who in their time sharpened spikes, corked bats, tripped base runners, threw spitballs. There are alcoholics, coke addicts, those who randomly availed themselves of eager groupies, racists, egomaniacs, prima donnas who even their own teammates couldn’t stand. There’s a guy in there who spit in an umpire’s face, one who split another player’s head open with a bat after a disagreement over a pitch.

And if we let the steroid poster children in to be forever admired, what about Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson – baseball immortals – who are banned for life? There is no evidence Rose bet on baseball while a player, when he compiled stats that are undoubtedly Hall-worthy, or that Jackson participated in the Black Sox scandal to throw a series.

What’s the message? Gambling is evil, but drug abuse, cheating and lying are fine as long as you bash dingers and throw enough strikeouts?

Really, none of the steroid brat pack have faced any serious penalties for illegal drug abuse, or lying about it, even to Congress. McGwire just got a new gig as the Dodgers’ hitting coach out of his drug-aided career. Clemens makes SportsCenter daily while trying for a comeback with some low minor league outfit. The others kick back with the millions of bucks they earned while allegedly juicing.

How can you justify that they are on a ballot for Hall of Fame adulation for suspected drug-laced performance, while Lance Armstrong is stripped of seven Tour de France titles just for suspicion of performance-enhancing substances, and athletes like Ben Johnson, Marian Jones and just this summer Nadzeya Ostapchuk were stripped of their Olympic medals based on results of a single steroids test?

It would stink to be on the sportswriter’s Hall of Fame voting committee this year. They and the Hall will be resoundingly criticized no matter which way they go, when the voting results are announced in January.

I’ve read that some will try a compromise, hoping to determine if the athletes would have had Hall of Fame achievements even without the needle – a slippery slope of wishy-washy assumptions at best.

Barry Bonds was a great player before steroids, and is the all-time home run leader with a record seven MVPs. Aside from the drug issue, he’d be a shoe-in and probably be the first 100 percent choice on all ballots. Clemons, an iron-pumping maniac who was in great shape before steroids, with 354 wins and a record seven Cy Young awards, would also be a lead pipe cinch barring the controversy. Both are a bit grouchy, self-centered and probably dishonest, but hey, it’s the Hall of Fame, not a prom date.

I personally witnessed Clemens screaming at and berating his own 10-year-old son during the Little League championships back when they were held in Aurelia in northwest Iowa. “Sportsmanship?” Sha, right.

I believe both would have been Hall of Famers without chemical assistance. But we will never know how great athletes could or would have been without drugs, even if they were used only late to extend careers a couple of seasons and cement legacy.

McGwire and Sosa hooked up to turn the 1998 season into an extended home-run derby. They struck out prodigiously and stranded teammates while swinging for the fences on every pitch, and were fielding liabilities. Their teams took a back seat to the chase for personal glory. If their claim to fame is simply home runs, I’m not sure either would have had Hall of Fame credentials unaided. Palmiero claimed he failed steroid tests because of residue on a bottle of vitamins he borrowed from a teammate. If you buy that, I have a piece of the Des Moines River to sell you, but he’s also one of four guys with 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, likely Hall material.

We get what we deserve. We didn’t want 2-1 scores, pitcher’s duels, bunts or hit-and-run strategy. We didn’t want sport, we wanted a sideshow of 100 mile an hour fastballs and towering 480-foot homers.

I’ll say one thing for Big Mac, after hemming and hawing around for a few years, he did finally admit to his steroid use, apologized and said it was a mistake – showing more courage than the rest.

Hard to say what the voters will do – let in all the ‘roid ragers, and set a precendent that statistics are what matters and not character? Black-ball them all, ignoring records and star power, and risk rendering their museum irrelevant to fickle fans? Likely it will fall somewhere in between – Bonds may be reluctantly voted in for 2013 with his astronomical numbers, with the others perhaps to follow gradually on their second, fifth, eighth eligible ballot.

To be honest, I’m not really concerned with who gets a bronze bust and a speech in an ill-advised sports coat covered on ESPN. I’m not even all that concerned with who may have cheated in a game of pampered multimillionaires.

I am, however, concerned about the message this will send to young people. There’s no gray area – either drug abuse is OK – or it’s not.

This is just me, but perhaps what the Hall of Fame should do is let these players and other abusers in – not to the Hall, but into an exhibit about the impact of drugs and alcohol abuse on athletes – what it has done to bodies, minds and legacies. That would take some cahones, but it might just achieve something.

We’ll see what the voters are made of, in a month or so. There are good arguments for going either way on our beefy steroid darlings.

Personally, I’d prefer to see the Hall of Fame voters do what Bonds, Clemons, McGwire, Sosa, Palmiero and the like apparently could not …

Just say no.

Dana Larsen is editor of the Storm Lake Pilot Tribune and a former staff writer at The Messenger.