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You don't belong in this town

6/19/2009

You fellas are untouchable, is that the thing? No one can get to you? Well … everybody can be gotten to!
-- Chicago alderman to Eliot Ness, "The Untouchables"

If you happen to be Sammy Sosa or Alex Rodriguez, or even Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds or Rafael Palmeiro, at this point, invincibility has been your best friend. You won. You got away with it. The large majority of your peers, your bosses and the people who pay to watch you play the game agree that using anabolic substances is cheating. On March 17, 2005, Sosa and Palmeiro testified to the House Government Reform Committee that using steroids was cheating.

Yet, you've all been caught and faced no sanction.

All the commotion regarding performance-enhancing drugs -- legacies, Hall of Fame eligibility, the record book and just who is the real home run king -- has been just noise for you, words for sensation and posterity no different from a dissenting Supreme Court opinion: duly noted and largely forgotten.

Perhaps the Hall of Fame voters will punish you when it is time for induction, but from the institutions that matter -- Major League Baseball and the National Baseball Hall of Fame -- silence has governed.

Comprehending the second-greatest organizational failure in the history of the game has been left as an individual choice.

There is nothing clean about the steroids disaster. The commissioner is as culpable as the players and their union. Bud Selig cannot rightly sanction the players without sanctioning himself, for his $18.4 million annual salary can be tied directly to the rise in revenues that occurred during the years he had been so loath to police. Only 10 players earn more money annually than Selig.

The two greatest organizational failures in baseball history have closely mirrored the larger society. The first -- the 60-plus years of segregated baseball -- reflected the unfortunate attitudes of the times.

The second -- the cynical, industrywide choice of money over integrity -- not only has poisoned baseball in the form of a runaway PED scandal but also has damaged institutions such as Wall Street and the banking industry.

But this vexing disconnection -- the desire for some form of accountability against the nagging resignation that cheating has unlimited reward, that for all the noise, everyone skated -- is where the true frustration exists.

All of which begs the question: What will it take to create some form of justice, to allow the sport to "move forward" as its leadership and players say they so desperately desire? Does management really want to rid the game of performance enhancers? If it does, here is what baseball should do:

1. Selig must place any player found to have used anabolic substances on baseball's ineligible list for at least a portion of his Hall of Fame eligibility.

Keeping players out of the Hall of Fame is the only language players understand. Because of the money, they are untouchable. According to baseball-reference.com, Rodriguez has earned $198.4 million since entering the league in 1994.

Bonds earned $188.2 million in salary in his 22-year career.

Sosa earned $124 million over 18 seasons.

Clemens earned $121 million over 24 seasons.

The players got to keep their money, salaries inflated by performance-enhanced statistics. Selig says the 2003 list is "yesterday's news." And that attitude is why it remains today's problem.

The commissioner needs to create a sliding punitive scale: 10 years on the ineligible list after the last active game for the 104 players whose names were on the 2003 survey testing list or in the Mitchell report or who violated the league policy from 2004 to 2009; lifetime ban for anyone caught using steroids starting in the 2010 season.

The players would get to play out their careers and enjoy their earning power, but their Hall eligibility would be cut by a third. For a player such as Mark McGwire, who is not on the 2003 list (he retired after the 2001 season) and never failed a drug test because there was no testing in his day, Selig should offer him a hearing to give him an opportunity to defend his career or risk being placed on the ineligible list.

As a punishment, Hall of Fame ineligibility affects only a small fraction of players because few of them play at a level worthy of enshrinement.

But placing players on the ineligible list is a potential knockout blow. It prevents them from working in baseball in any capacity: no post-playing-career jobs as pitching, hitting or third-base coaches, no Old-Timers' Days, and no spring training instructor gigs. No cushy consulting jobs and no broadcast jobs with MLB partners such as ESPN, Fox and TBS, and certainly no managing or front-office jobs.

2. For any future Hall of Fame inductee who was implicated in the steroids scandal, the Hall must include mention of the player's involvement on his Cooperstown plaque.

Each Hall of Fame ballot contains the words Character, Integrity and Sportsmanship as part of the criteria for election. Even in the cases of McGwire, Bonds and Clemens -- all of whom may one day be inducted into the Hall -- their involvement in this era would then be captured for history, their numbers analyzed differently. The steroids era is fresh in the public's mind today, but 100 years from now, when today's generation is gone, the acts that damaged the game will still be preserved.

On the museum side, the Hall likely will one day hold an exhibit regarding the steroids era, but currently, the Hall is not in any discussions to intervene on the induction side of the institution. "Internally, as a relevant topic, it doesn't escape our conscience," Hall President Jeff Idelson said. "But in terms of anything beyond the hypothetical, it hasn't been discussed. So, the answer is, I don't know."

Such steps are not perfect, but they represent a start beyond the talk, a stronger deterrent for players. And in some way, they address the areas important to the public: the Hall of Fame and the idea that players not only escaped punishment but were rewarded for doing so.

What is missing is how the forces of power in the game -- Selig, his lieutenants and his 30 owners -- must face some form of punishment themselves. Congress wasn't willing to do it, and neither was George Mitchell, who had plenty to say about the players in his report but terribly little on management.

Still, money and reputation are the only languages these Untouchables speak.

And that is appropriate. The steroids era has always been about money, thus the reform era also should be about money. The old question that fueled the choice to use steroids -- "What would you do for $10 million?" -- would then transition into a more sober "Do you really want to risk being the next Pete Rose?"

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.