One thing that was striking about this year’s Baseball Hall of Fame election was how much better players suspected of steroid use did in the vote. Mike Piazza, who never failed a steroid test but is thought by some to have used, was voted into Cooperstown. Jeff Bagwell, who’s faced some of the same unsubstantiated rumors as Piazza, fell just short of induction. Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds are starting to look like they could be voted in by the BBWAA as well.Many writers and fans have mellowed about the Steroid Era, though it remains a controversial issue. One person who hasn’t mellowed? Former Major League Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, who I spoke at length with over the weekend. Vincent was commissioner less than three years before owners forced his resignation in 1992, not long before the time the Steroid Era got going in baseball. MORE: Eight players who will be traded in 2016The 77-year-old Vincent lives in Florida now and is far removed from baseball in any official capacity, though he still had to much to say, good and bad, about the state of the game. SPORTING NEWS: I know when you were commissioner of baseball you banned steroids, but the players’ union didn’t agree to testing until 2004. I was curious to get your thoughts on players doing better in Hall of Fame voting who may have been steroid users.FAY VINCENT: Well, you have it wrong. I didn’t ban steroids. The Congress of the United States said steroids were on the prohibited substance list. It’s a common misunderstanding that steroids were not banned in baseball until much later. They were banned by Congress. What I did was say, ‘Because they’re banned by Congress, we are gonna be bound by those restrictions, and steroids are gonna be a problem.’The union, of course, wouldn’t let me discipline players away from the federal statute. That is, unless the government enforced the statute, the union’s position was I couldn’t enforce the statute. That is, I couldn’t ban players because of steroid use. There are an awful lot of people who believe that until the union gave in, steroids were not banned in baseball. But they were banned by Congress, and I think you can see the difference.So, yes I put out a memo in 1990 or ‘91 saying, ‘Because Congress has put steroids on the prohibited substance list, you ought to be aware that for people in baseball who are not subject to the union’s authority, I’m going to treat steroids as a serious matter.’ Later on, when Congress (turned its attention to) baseball, the union gave in and said they would permit testing. A lot of things changed, I think in the year 2000.I think steroids is a form of cheating. I think anybody who cheats in sports should be punished. I would be very severe with the punishment because I think the punishment’s a great deterrent, and it works. It certainly works in the gambling area in baseball. I think the problem we have today is that players will take a risk of only being banned for 50 games or something. They take the steroids because it certainly helps their performance. I think that we should be very much tougher on steroids.SN: When you sent your memo out, did you have any inklings of there being a steroid problem in baseball?FV: I thought that there were, I didn’t know — but I looked at some of the players including McGwire and Canseco, and I thought at least the guys were taking something.I thought it was a football problem. We were all wrong. I thought that baseball was a game of quickness. I looked at Henry Aaron and (Joe) DiMaggio and (Ted) Williams, and I thought they all talked about being quick. Nobody was interested in lifting weights or getting very muscular.It turned out that obviously steroids is a much more substantial problem than we thought or I thought, mostly because there’s so many different forms of chemical compounds that are called steroids. There’s a steroid to make you recover quicker if you’re a pitcher, be stronger if you’re a batter, a variety of other things. That’s why we can’t have steroids or any other performance enhancing drugs in sports, because it makes the competition inherently unbalanced, and that just can’t work.SN: If it were up to you, would Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens or McGwire, any of those players, would they be eligible for the Hall of Fame?FV: They’re eligible of course, but from my point of view, I wouldn’t vote for them.SN: Have your thoughts changed on (Pete Rose) over the years? Do you think that he has any place in baseball or the Hall of Fame at this point?FV: Well, I’ve said for 26, 27 years ... it’s not a case of whether Pete Rose deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. The issue is, do we want to change the deterrent? One thing we know is the deterrent against gambling is 100 percent effective. The only person of substance in the last 75 years to challenge it was Pete Rose. He thought he was bigger than baseball, and Bart Giamatti told him he wasn’t. That’s a very important rule, and I think it works. I think we have no gambling problem in baseball. You change the deterrent, you’re gonna have a gambling problem.I think all the talk about Pete Rose is misguided. The issue is the deterrent. I’m glad Rob Manfred kept him out because — and I think Manfred’s 100 percent correct — he doesn’t want to change the deterrent because he knows if he does, he’s gonna have a lot more gambling.SN: I wanted to ask, and I’m not sure if this would be a sore subject for you, but do you blame Bud Selig at all for the Steroid Era?FV: I don’t blame people. I think the Steroid Era came along because chemistry is going to constantly affect sports. Not just baseball. It’s an enormous problem for all of athletics. You can take pills that’ll make you run faster, and we know that works in track and field because we’ve seen Olympic champions that cheat and win some medals. In fact, in the case of the woman sprinter (Marion Jones), she went to jail for it.It’s a very big problem in sports. If there’s any blame, it’s for all of the people in sports who haven’t gotten together and figured out a way to deal with it. The chemists are always going to be ahead of the police. As long as we have chemists who are going to make these drugs and players who are going to take them in order to make lots of money, we’re going to have a major problem.SN: You were saying earlier that you thought steroids were kind of more of an NFL problem. Has there been any point in like the last 10 or 15 years where you might of had a moment where you were just like, ‘Wow, this was so much bigger of a problem than I would have thought during my tenure as commissioner’?FV: After I left baseball, in the mid ‘90s, I realized it was an enormous problem. I think the union was totally wrong in not permitting baseball to do something about it.In my era, cocaine was a big problem, and the union wouldn’t let us test for cocaine. I threw Steve Howe out of baseball after seven or eight drug violations. The union sued and went to arbitratration in order to get him reinstated. They wouldn’t do that today, I don’t think. Congress would come down on them in a very big way.But in those days, Don Fehr and the others thought that it was unfair to go after the players and test them without any evidence that they were taking drugs, cocaine. Well, obviously they were taking cocaine. It was everywhere in baseball, and it was a huge problem, and we couldn’t test. The union deserves a lot of blame for that fiasco. We saw that in 2000 when the Congress got involved and the players were there in front of television, and they all looked pretty silly. [Editor’s note: This occurred in 2005, not 2000.]SN: Do you think if you’d stayed commissioner longer that the Steroid Era might have played out differently?FV: I don’t think so, because I don’t think the union was going to ever give us any slack. I think it took Congress to get involved. I think that hearing was a fiasco for everybody. I think Congress said to baseball, if you don’t get an agreement, do something union and players, we’re gonna pass a statute, and that fixed it. Everybody was afraid of Congress getting involved. Nobody wanted that. So Fehr and Selig and others got together, and they made a deal, and it was the right thing to do.But I couldn’t get the union to do anything. All they did was challenge me at the time of the Steve Howe (banishment). I was 100 percent right. Steve Howe should have gone out of baseball for life. I would have thrown A-Rod out last year or two years ago when there was that fiasco. He ended up being out for a year. But I would have thrown him out for life. I mean, after he lied, after that Biogenesis guy was taped, that interview, talking about what he’d done with A-Rod, it was a farce.SN: If you had done that, do you think the union would have gotten involved on A-Rod’s behalf?FV: Sure, there would have been a major case, and the arbitrator almost surely would have sided with A-Rod. They always side with the union. On the other hand, I think it would have been important for baseball and for me to make the point and prove to Congress that they had to get involved. The problem with the union is, they’re not afraid of the owners. They are afraid of Congress, and I would have made it very clear that if the union contested the A-Rod case, we’d ask for statute for statute.The problem is, the owners in baseball, the commissioner can’t fight with the players because the players are the whole game. The players control baseball … It’s a disappointing insight to fans and maybe to you and others, but the players really run and control baseball. The really major force offsetting that power is Congress. It’s not the owners.SN: That was how the Mitchell Report and the Congressional hearings happened. That was all stuff that ran through Congress.FV: Congress is important, and they showed that. Mitchell got no cooperation from the union, and that’s very hard for the union to defend.SN: I’m a big fan of baseball history, and you read about the autocratic power of somebody like Judge Landis. Was it surprising to you at all when you became commissioner of all the competing interests that you had to deal with when you wanted to make decisions?FV: I don’t think people really understand. Once the union got involved in baseball, and after 1947, after the Taft-Hartley Act, the union is subject to regulation by Congress. The statute protects union, gives players and every union member and any union enormous rights so that the power of the commissioner, indeed the power of owners is very sharply restricted by the federal statute that protects union rights. That statute is a very powerful one, and it gives union members enormous protection. That means that almost anything that’s important in baseball cannot be legislated strictly by the commissioner. It has to be agreed to and approved by the union.So the great shock to the American public, and they haven’t figured it out yet, is the power of the commissioner is very, very limited. They still think the commissioner can do all sorts of things. He can’t. You see that with Roger Goodell. I mean, Roger Goodell keeps losing major court or arbitration cases. The lesson is, a commissioner in sports is very restricted.SN: Did you know that getting into being commissioner? Did you have an idea of that already?FV: Yeah, sure. A) I’m a lawyer and B) I was the deputy under Bart so I saw exactly what the story. It came as no surprise.SN: Do you have any idea what Bart Giamatti’s views may have been on steroids?FV: Well sure, I think Bart would have agreed, I would have agreed with Bart. In our era, steroids didn’t exist. I don’t think he ever heard the term because he died in 1989. I think in 1989, certainly in 1990, Canseco and there may have been a few guys who were playing around with those sorts of things.Bart saw the cocaine problem very severely, and he saw the union unwilling to set the [standard.] When he and I were in baseball together, there were no written rules about how to enforce the cocaine problem. It was all sort of ad hoc. It was all sort of common law. There was no written agreement between the owners and the players on cocaine use. It was illegal. The use and possession and distribution of cocaine was illegal. But baseball had no written agreement on what happens if you get caught with cocaine or you admit it the first time. It was all sort of ad hoc.It got to be the first time, the union wanted to treat it as medical. So we put people in drug rehabilitation facilities, we wouldn’t suspend them. But they’d be treated as having a medical problem. The second time, you could suspend. The union would agree to, I forget the number of games, but a certain suspension. And the third time was sort of up for grabs. There was no understanding about what would happen.That’s why when I had Steve Howe, and it was the seventh or eighth violation, we were really in uncharted waters. There was no precedent, no understanding, no agreement, and I threw him out. I was right. But the union fought it because their job is to protect the players. They wanted him back in office and on the field and making money. That’s what they’re supposed to do. But it wasn’t a smart thing for baseball, and I think the union looked pretty terrible. A) They won the case, they got him reinstated, and a few years later, he rolled a truck over and died of his own drug use. His body was loaded with the drugs, amphetamines and other things when he died.SN: What’s your view on players like Tim Raines, Paul Molitor or Keith Hernandez who had cocaine problems early in their careers but were able to clean up their act?FV: I think one of the difficulties is there is no understanding and no agreement. Baseball has no common policy with respect to those issues. Don’t forget, what most people are concerned about is not what baseball does but what the Hall of Fame does, and the Hall of Fame is all about voters. Some voters take a hard view, and some don’t. It’s really quite a mess, and there’s gonna have to be some progress. There has to be some set of rules because I don’t think it can go on in this sort of murky way.SN: Do you have any sort of connection with the Hall of Fame? Have you been involved with any of the Veterans Committees or anything?FV: Not recently. Years ago, I was chairman of the committee that was set up by the Hall of Fame to evaluate black players who had been overlooked. So I was chairman of a committee that 10 or 12, mostly historians going back over the whole list of players who played in the 19th century and on into the 20th century. We elected, I forget how many, 15 or 20 black guys and one woman who had been involved in Negro baseball and who had been overlooked because nobody thought that a black person should be in the Hall of Fame. So we did some real good. But since then, I haven’t been involved, no.SN: Speaking of that, I do an annual project having people vote on the best players not in the Hall of Fame, and I’m struck how many players from black baseball still get votes, guys like Bud Fowler and Bingo DeMoss. Do you think at some point, another committee could convene to consider more of those players?FV: Oh, I don’t know. I think at some point, you have to stop. Almost nobody saw those players play. The statistics of Negro baseball are very limited. I think we ought to stop and let history be history. How many more times can you have a committee like that?The committee I was on, I didn’t have a vote, these historians did, but we made a big mistake. We should have put Buck O’Neil in the Hall of Fame. I was a big supporter, but I didn’t have a vote. And I think that was an embarrassment. Not that he was the greatest player or a great manager. But he was a great human being, and he really had a major role in keeping the black consciousness, the black baseball history alive. He was very involved in the Negro League Museum in Kansas City. I thought he deserved recognition, but the historians said he wasn’t a good enough player, he wasn’t a good enough manager. They were very rigorous, and they voted him down. So those things happen.SN: You could argue he’s the greatest ambassador to baseball in baseball history.