The steroid issues are the game's struggles. They raise difficult and interesting questions about value and performance, about justice, about the extent to which we should expect players to risk their health and about whether a game played by artificially reconstituted human beings has any meaning.
Steroid use by professional athletes bleeds into a public health crisis when young kids die from heart failure because they so desperately wanted to succeed that they put themselves at risk. People in and around the game bear a huge burden, not just over what to do about steroid use now but what to do about steroid use in the past.
Why does the past matter today? Because the past always matters in baseball.
For all the books, documentaries and stories passed along about baseball history, the true center of that story is the Hall of Fame, where the greatest players are, as we say, "immortalized." The players enshrined become gods, of a sort, within the game.
They are the highest exemplars of the craft. We recognize that they paid the ultimate respect to the game, if nothing else, by being the best at it. We'll put up with all manner of scoundrels and lowlifes in the Hall of Fame so long as they respected the game and played it the best.
If we're serious enough about baseball, we will not enshrine people who compromise the game. The Hall of Fame is the very highest honor for a baseball player. Those who dishonor the game shouldn't be honored by it.
The matter of Pete Rose draws our attention because it shows how deeply important it is to honor the game. Today, almost no one still argues that Rose should go into the Hall of Fame for his merits as a player, because everyone now knows he's forsaken the game as a manager.
While the question of whether Rose should go into the Hall of Fame never became a live concern, since his name never appeared on a ballot, the steroid problem works up a mess of a whole different order. Increasingly, as players of the receding generation reach career milestones, we note that the milestones have lost their meaning when they're achieved by artificial means.
Over the next 20 years, we'll have to consider how many of these players will go into the Hall of Fame. We know just enough about them to know very little. We know players dishonored the game, but we don't know who. We have evidence of varying degrees. We have questions about how to weigh the evidence.
We know that players who use steroids raise the bar unacceptably, because they force the wrong kind of decision on their contemporaries, who must either assume the illegal risks or fall behind. As we desire that baseball be played in reasonably human proportions and dislike the thought of people harming their health to play baseball, we find that juiced players compromise the game to a degree that can't be ignored.
And because we don't know who exactly used steroids, we are forced to make judgments about the evidence. Where the Hall of Fame vote is concerned, we're not required to know beyond a shadow of a doubt. We're not throwing people into prison. We don't need fingerprints. Because no one is entitled to be in the Hall of Fame, no one is truly punished for being left out.
Take two players, Junior Griffey and Sammy Sosa. Not only are they exact contemporaries, both coming to the majors in 1989, but the stat lines reveal almost the exact same player, though Griffey's is a little better. Sosa reached 600 homers last week, while Griffey reached 584 last weekend in Seattle.
But many of us strongly believe that Sosa's numbers are artificially inflated because we strongly believe that Sosa used steroids. We don't know for sure that he used steroids. We do know that when a congressional committee brought up a normally talkative Sosa to raise the question a couple years ago, he pleaded poor English and avoided answering the question.
Now that Sosa has reached 600 homers, we question his credentials as a Hall of Famer. The numbers aren't an issue. When we vote on him, just as when we vote on Mark McGwire, we're really voting about steroids.
Now we have players hatching themselves in laboratories. We always figured big money would lead to increasing professionalism and year-around training, but we didn't think it would come to this. Players are going into the great beyond, altering their body chemistries beyond their natural human levels, breaking federal law, taking risks to their health and enhancing their performances so much that other players have to at least consider it.
It's not just a question of cheating. It's a humanistic question, and a question about what counts for an exemplary athletic career. Would we be interested in baseball played by clones, bionics or steroid users, and how would we regard their achievements if we were?
Some voters say they will vote for all the top players of the steroid era because we don't know exactly who used steroids. Understanding that such voters aren't pro-steroid, one wishes they would reconsider. The new questions are much more complicated.
Are players who play god with themselves really gods? Did these players make history, or did they merely distort it? Are these players the future of human experience, or are they a distortion of it? What will future evidence tell us about specific players? If you hold a belief that some player compromised the game, can you vote him to the game's highest honor?
If we believe a player used steroids, forcing a dangerous and illegal competitive choice on his contemporaries, do we have to vote him in right away just because we missed the boat on amphetamines? What does voting in players under steroid clouds say to the past? Or to the future? Or about baseball? Or about humanity?
Happily, we have time to decide, up to 20 years after a player ends his career. We should definitely take it.