Robinson Canó, one of baseball’s best players, was issued an 80-game suspension on Monday for a violation of MLB’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment program. His offense was having taken the diuretic furosemide, otherwise known as Lasix, commonly used to mask the presence of other performance-enhancing drugs in one’s system. The positive test result apparently occurred before the season began, but Canó had appealed, and decided to drop his appeal after his recent hand injury.
When the news of Canó’s suspension broke, the predictable whirlpool of reactions to PED suspensions began to swirl. Mariners fans were, quite reasonably, morose; for a team on the outside edge of contention, the loss of a perennial All-Star and team leadership figure could be the nail in the coffin of their playoff hopes. There were expressions of disappointment that such a high-profile and excellent player got busted for cheating, disappointment that fans wouldn’t get to see him play for such a large chunk of this season. Fans who supported him were let down.
All of these are reasonable, understandable feelings to have about a star player being suspended for PED use, especially if it jeopardizes your team’s possible playoff run. What is less reasonable, but unfortunately just as predictable, was the swell of pontificating about Canó’s supposedly now-destroyed legacy, specifically as it applies to the Hall of Fame.
The players who enter the Hall of Fame are voted in by members of the BBWAA, which itself has its own arguably arbitrary laws of inclusion. There is no universally agreed-upon holistic system of evaluation or statistical threshold by which players are voted into the Hall. Yet every year around Hall of Fame voting season comes the inevitable controversy of certain writers leaving players off their ballots, or including others, to the outrage of other writers—as though the Hall is the sole determinant of a player’s greatness, and as if the qualities by which a player is elected to the Hall are incontrovertibly objective. For people who have followed the sport in-depth for any length of time, observing this cycle play out year after year quickly becomes tedious. For younger people who are just getting into baseball, it’s not only tedious, but alienating.
By the time Canó is eligible for Hall of Fame balloting, a generation of fans and writers who never experienced pre-steroid era baseball—or even pre-Mitchell Report baseball—will form a significant part of the baseball-watching public. It is presumptuous to declare, in no uncertain terms, that these baseball writers and fans of the near and/or distant future will never forgive Canó, or indeed any of the other stars who have been connected to or caught using PEDs. It doesn’t reflect the reality of how many younger baseball fans view the PED issue, and it doesn’t reflect the reality of how baseball opinion on all sorts of issues has evolved and will continue to evolve over time. It assumes that the baseball fans of the future will be unable to form their own individual opinions on the matter—all because these players violated a commandment of baseball.
Baseball has always mythologized itself as something more resembling religion than sport. The Hall of Fame’s physical foundations are laid on just such a myth: the supposed invention of the game by Abner Doubleday on a field in Cooperstown. It’s been decades since historians concluded that this story was less an accurate representation of the game’s development than a fable likely intended to reinforce both baseball’s fundamental Americanness and its status as something almost divinely inspired. We now know that baseball actually evolved, gradually, from the British game of rounders, and that Cooperstown is not the birthplace of baseball. But the Hall still carries its odor of sanctity, of being something more profound than a man-made museum devoted to a man-made entertainment.
This is not to say that baseball should have less concern for its history. One of the best things about being a fan of baseball is the unparalleled amount of literature and documentation and storytelling that has been collected around the game almost since its earliest days. No matter your age or how long you’ve been watching baseball, it’s a thrill to be able to read detailed histories of teams from a century to ago, to be able to read box scores on Retrosheet, to admire the felicitousness of old baseball nicknames. (“The Arkansas Hummingbird,” anyone? “Ol Aches and Pains”?) The richness of baseball lore makes the game you’re watching in the present feel richer. These are all good things. But the Hall of Fame/PED legacy debate represents none of these things I love so much about baseball.
Baseball is a great sport, consistently full of gasp-worthy athletic achievements and affecting, inspiring human stories. It doesn’t need to be anything more than a sport to be as wonderful as it is. It doesn’t need to be sacred. It doesn’t need to be spoken of in terms of eternity. A player caught breaking MLB’s rules against drug-based cheating has done just that—cheated at a sport. Nothing more, nothing less.
And Robinson Canó, while he may have cheated, has been an extraordinarily fun player to watch. He’s known to be a good teammate, a mentor for younger players, and his charitable works are both well-documented and admirable. He has 2,417 hits and 305 homers in his Major League career. Canó is no Lance Armstrong, who built a multi-million dollar empire based on lying about steroid use and threatened or destroyed the careers of multiple teammates in order to preserve his secret. He is, by all accounts, a roundly likable baseball player who got caught breaking baseball’s rules. He is serving his punishment under those rules, both in terms of financial loss and in the court of public opinion. Whether or not he ends up being elected to the Hall of Fame, his suspension won’t erase the entirety of his excellent career. It does baseball no good to pretend that it will.