Neil Cohen argues that, while the baseball writers debate Hall of Fame selection, they miss the fact that it’s all about the numbers.
DiMaggio or Williams, Mantle or Mays, Trout or Harper—debating our national pastime is as integral to baseball as wooden bats. Baseball fans think nothing of spending hours defending our “always correct” viewpoints, knowing full well that we’re engaged in an un-winnable argument (because it’s obvious that Mays was better than Mantle).
This year’s Baseball National Hall of Fame vote is proving to be the granddaddy of all debates, with the pending decision of whether or not to elect suspected and known performance-enhancing drug (PEDs) users Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens. And, add to the mix others such as Jeff Bagwell, in his third year of eligibility, and Mike Piazza—players who have suffered from a “whisper campaign” of purported steroid use.
Unlike most baseball debates, however, this one has an easy answer, which hasn’t stopped the voters—members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) with at least 10 years of service—from waxing on ad nauseam about how difficult a decision they face, as evidenced by Joe Posnanski’s 6,000 word essay on who he DIDN’T vote for or the Sporting News’ five-part series.
It’s not as if the BBWAA voters have anything to gain from propagating the Hall of Fame debate. It’s not like the debate gives them something juicy to write about and increases readership…oh wait.
Writers’ bias isn’t something new to Hall of Fame voting. Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle were not elected unanimously, and Yogi Berra, Hang Greenberg and Cy Young weren’t even elected in their first year of eligibility. It’s enough to question whether the BBWAA is the appropriate group to vote in the first place, as Richard Justice opined.
Let’s get back, though, to the question at hand. Should suspected or known PED users be elected into the Hall of Fame? I say no, absolutely not. Not this time, not ever. I’ve written before about my views on cheating in sports regarding Lance Armstrong and I feel the same way about Barry Bonds (as much as I loved watching both of them perform at the time).
The BBWAA members have taken every possible approach to rationalize their vote. Some blame the Hall of Fame’s vague character clause; others only reject players who actually failed a drug test, like Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa (though Sosa failed in 2003 when testing didn’t count), or admitted users like Mark McGwire.
Ken Rosenthal of FOX didn’t vote for any player from the steroid era on the first ballot to penalize PED users and the union. Buster Olney of ESPN voted for PED users because they were the best players of their era, tainted as it was. Others say they will vote for Bonds because he was a “Hall of Famer” before he allegedly took steroids (this might be the most illogical reason of all). Still others are sending in blank ballots, while T.J. Quinn of ESPN decided he doesn’t want to be “judge and jury” anymore. Speaking of judge and jury, check out this legal perspective on the vote.
The Hall of Fame indeed provides very little guidance to voters: “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” It’s fairly obvious that it’s time for the Hall of Fame to come out of the dugout and update their guidance, though I suspect we’ll be waiting a long time for that.
The character and integrity clauses seem to cause the most consternation among voters since it’s very difficult not to vote for the PED users when known cheaters are already in the Hall (see: Gaylord Perry, Pud Galvin, Whitey Ford and many, many others who likely used amphetamines). And how can we question Bonds’/Sosa’s/Clemens’ integrity when the Hall includes known racists, alcoholics, adulterers, thieves and maybe even a killer (allegedly Ty Cobb).
We see little discussion, however, of a “players record” as one of the most important issues with the PED users. That’s the issue that defines why I’m a strong no for enshrinement. We just can’t trust the players’ numbers, and let’s be clear that for many people, especially the new breed of sabermetricians and their WAR and OPS+ calculations, baseball is all about the numbers—300 wins, 500 home runs, 3,000 hits. These are magical milestones that practically ensure election into the Hall of Fame whether or not a player was the best of the best (see: Don Sutton, Phil Niekro, Dave Winfield).
PEDs inhibit our ability to judge a player’s true accomplishments, especially the one-dimensional players like Sosa and McGwire, whose only chance of making the Hall of Fame is via obscenely juiced home run numbers. At the end of the day, if I don’t know whether your 354 wins, 609 HRs or 762 HRs is real, I can’t vote you into my Hall of Fame. And sorry, Mr. Bonds, I can’t just count your clean years.
Personally, I cringe at the idea of Sammy Sosa standing at the podium in Cooperstown this coming August with the likes of Yogi Berra, Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson shifting in their chairs behind him.
I guess it’ good news, then, that according to a recent exit poll (yes, there’s an exit poll for the Hall of Fame), with approximately 15% of the votes known, it currently appears that no former players will be elected this year, even the “clean” ones.
I bet that’s not an outcome the Hall of Fame expected.