What if Lance Armstrong were a baseball player? What if he were on the ballot for the Hall of Fame this year, alongside Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens?
Would you let him in? Knowing what you know now from the report released last week by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, would you give him a pass to Cooperstown?
Plenty of voters are starting to make cases for the stars of the steroid era. There are the Everyone Was Doing It-ists, who say taking steroids wasn't cheating if everyone was playing with the same loaded deck, and the Mickey Mantle-ists, who ask the question posed by Rob Neyer in SB Nation: "If you routinely drink yourself into a stupor and show up to work half-drunk, you've got more integrity and character than if you do whatever you can to play as well as you can, within the established norms of your contemporary colleagues?"
But thanks to the Hall's Rule 5 clause, this debate comes down to a single word: character. The clause, also known as the Pete Rose rule, doesn't say anything about off-the-field activities. It simply states, "Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played." Still, you have to figure that if Pete espoused a cause other than Pete, karma might have been less of a boomerang.
That's going to be a problem for the Steroid Boys too. I Googled "Sammy Sosa" and "philanthropy." The first hit was a story about how a foundation he set up in 1998 for hurricane relief -- one that won him MLB's Roberto Clemente Man of The Year Award in 1998 -- was flat broke in 2000 because it spent vast amounts on overhead. Sosa wound up having to settle a suit over a $22,000 bill that he racked up with a Miami law firm to resolve problems with the IRS.
Mark McGwire opened his infamous statement to Congress in 2005 by promising "to use whatever influence and popularity that I have to discourage young athletes from taking any drug that is not recommended by a doctor." But unless you're Pete Kozma, it's hard to see how he has been influential or visible. [Editor's Note: McGwire has made a series of contributions to the Taylor Hooton Foundation, which fights steroid abuse.]
Bonds wins points for donating $10,000 to the family of Bryan Stow, the Giants fan beaten into disability outside Dodger Stadium last year, and promising to help his kids pay for college. But he also drew fire for using his charity to donate $20,000 to a black journalists group on the eve of the perjury trial in which he was acquitted last year.
Then there's Clemens, who will be giving the keynote lunch speech Oct. 23 to a teachers group in Houston that lists former President George W. Bush as an honorary chairman. It's part of a charity blitz that The Rocket is doing close to home, where he is still popular. But you have to wonder if that whole business of trying to pitch a game for the Astros wasn't a way to kick the can on his candidacy down the road another five years, when the debate over him might be more forgiving.
Imagine what would happen if Armstrong were on the ballot. USADA doesn't have jurisdiction over MLB, just Olympic sports, so it couldn't have brought charges that led to Armstrong being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. All that would have been left was a pile of allegations that the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles declined to turn into a criminal prosecution earlier this year.
In other words, by escaping being charged, Lance would be a step ahead of Barry and Roger.
And that's before anyone started to consider his work with cancer.
Over 202 pages, the USADA report brutally depicts Armstrong as a mob boss who kept his criminal enterprise afloat through bribery and intimidation. And we all know that mob bosses like to hand out turkeys for the holidays. But the Livestrong Foundation that Armstrong created is far from a few turkeys; it's a phenomenon. Of the $35.8 million that it spent last year, according to the French Press Agency, 82 percent went to programs -- an extraordinarily high number in charity circles and one virtually unheard of in athlete charities.
Political strategists call people who don't follow the news "low information voters." But the people rallying around Armstrong know all about his doping, and they still don't care. They're folks like Brock Yetso, who gladly gave up the official sanction for the Revolution 3 Half-Full Triathlon in Maryland that was held Oct. 7 to include Armstrong, the eventual winner.
"For us, our event has always been around the cancer fight and raising funds," Yetso told The New York Times last week. "We have and will continue to welcome him."
Given all that, Lance would hit Rule 5 right out of the park. His charitable works might not be enough to convince virulently anti-PED voters this time around, but I could see him notching 10 to 15 percent more votes than any of the other first-balloters and being first in line when the tide starts to turn for the stars of the steroid era, as you know it eventually will. Baseball can't ignore its numbers or the stat-driven mythology that keeps the turnstiles at the Hall turning. Since baseball doesn't punish by retroactively stripping awards or accomplishments -- unlike the USADA -- those seven titles would be sitting right there with Lance, first on the ballot and then in the Hall.
All of which says more about the problems that the Hall is having than the problems in cycling. The baseball writers who vote are being asked to judge the character of players who deserve just as much scrutiny as Armstrong but haven't done a scintilla of the good.
I don't know what will happen to Sammy, Barry and Roger. But Lance should pull a Michael Jordan and pick up a bat.