Sunday, December 02, 2012

The Needle and the Damage Done ... to Baseball's Hall of Fame Selection Process

Last week, the Baseball Hall of Fame sent out ballots for members of the Baseball Writers Association of America to vote upon which players (of those retired for at least 5 years) merit induction in 2013.

Names on the ballot for the first time include Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza and Curt Schilling. A few holdovers for induction from last year—meaning they weren’t elected to the Hall—are Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Jeff Bagwell.

You can see the full list of players on the ballot and their statistics at Based on performance and statistics alone, I believe all the aforementioned players merit induction, with the possible exception of Schilling and Bagwell.

But since all these players have, to some degree or other—and that’s part of the problem—been suspected of taking steroids and/or other performance enhancing drugs, it’s possible none will be voted in, this year or maybe ever.

While my lesser awareness of suspicion regarding Piazza suggests that perhaps he may be wrongfully lumped into this discussion, I certainly won’t shed tears if Bonds, Clemens and Sosa get snubbed, as McGwire and Palmeiro were last year. (Players must get 75% of the vote for induction; the latter two names each got less than 20% despite combining for 1,152 home runs.)

Yet while it might seem easy to say “Cheating is wrong; those who were caught deserve to pay the price,” there are so many variables that any straightforward thought process—for me—seems impossible.  

Such as that Sammy Sosa was never caught cheating (except for the bat corking incident); the only official drug test he is rumored to have failed is one from 2003 whose results were never intended to be released and for the most part haven’t been. I don’t think even seasoned baseball beat writers know for sure if Sammy did flunk that one, but even so, there could be dozens of other tainted names from the same test that haven’t been revealed, so it seems unfair to single out Sosa. Or for that matter, Alex Rodriguez, whose only flunked test (that I know of) was that one; his name was revealed by a Sports Illustrated reporter in 2007. (A-Rod isn’t yet retired, but without suspicion would be a first-ballot Hall of Fame lock.)

I know almost everyone assumes Sosa was dirty, but if he never was busted, how can a voter ignore his 609 home runs but presume (HOF worthy but not yet eligible) players like Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Thome and Frank Thomas were clean, as is typically believed.

Roger Clemens was named in the Mitchell Report (an investigation into PEDs by former Senator George Mitchell) but won a perjury case in which the credibility of his lone accuser was called into question.

Some may also say that Clemens and Bonds (and A-Rod) had Hall of Fame caliber careers before they presumably started juicing, unlike Sosa and McGwire, but as Chicago Tribune baseball writer Phil Rogers points out in this column, the only pertinent instruction that accompanies the Hall of Fame ballot is that “integrity” is among the factors to be weighed. Taking steroids at any point (especially when you’re already a superstar) would seem to invalidate worthiness on the integrity issue.

Then there is the problem that steroids weren’t explicitly banned from baseball until 2005, the first season players actually got tested for PEDs. According to Wikipedia, Fay Vincent sent a memo to all owners in 1991 saying that steroid use was against the rules, but there wasn’t any official policy or testing until 2005.

Of course, most steroids and other PEDs are illegal substances, so the thought goes that if Sosa, Bonds, McGwire, et al, juiced between 1998 and 2004, they should be kept out of the Hall for illegal actions. But no one is talking of throwing them in prison or seizing their vast earnings, just preventing them from being enshrined among the game’s best players, several of whom are presumed to have regularly taken amphetamines, which were also illegal.

So any way I look at it, it’s a slippery slope. Barry Bonds hit 762 home runs and won 7 MVP awards, the last 4 from 2001-2004 when his bulbous head suggested he was ingesting more than Wheaties. It seems a tad hypocritical for the same BBWA writers to vote him four MVP awards but then deny that he belongs in the Hall of Fame. If you’re not going to take his records and awards off the books, it seems weird not to put him in the hallowed Hall of baseball’s best.

Sometimes I think the Hall of Fame should induct anyone whose on-the-field performance merits it, but to put those who played between 1994-2008 (?) in a special section within the Hall (in Cooperstown, NY) that explains that they were part of the steroid era. But that would seem to be unfair to Griffey, Thome, Thomas, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and others who avoided suspicion during their illustrious careers.

It almost seems worse to punish or cast aspersions on the innocent (but who knows who they really are?) than to give a pass to the presumed guilty.

And what about a guy like Manny Ramirez, who has Hall-worthy stats yet flunked two official drug tests (and perhaps one in the closed 2003 test). Couldn’t it be argued that in serving a 50-game suspension in 2009, he paid his punishment, so why shouldn’t he be Hall-eligible? And though current Brewers star Ryan Braun is a long way from retirement, let alone Hall of Fame consideration, what about the test he supposedly flunked but got thrown out on technical grounds. Will writers see him as dirty or clean?

Anyway, to me this is an open-ended question so I won’t come to any clear conclusion. Except that to say the legacy and lore of baseball—what I love most about it—is forever muddled, regardless of to what percent its superstars were actually dirty. 

1 comment:

Scott said...

I blogged about this myself a couple of days ago. I focused on McGwire a bit, because I've seen some people claim he doesn't merit inclusion based on production whether you look at PED's or not, which I find silly. I think he had a HoF career, but I'm also fine with voters voting their conscious, and if that means excluding him then so be it. Baseball Hall of Fame, PEDs and controversy