Tyler Kepner’s piece a couple months ago about drug warrior sportswriters contained a very revealing quote:
“In each of those areas, players who used steroids fail the test — period,” Scott Miller, of CBSSports.com, said in an e-mail. “I know it isn’t the Hall of Choirboys. I know the stories about Ty Cobb and others who at times were miscreants. But I also know that the Steroid Era was one of the most shameful chapters in the game’s history. It made a mockery out of the record book. It pushed retired legends into the shadows when they should have remained in the spotlight, and it put the spotlight on others who never should have been there.”
That’s really the issue here — players of the 90s were able to obtain records that properly belong to baby boomer icons. That’s primarily what the steroid freakout is about. It’s why moralistic rants about steroids fit so well alongside the umpteenth assertion that fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers were the only baseball fans that have ever mattered. This is why Willie Mays’s use of Illegal PEDs isn’t an issue and Whitey Ford and Gaylord Perry’s cheating is cute, but the use of steroids should prevent arguably the greatest position player and pitcher ever from being elected to the Hall of Fame (although what Clemens and Bonds did, unlike Whitey Ford’s use of his wedding ring to scuff the ball and make it sing arias, wasn’t actually against the rules.) And it’s why “he looked kinda muscular” is considered sufficient evidence of steroid use for a 90s player.
I’d also note that the argument doesn’t make any sense on its own terms. There’s no such thing as perfectly neutral conditions in which to set a record. Roger Maris wouldn’t have set a home run record if 1961 wasn’t an expansion year or if he played his home games in Griffith Stadium. Babe Ruth wouldn’t have the same level of offensive production if the system in place at the time was more efficient about identifying the best pitchers and getting them into major league uniforms. The fact that Barry Bonds’s records were set in unusual conditions makes them like…pretty much every other record.
This is one reason that, although this ridiculous moralizing will keep some great players out of the Hall of Fame, it’s doomed in the long run. As time advances, fewer and fewer people will understand why records set in the 60s and 70s are sacrosanct and those of the 90s aren’t.