By Zach Bernard
Last night, Al Jazeera aired a documentary on steroids in professional sports entitled The Dark Side, which notably implicated future Hall of Fame NFL quarterback Peyton Manning for having human growth hormone shipments sent to his wife, Ashley. Manning was livid, and his accusers wasted little to no time recanting their claims.
The Dark Side implicates several of Manning’s NFL colleagues, along with three Major League Baseball players — Ryan Howard, Ryan Zimmerman, and Taylor Teagarden, the latter of whom admitted his use of steroids amongst several performance enhancing drugs.
Once the news broke of these three individuals being associated with performance enhancing drugs, baseball Twitter responded with a collective shrug. This is a good thing; outrage and hatred and vilification of the individuals who use PEDs is always rather irrational, since MLB has the tightest drug policy of the four majors and anyone who uses an illegal substance is already accepting the consequences of getting caught. That’s the league we support in 2015, and it’s fine that way.
And yet, outrage will come, because that (hypothetical) Braves fan who remembers when Ryan Zimmerman hit a walk-off blast against his team on Opening Night years ago can now, however baseless, just assume he’s been cheating this entire time, boo him during every plate appearance, and live with that general sense of bitterness for all of eternity.
It’s childish, and these assumptions are dangerous, especially since there’s no concrete evidence that Zimmerman actually did anything. But there’s a culture in baseball, where any hint of being a cheat makes you an outcast to the Inner Circle, no matter how little evidence is actually stacked against you.
This is a mindset facilitated by the Baseball Writer’s Association of America, every single year, when the annual Hall of Fame vote comes around and guys like Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, who have never been implicated as steroid users with cold, hard facts, can’t get in because there’s a collection of “journalists” who paint an entire era as “cheaters” with an unbelievably broad brush, and without the facts to back them up. And I use “journalists” in quotes, because no reporter worth his salt would jeopardize someone’s achievement solely through baseless hunches, and that’s exactly what they are.
I’m not saying all of the writers feel this way, and a lot of members of the BBWAA are influences to my writing even if I don’t always agree with their platforms. But when you get ESPN’s Pedro Gomez, who helps set an agenda to a significant following of 92,800 individuals on Twitter and even more as part of the “Worldwide Leader’s” viewing audience, passing off totally false claims that Jeff Bagwell never denied steroid use — and then when proven wrong playing the immature “Well I have a vote and you don’t!” bully card — you’re creating a faction of individuals who will take that information to solidify their own baseless platforms.
I am a die-hard Cubs fan and have been one for 20 years. Do you think it’s easy for me to look at Jeff Bagwell’s .272/.390/.496 slash, 37 home runs and 131 RBI in almost 200 career games against the Cubs, to be reminded of all those times he obliterated Cubs pitching and made our lives miserable, and heavily lobby for his entry to baseball’s greatest shrine?
It’s easier than you’d think, because while Bagwell made me furious as a fan, I don’t enjoy seeing a franchise player who over 15 seasons hit 449 home runs, logged over 2,300 hits, stole 202 bases and logged an extraordinary slash of .297/.408/.540 fail to gain entry to the Hall of Fame just because some people assume he probably used performance enhancing drugs.
Never mind the fact that no teammate has spoken against him, he never tested positive, and he wasn’t in the Mitchell Report. But he got huge! And played with Ken Caminiti for awhile, so surely he must have done something.
It’s dangerous territory, and genuinely terrible for someone that’s considered a trusted news source to spew their prejudice and opinion as fact to a wide range of people. And those individuals are the ones chosen to define and cement the legacies who spent 20 years of their lives mastering their craft and leaving a mark on the game we all love.
The Jeff Bagwell case is a microcosm of the greater issue in baseball: even though Major League Baseball has unbelievably tough (but appropriate) drug standards to combat steroid use in the game, the agenda setters and Hall of Fame voters just can’t get over performance enhancing drugs. And that prevents a lot of fans who take certain writers at their word from moving on, as well. This leads to assumptions that can ultimately tarnish careers and legacies forever.
We see surges in outrage over steroid use, both historically and currently, in baseball and it’s generally around the Hall of Fame vote reveal and the induction ceremony. And it’s tired.
MLB is launching an investigation into the Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Howard and Taylor Teagarden cases, as they rightfully should. They have rules, and even though the allegations are shaky at best, there’s simply no knowing what will actually be uncovered. In the cases of Zimmerman and Howard, maybe they did use illegal substances! They didn’t kill anyone; they just sought a competitive advantage using their own bodies and will serve the allotted suspension length.
But if the investigation comes up empty and there’s no evidence these guys did anything wrong, there’s still that faction of individuals who will label them cheaters, anyway, solely because they were implicated. And entering 2016, there are probably far more effective uses for our outrage.