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.

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7 Comments on “If I had a ballot…”

  1. Harold Rosenthal Says:

    I agree with your comments regarding Bonds and Clemens and would add that many eras had there issues. Segregation, higher mounds, expansion, smaller parks, harder bats, designated hitter, air travel, AstroTurf, bigger gloves, season length, spit balls, scuffed balls, amphetamines, cocaine, alcohol ( which was illegal when Ruth played). So players really need to be compared to players in in their own era.
    I think this is has resulted in players in the 70s and 80s largely being shortchanged for the Hall. Which brings me to the rest of your ballot. Raines was an amazing player on a par with Rickey as a leadoff hitter in his prime. He was actually a more effective base stealer. He toiled in anonymity in Montreal I. His best years then played so long people forgot how good he was at his peak. Two other players who were the best in the game for 6 years (same length as Koufax). And I feel deserve entry are Dale Murphy and Don Mattingly There numbers are not as gawky as players who played in the decades immediately following, but they were the best of their era


  2. Excellent input as always, Harold. You make a terrific point about players from the 1970s and ’80s getting short shrift. Jim Rice, for one, took way too long to get elected to the Hall, and several others never were chosen who may have deserved a better shot.

    You’re probably right about Raines. Had his career been shorter — like, say, Kirby Puckett’s — he would look much better in retrospect. There’s so much detritus in the last 10 years of his career that it’s easy to miss how great he was for the first 10.

    Murphy, for me, has a serious problem — that very short window of greatness that you describe. He was an amazing player for six years, but when he fell off, he *really* declined. And those declining years seemed to go on forever, even though it was only another six years. It’s hard for me to call a guy a Hall of Famer who had half a great career. (Koufax is an outlier. His “great period” was superior to almost anyone’s, and then he got out of the game before anyone saw him be not-great again. There’s a lot to be said for quitting while you’re ahead.)

    Mattingly? Hard for me to see. He was really only a truly great player for four years (’84-’87), and was only very good for two more (’88-’89). After that… I know, I know. He was a Yankee. 🙂

    • Harold Rosenthal Says:

      FUnny you hsould meniton Kirby Puckett. His career numbers are very similar to Mattingly’s yet he never was hte most dominant player in the league which mattin gwas for 4 years. (He shoudl have won back to back mvp awards but the 1986 MVP vs 1978 MVP and Boston Bias is another discussion). Mattingly was very good for more than “only two more years.” His only mediocre year was the injury riddled 1990 season. In 1993 and 1994 he finished in the top 20 in the MVP vote. From 1991-1995 it between .288 and .304 every year. He hit close to 30 doubles all of those yeass except the strike shortened 1994 season when he hit 20. In that era those were very good offensive numbers. He also never sruck out 50 times in a season so even his outs were productive. That doesn’t mention the fact that he was the best defensive 1B in my lifetime. He won 9 Gold Gloves in 10 years.

      As far as Dale Murphy goes you should 1980 when he finished 12 in MVP voting in his peak years. Like Mattingly he was also an excellent defensive player (he won 5 consecutive Gold Gloves) Yes he tailed off badly, but I don’t think longevity should be held against a player. I have a hard time buying that if he retired in 1988 or 1989 he would have been a Hall of Famer but because he managed to find away to continue playing as his skills diminished he no longer qualifies. The body of work when he was great didn’t change.

      This does not even mention the character issue. Both these guys were great leaders, teammates, citizens and ambassadors of the game. Added to their amazing on field accomplishments should also matter and to me makes them Hall Of Famers.

      They were among the best of an overlooked era right before technology inflated offensvie numbers.


  3. McGwire!!!! I gotta give props to my own Damien High School Spartans!!! 🙂
    By the way: my Spanish teacher, and the DHS golf coach, told Mark that he should pursue his career in golf instead of baseball. 🙂

  4. Sank Says:

    Well written as always and since you’re much smarter than I’ll leave you with my visceral reaction.
    No to Bonds, no to Clemens. Evah.
    We never had a positive dope test on Lance Armstrong either. At the time I think most people believed that he was doping, most Tour d’France observers just wondered how he was getting away with it. And for years and years he asserted his innocence until.. the technology caught up with his methods and then the rotten SOB decided to stop fighting the allegations. We were right all along.
    And Lance, like Barry and Clemens, went to great to lengths to play the victim card, the world is against me (us). And as time goes on the evidence mounts we find that Bonds in particular kept doing it, even after baseball attempted to stop it. And he kept lying about it. Just like Lance.
    A guy pitching from an elevated mound or batting a livelier ball does so with everyone else in the league. What Bonds did was cheat, and then expend a ton of effort trying to say he didn’t. It’s what people like him do.
    Personally I like seeing Lance Armstrong shamed in the way he’s been shamed of late. I agree with the decision to strip him of every title he won, and I’m not a big of fine of the “vacated title”, I’d also like to see him be forced to pay back his sponsors for every penny they invested in him over the years, to his ruin. I happen to think that Bonds and Clemens deserve the same. They broke the law, then they cheated after the rules of their sport changed, and have been lying about it ever since. The Hall of Fame is a weird deal. After Burt Blyleven got in a few years ago, less a result of his play and more a result of his decade of whining and campaigning for himself I find myself feeling like admission is more of a Beauty Pageant for above average players than anything else.
    Just my thoughts.

    • Harold Rosenthal Says:

      Here is something to think about with regard to PEDs. One of Baseball’s storied moments was a direct result of taking a steroid and everybody knew about it and applauded it. I am referring to Game 1 of the 1988 WOrld Series. Kirk Gibson could barely walk. He was shot up with cortizone (a steroid though not an anabolic steroid) and hit a game winning series changing home run. Wasn’t his performance enhanced. Wasn’t this a direct result of the drugs he took. Why is this honorable and what happened with these guys not. Why is Tommy John surgery acceptable it certainly laters ones body an dmany have said it gives them more velocity.

      • Sank Says:

        He didn’t have to invent a curtain of lies about it. At best Barry Bonds was dishonest. BTW, that homerun haunts me to this day. I still remember how upset I was about it. *sigh*


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