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What Rule?

[ 5 ] July 27, 2009 |

While I was wondering how much I could quote from his pay site and be within the boundaries of fair use, I see via Neyer that Bill James’s excellent article on baseball and steroids is now available. My money quote would actually be different than Rob’s:

The discrimination against PED users in Hall of Fame voting rests upon the perception that this was cheating. But is it cheating if one violates a rule that nobody is enforcing, and which one may legitimately see as being widely ignored by those within the competition?

It seems to me that, at some point, this becomes an impossible argument to sustain—that all of these players were “cheating”, in a climate in which most everybody was doing the same things, and in which there was either no rule against doing these things or zero enforcement of those rules. If one player is using a corked bat, like Babe Ruth, clearly, he’s cheating. But if 80% of the players are using corked bats and no one is enforcing any rules against it, are they all cheating? One better: if 80% of the players are using corked bats and it is unclear whether there is or is not there is any rules against it, is that cheating?

And. ..was there really a rule against the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs? At best, it is a debatable point. The Commissioner issued edicts banning the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs. People who were raised on the image of an all-powerful commissioner whose every word was law are thus inclined to believe that there was a rule against it.

But “rules”, in civilized society, have certain characteristics. They are agreed to by a process in which all of the interested parties participate. They are included in the rule book. There is a process for enforcing them. Someone is assigned to enforce the rule, and that authority is given the powers necessary to enforce the rule. There are specified and reasonable punishments for violation of the rules.

The “rule” against Performance Enhancing Drugs, if there was such a rule before 2002, by-passed all of these gates. It was never agreed to by the players, who clearly and absolutely have a right to participate in the process of changing any and all rules to which they are subject. It was not included in any of the various rule books that define the conduct of the game from various perspectives. There was no process for enforcing such a rule. The punishments were draconian in theory and non-existent in fact.

It seems to me that, with the passage of time, more people will come to understand that the commissioner’s periodic spasms of self-righteousness do not constitute baseball law. It seems to me that the argument that it is cheating must ultimately collapse under the weight of carrying this great contradiction—that 80% of the players are cheating against the other 20% by violating some “rule” to which they never consented, which was never included in the rule books, and which for which there was no enforcement procedure. History is simply NOT going to see it that way.

On a literal level, I’m not entirely sure that this specific position will be as widely accepted as James thinks. Arbitrary power, union bashing, and drug war moralism are all very powerful factors in society, and as we’ve seen all too often the combination of the three can be potent indeed. So while James is certainly correct on the merits I have no doubt that some sportswriters will continue to refer to players who used PEDs as “cheaters” despite the indefensibility of the position.

Fortunately, because of the other dynamics James mentions I don’t think it will matter. The key factor is that PED users include a player with a serious claim as the greatest pitcher in MLB history and two players likely to have a serious claim as the greatest player ever. Given that some players who used (or will be found to have used) PEDs will be voted into the hall, the exclusion of better players who used PEDs is going to be impossible to sustain. Hopefully this will happen sooner rather than later.