If I had a ballot…
…I’d ballot in the morning. I’d ballot in the evening, all over this land.
And assuming that ballot were for the National Baseball Hall of Fame (“the Hall” for the remainder of this post, because I’m not typing that entire name over and over again), here’s who’d be on mine this year.
- Barry Bonds
- Roger Clemens
- Jeff Bagwell
- Mike Piazza
- Jack Morris
- Lee Smith
Tomorrow, the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (hereafter “the BBWAA,” because, well, see above) will announce their selections. I fully expect, based on the electors who’ve already publicized their votes, that Bonds and Clemens will not make the Hall in this, their first year of eligibility. Indeed, I would not be surprised if Bagwell doesn’t make it either, though the case for his election or omission is more easily argued from either side, in my opinion. (I doubt that Morris, who’s on the ballot for the 14th year, and Smith, who’s on year 11, will ever be elected, for different reasons than the aforementioned players.) Piazza? Hard to predict.
But let’s get this on the table right now: If Bonds and Clemens — the greatest offensive player and pitcher, respectively, of their generation — are not elected to the Hall tomorrow, as I suspect they will not be, it’s a travesty.
Most, if not indeed all, of the electors who left Bonds and Clemens (and possibly Bagwell and Piazza) off their ballots will say it’s because they cheated the game by using performance-enhancing drugs (“PEDs,” because… you know). Here’s the first problem with that: We don’t know whether they did or didn’t.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: We do know. Game of Shadows, and all that. Well, I read Game of Shadows right after it came out, and it impressed me at the time as the work of two muckrakers trying to make a name for themselves. There’s a ton of speculation in the book, and a lot of “he said, they said” scuttlebutt from sources the writers declined to identify, but not a great deal of what folks in the legal profession call “evidence.” The fact remains that we’ve never seen the results of a positive test for PEDs that Bonds failed, and I’m not sure we ever saw one from Clemens either. Bonds was tried in federal court, and was not convicted of perjury regarding PED use. (He was convicted on a single count of obstruction of justice, which may yet collapse on appeal.) The last time I checked, our legal system still operated on the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.”
But what about the evidence of our own eyes? Bonds grew from Bill Bixby (or Eric Bana, Edward Norton, or Mark Ruffalo, take your pick) into the Incredible Hulk right practically in front of us. Don’t get me wrong — I think he used PEDs. I don’t know whether he took anabolic steroids, but I’d guess he at least took human growth hormone (HGH). But what I think and guess is essentially irrelevant. My inferences, deductions, and suppositions are not proof. Like most people, I believe in a lot of things I can’t prove, and I’m entitled to those beliefs. I can’t, however, prove that someone is guilty of something simply because I believe it to be so. Two years ago, I was the foreman on a jury that convicted a man of murder. My fellow jurors and I convicted the defendant on the basis of evidence, not because we looked at the guy and said, “Yeah, I think he did it.” I believe Bonds, Clemens, and every other player suspected of PED use deserves the same consideration.
There’s another factor in this that frequently gets brushed aside. PED use, while clearly contrary to the spirit of fair play and integrity, was not against the rules of baseball during most of what today gets referred to as “the Steroid Era.” Make no mistake, using those substances was against federal and state laws. But unlike, say, cycling or the Olympics, baseball itself did not explicitly prohibit their use, nor test for said use, until well after PEDs were epidemic in the sport. Was that a loophole? Sure. But you can’t penalize people for taking advantage of a loophole if one exists. All you can do is close the loophole, and say, “No more.” Baseball has now done that — we might argue about how effectively — but that creates no retroactive license to go back and slap the wrists of players who might have engaged in activity that was not prohibited by the rules of the sport that then stood. If San Francisco starts metering parking on Sundays (which, not coincidentally, the city did on January 1), the meter reader can’t send me a ticket for not feeding the meter on a Sunday before the law changed.
One more point, and I’ll stop the ranting. People inside the game, whose expert opinions I respect, have estimated that at the height of the Steroid Era, as many as 75 to 80 percent of MLB players may have used PEDs to some degree. That means guys like Bonds and Clemens — and what the heck, throw Bagwell and Piazza in there too — were not outliers if indeed they used. They were part of the flow of traffic, just as you or I are when we nudge our cars upward of the posted speed limit to keep pace with the cars around us. (And we do. Let’s not be all sanctimonious here.) Does that make it right, if they did it? No. But it does mean there was a clear majority of players who were equally in the wrong. Which, to my mind, levels the playing field. It’s no longer “cheating” — and again, as noted above, it actually wasn’t cheating under the then-prevailing rules of the game — if everyone, or nearly everyone, is cheating. Ask the NFL Players Association, which turns a consistent blind eye to the widely intimated idea that perhaps 75 to 80 percent of its membership uses HGH to this very day, even though such usage is currently against the rules of their sport.
Anyone who knows me knows that I love baseball. It has been part of my life for more than 40 years, a part that I now love sharing with my daughter. And I consider myself a purist in a lot of ways — I prefer the National League style of play in which pitchers came to bat, and I enjoy seeing the fundamentals of the game practiced at the highest level. It makes me sad that we had a Steroid Era (assuming we’re not still having a PED Era in some fashion, which may be another example of assuming facts not in evidence). But let’s not kid ourselves: We did have such an era. We did not have a period in which a random handful of players — Bonds and Clemens included — used PEDs. We had a period, probably 20 years or more, during which the majority of major league players “juiced.” The idea that “everyone did it” doesn’t make it right, but it does need to influence how we view those who might have done it, and especially how we evaluate them within the timespan in which they played. Are we going to pretend, from the standpoint of the Hall, that those 20 years didn’t happen? That the statistics don’t count? That the games weren’t played? Ridiculous. We watched, even attended the games. We saw the achievements. They happened. And what’s more, we as fans of the game supported them, with our ticket-buying dollars, with our eyes on the television set, and with our ears to the radio. Let’s not act as though we didn’t. It’s hypocritical to harass the prostitute after we’ve paid for the services.
To those writers who take the holier-than-thou position that Bonds and Clemens, and others of their generation, don’t belong in the Hall because of the PED scandal, I say, “Take a good look in the mirror.” If you covered the game during the PED Era, and made your living by doing so, you were part of the problem too. You could have washed your hands and walked away. But you didn’t. You continued to draw a paycheck from a sport filled with guys dosing up with whatever BALCO and other pharmaceutical factories cranked out. You kept telling the stories, and selling the game. And don’t say you didn’t suspect, because if you didn’t then, why do you now? If you closed your eyes and held your nose all of those years, why can’t you do the same now, and acknowledge the accomplishments — within the context of the game as it was being played during their careers — of the men who provided you the means of your livelihood? Don’t act as though you’re better than they are. You are not.
If I had a ballot for the Hall of Fame, I’d check the boxes next to the six names listed above. Barry Bonds was the most amazing hitter I ever saw. Roger Clemens was one of the game’s most dominant pitchers. Mike Piazza ranks among the best to ever play behind the plate, both defensively and offensively… even if he was a Dodger for a lot of that time. Jeff Bagwell is a borderline call for me, but I’d vote for him. As for Jack Morris and Lee Smith, the former was the best starting pitcher in the American League for an entire decade, and the latter was one of baseball’s first and finest true closers.
In case you’re wondering, my exclusion of Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire has nothing to do with whether I think they did or didn’t use PEDs. McGwire was a one-trick pony — a player whose only tool was power. He rarely hit for average, had no speed, and for most of his career was a subpar defensive player. He was a beefed-up Dave Kingman or Dick Stuart, to put it another way. Sammy Sosa wasn’t even that good — a pretty solid mid-level star who had a couple of spectacular seasons. I wouldn’t vote for either of them, not because of PEDs, but because to my mind, they weren’t Hall of Fame-caliber players. (Craig Biggio? Tim Raines? Please. Very good, but not great players, whose stats are at least partially inflated by longevity, especially in Biggio’s case.)
You’re welcome to disagree. I won’t argue with your opinion, or your right thereto. But this is my ballot, and I’m sticking to it.Explore posts in the same categories: I Love the Giants, Listology, Ripped From the Headlines, Sports Bar, SwanStuff, Taking Umbrage