Human nature being what it is, athletes will always do (and have always done) everything possible to secure victory. A cursory reading of David Wallechinsky’s “History of the Olympics” demonstrates that if the modern-day Olympics began in 1896, the cheating probably began around 1900 or so. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the ruling bodies of each sport to develop a system of reward/punishment that makes the cost of being caught cheating not worth the risk of winning/breaking the record, etc.
Not only did major league baseball not do this, it actively did everything it could to encourage the use of steroids through the values that it established. I find this somewhat ironic, because no other sport holds its records as sacrosanct as MLB. In fact, there is a court case working its way through the federal court of appeals as we speak which seeks to answer the question of who “owns” statistics – does MLB “own” them, or are they, once a game is played, part of the public domain?
But organized baseball turned a blind eye to the issue of steroids, with an assist from the players union, because home runs are exciting. Home runs are good for baseball…as Greg Maddux said to Tom Glavine in a commercial ten years or so ago, “chicks dig the long ball.” Plus, it’s really, really good for baseball when its best players (Clemens, Bonds, etc.) play for a long, long time. Whether they like them or not, fans are interested in them, and will pay money to go see them play.
The fans are complicit in all of this as well, of course. It was “OK” for McGwire and Sosa to be juiced (and everyone had to suspect, come on) because they were wonderful guys, named Sportsmen of the Year, all that. But when a really bad guy, and everyone should know who I’m talking about, started breaking some of those records, well then all of a sudden it became a big, big problem, and the word “cheater” started getting thrown around, as if that really bad guy was the only one. And so, here we are today. Unless MLB and the Hall of Fame want to start throwing asterisks all over the place, I’d suggest that everyone get a mulligan, and that fans try to sort this out over beers in bars for the next 100 years or so.
[Updated note: by "mulligan" I didn't intend to imply that those using steroids should escape accountability and/or punishment. My comment pertained solely to the treatment of their statistics, because I don't see how anyone will ever be able to come up with a full-proof means of figuring out exactly when a player began using steroids. Ultimatetly, this will make a process already subjective (that being the Hall of Fame selection process) even more so]