Popo: Keep the cheaters out of Cooperstown

CINCINNATI - I'll never forget the image of Sister Mary Grace charging down the aisle in fourth grade. She was a tiny Ursuline nun with a reddish complexion, granny glasses, a lethal 18-inch ruler and a mean streak. She hurried with her rosary beads in hot pursuit and stopped abruptly to the right of my desk.

She grabbed a paper from the kid next to me, raised her arms for everybody to see, and ripped that paper to shreds. "This is what happens when you cheat in my class" she told us.

That happened about 50 years ago, and I swear, I just worked up a sweat remembering that moment.

It was like the death penalty at St. Nick's. We had been taking a catechism test, and she caught this kid looking from side to side for the answers. I really felt bad for the kid.  If he was depending on my answers, he was really in a world of hurt.

But it was a vivid lesson about cheating and following the rules. It's one that stuck with me.

I'll admit it, over the years I've been a rule-follower. It didn't seem like a big deal. I did what I was told, I didn't talk back, I didn't plagiarize papers, I didn't cause trouble.

As an adult, I mostly drive the speed limit, mostly pay my taxes, and mostly account for every dollar on my expense accounts. I guess you could say I try to be mostly honest. I think our society works better that way.

However, I always enjoyed the fact that players bent the rules in baseball. I loved watching umpires frisk Gaylord Perry, looking for something greasy, with which he could maneuver the baseball. I chuckled when bats exploded and super balls or pieces of cork fell onto the field. It was always fascinating to hear how the grounds crew flooded the first base area to slow down base-stealer Maury Wills, or how teams refrigerated baseballs to deaden home run hitters. It never bothered me that teams tried to steal signs.

Some might call that stuff cheating, but I always thought of it as gamesmanship. These are things that could be detected and corrected. Corked batters got fined, spitballers got suspended, scuff ballers got embarrassed. If they got caught.

So what do we do about Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and other players who manipulated the game by using steroids and racking up incredible statistics? I'm not sure, but I sure as hell don't want them in the Hall of Fame. They had good careers and made a lot of money. Putting them on a pedestal though is not required.

It's a dicey situation. Most of it is suspicion, most of it is allegation, and most of it happened when there weren't any rules against it. So should we excuse it?

I remember going to Spring Training for the Reds in 1984 or 1985. One of my favorite Reds was relief pitcher John Franco, who didn't know a stranger. He loved to talk, and he was very talkative when it came to a young player who he barely recognized. He told me that this player was a "98-pound weakling" the year before in camp.  But he showed up this year all muscle-bound "like he had taken a Joe Weider course." For you younger readers, Joe Weider is the father of body-builders. He ran ads in the back of the old Archie comic books, showing how you didn't have to be the scrawny kid who got sand kicked in his face at the beach.

I was pretty naive in those days, and Franco told me that no body-building course could have an impact that quickly or that profoundly. He said this guy was taking steroids and that's what made him blow up like a balloon.

It's not that steroids were some kind of mystery, but I had always associated them with football, and guys who wanted to bulk up to block or tackle. I had no idea that steroids had a place in baseball to make you bigger, stronger and faster. Baseball always seemed to be a lean and mean game. Obviously I was wrong.

I point out that story because it means steroids were in baseball some 30 years ago, and about 15 years before the rest of us caught on. If John Franco knew it, others guys knew it. Managers knew it. The people who ran baseball knew it. The union people knew it.

This brings us to Wednesday's empty vote on the Baseball Hall of Fame. Some extraordinary players with great numbers will continue to be up for approval. Without the taint of steroids, they would have been elected on the first ballot.  With the taint of steroids, it's possible they'll never make it.

It's up to the Baseball Writers, who are faced with a difficult decision in the years to come when more and more Steroid-Era players become eligible. Is this particular player worthy, even though he used a substance that gave him an advantage? Can you judge a player simply on his statistics and dismiss the means by which he achieved those numbers?

I don't have a vote, but I can't look the other way. Baseball has always been a special game in my mind, and I just don't like those who took a short cut. Those who cheated. "What about scuffing the baseball," you ask? Umpires could uncover the evidence and kick out the violator, but the umpire can't go onto the field and measure for too much testosterone after a prodigious home run.

"We have an official time out on the field for a urine sample."

Baseball has chosen to ban Pete Rose, yet his presence is plentiful at Cooperstown. There's a display that details his accomplishments, and his ultimate fall from grace.

I suggest the accomplishments of Bonds, Clemens, Sosa and others should also be present at the Hall of Fame but in a special exhibit labeled "The Steroid Era." Appropriately, it should be an oversized exhibit. The Hall of Fame is all about history, and this is a significant era in the game because so many records were blown to bits.

There should be an adjoining exhibit called "When baseball looked the other way."  It should feature Commissioners Giamatti, Vincent and Selig and Player Association boss Donald Fehr who collectively put their heads into the sand. They never had the guts to shut it down.

Baseball writers like to refer to Cooperstown as a "shrine." That leads us back to the religious connection and it seems the writers had somebody like Sister Mary Grace to help them cast their ballot, at least this year.

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