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Book still open on steroid era

August 23, 2009|BILL SHAIKIN

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — You could walk right past the sign without noticing it.

It is a small rectangle, black letters on a yellow background, not at eye level but at waist level.

It sits at the entrance to, but not within, one of the display areas at the Hall of Fame. It is 101 words, a tentative and uneasy first draft of a sad chapter in baseball history.

Its title: "Performance-Enhancing Drugs."

This is not the preferred subject of conversation for Jeff Idelson, president of the Hall of Fame.

He would rather invite you to slip on a pair of protective gloves and hold a 35-ounce bat once used by Babe Ruth. He would rather share the excitement of the first bilingual exhibit in the Hall, an interactive celebration of Latin baseball -- pick a question, push a button, Francisco Rodriguez answers.

But the Hall of Fame is much more than an annual induction ceremony and gallery of plaques, and so Idelson talks about the sign, with its four sentences and so much left unsaid.

"As a history museum, we know performance-enhancing drugs are a topic we'll have to address in time," he said. "It's a story that's very much evolving.

"To ignore the subject completely would be irresponsible. To paint a complete picture now would also be irresponsible. History museums need the perspective of time to be able to explain a topic thoroughly and accurately. There has not been that perspective."

There also has not been a demand.

The Hall of Fame welcomes some 300,000 visitors every year. Neither Idelson nor Brad Horn, senior director of communications and education, could recall a visitor asking whether the Hall would open an exhibit on the steroid era.

"If it's going to be in the history books, I think we have to put it in the Hall of Fame," said Joe Torre, the Dodgers' manager and a Hall of Famer in waiting.

"You'd like to think everything in the Hall of Fame is celebratory. You have to inform people also."

The Hall includes a display panel on the 1919 Black Sox scandal and a gallery of Negro League artifacts, sharing the shame of segregation and the pride of Jackie Robinson. Those stories were easier to tell, Idelson said, and not solely because of the perspective of time.

"Segregation and gambling, the average fan understands it a little better," he said. "They were living it."

So, argues Tom Lasorda, were the thousands of young athletes -- perhaps tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands -- who used steroids. That, the Dodgers' Hall of Fame former manager contends, is why Congress pressured baseball to crack down on drugs.

"The kids should know what happened," Lasorda said.

It is easy to know when Shoeless Joe Jackson was banned, when the color barrier was broken. It is not so easy to sense when time might provide the proper perspective on the steroid era.

Mark McGwire was considered a pariah by Hall of Fame voters when he initially appeared on the ballot three years ago. He has another 12 years of eligibility, and by then we might know more about the era, so much more that McGwire's alleged steroid use might not be considered uncommon for the time.

We already know that, from the 1994 strike to the present day, every World Series championship team has included at least one player linked to the use of performance-enhancing drugs, though not necessarily for that team or at that time.

Better yet, argues U.S. Anti-Doping Agency chief Travis Tygart, we have the Mitchell Report.

Tygart applauds the Hall of Fame for committing to a steroid exhibit but wonders why the report -- commissioned and funded by baseball, detailed in its description of a rampant drug culture, endorsed by Congress, unblemished in its challenge from Roger Clemens -- would not provide enough perspective to tell the story now.

"That's sort of the definitive piece," Tygart said. "That chapter is closed."

The Hall of Fame makes no such definitive judgment today, as visitors can tell from the display of one baseball. It is the ball Barry Bonds hit to break Hank Aaron's all-time home run record, the ball branded with a homemade asterisk as the result of an Internet fan poll that attracted more than 10 million votes.

Nothing reflects what the Hall of Fame regards as history in flux better than the text next to the ball: "While . . . the votes supported branding the ball with an asterisk, Bonds never has tested positive for steroids in testing conducted by Major League Baseball."

The federal government claims it can prove Bonds lied when he testified he had not knowingly used steroids.

If the government fails, Tygart said, the Hall can report that Bonds admitted to a grand jury he unknowingly used substances shown to be steroids.

Tony La Russa, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals and a future Hall of Famer himself, said he trusts the Hall to exercise its best judgment but wonders whether players in a steroid exhibit can be presented fairly in perpetuity when they might not be received fairly today.

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