Commentary

Sosa belongs in Hall of Fame

Denying Sammy a spot in Cooperstown won't make the steroid era go away

Updated: November 28, 2012, 7:50 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- The day is here, the one that baseball lovers have been dreading. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and our guy, Sammy Sosa, are finally on the Hall of Fame ballot.

If you were sick of steroids talk before, well, the next month could be bad for you as writers and fans hash out what the Hall of Fame means and how we feel about ourselves as voyeurs to baseball's steroid era.

[+] EnlargeSammy Sosa
AP Photo/Al BehrmanIf you can't wipe out the steroid era, you can't wipe out the players from that time, and Sammy Sosa's impact is undeniable.

Eligible voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America get to vote, and players need to be on 75 percent of the ballots to earn induction. The results will be announced Jan. 9.

Will Chicago be celebrating Sosa's Hall of Fame induction at the Cubs Convention on Jan. 18-20? Probably not. The local writers aren't too jazzed about promoting Sosa for baseball immortality, and I have a feeling their peers across the country will make a statement in passing him over. Maybe Bonds gets in, but not Sosa. As it is, the Cubs have all but erased Sosa from the organization.

It's a little ironic, isn't it, for a Chicago guy to get penalized for taking advantage of the gray area of the law? Since when is this city so square?

I don't have a vote, but I hope all three get in and make for the most awkward induction ceremony of all time. If the writers really want to recognize the roguish behavior of that decade or so of bad behavior, they should do it by electing the three-man rogues gallery to baseball's museum.

I have no problem with writers using their ballots as judgments on a baseball player's honor and value. The term "Hall of Famer" should mean something beyond accumulated stats, but if writers are supposed to compare eligible players to their peers in their era, how do you leave these three off? Bonds was the best hitter of his generation and has the home run record. Clemens was the power pitcher of the radar gun era, and Sosa was the embodiment of the home run.

And if writers want to make a stand about the shameful way the powers that be let this behavior propagate, they should avoid the temptation to punish with a first-ballot snub and instead make this "The Steroid Ballot."

I want to see Bonds, Sosa and Clemens make these speeches. I want to cringe at the old guys in blazers sitting behind them. I want to hear Sosa ramble, speaking the English he claimed was impossible at that Senate hearing.

Let's not use this opportunity to decry or deny history. The so-called steroid era happened (and drugs weren't the only thing that helped increase home run frequency, but it's the sexiest reason), and you can't wipe out those years when Sosa was hitting 60-plus homers on Flintstone vitamins. And if you can't erase those years, you have to acknowledge the best players from that era, tainted or not, in the sport's museum.

Writers compare players to others from their own era as a way to determine who belongs in the Hall of Fame, and I hope enough have the good sense, and in some cases, the courage, to vote for these players who best represented the awakening era.

And, oh yeah, Craig Biggio too. He's also on the ballot.

During the height of Sosa's muscle-bound career, there was no testing, but there was a tacit approval from baseball to turn the sport into a power game by any means necessary. Home runs equaled fans, and who doesn't want fans? Baseball was eventually shamed into change, and while I'd say the sport is better for it, that doesn't mean you have to erase the past or wallow in shame for watching it happen.

Sosa's alleged steroid usage was whispered, mostly, until a New York Times story in 2009 fingered him as failing a 2003 mandatory drug test, although it was never publicly disclosed that he failed a test. There are no smoking needles from the 1998 season when he and McGwire "saved" baseball, but all you need are two eyes and a kindergartner's ability to put two and two together to make the connection between their exploits and that era's performance-enhancing drug problem.

From 1993 to 2003, Sosa hit 502 of his 609 homers, including 60-plus three times. He was the king of Chicago, and on a national level, as McGwire moped through his record-setting season, Sosa was seen as the joyful example of everything that makes this sport great. From his impoverished background in the Dominican Republic to the way he sprinted to right field, he embodied the clichés we hold dear. Then, of course, his ego became too big and his arms too skinny, and he was ushered out of Chicago's good graces. As the curtain was pulled on the drug abuses of that time, his image was crushed like his famous clubhouse stereo.

But there is something to be said for image. Some would argue he made a mockery of baseball, but they only do this in hindsight. In real time, he put on a show, and everyone was grateful, even the writers to whom he was often a jerk. With time, Sosa's performances might be looked at as garish, the devaluing of baseball's most masculine act, the home run, but we loved it in real time. And it happened.

"Obviously, he put up numbers here that were phenomenal," former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said in 2009, when the New York Times story implicating Sosa came out. "He did a lot for the city, and the franchise had some really down years when he was going good. So I'm sure he did a lot for our fan base and the organization. Let people judge him on what kind of total player compared to the other players of his era."

[+] EnlargeSammy Sosa
Paul K Buck/AFP/Getty ImagesSammy Sosa allegedly tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003, according to a New York Times report. The former Cubs slugger has not admitted to using steroids.

Hendry, as usual, is right. The Cubs should be honoring Sosa at their convention regardless of whether he gets in the Hall. But they won't. Todd Walker, however, will be there, basking in applause. To ignore Sosa is really just making it easy on ourselves for loving him once.

If you're going to judge players by the era in which they played, you have to acknowledge the outrageous success of alleged users like Sosa and Bonds. I guess I'm missing a "moral high ground" chip, but if a number of players were using these types of drugs, what does it accomplish by acting as if Sosa's success never happened? Does it make the voters feel better?

While I'm loath to accept the whining of baseball writers about the sanctity of the game, I do acknowledge that celebrating drug usage could be harmful to young athletes. But it isn't really the writers' job to police the youth, or the Hall's purpose. It's a museum that should accurately represent the history of the sport. Major League Baseball, and its minor league affiliates, will deliver an anti-drug message with testing and penalties.

We have to accept that hitting performances from the steroid era should be looked at like pitching performances from the dead ball era, and we should accept that baseball is a game that has evolved over time. From racial bigotry to scuffed baseballs to amphetamines to expansion pitching and hitter-friendly ballparks, there are cases of players and owners making selfish decisions. That's fine, athletes are inherently selfish.

Baseball is a wonderful game, but it is not made up of perfect people doing virtuous things. Let's stop pretending it is.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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