It’s about to hit the fan, for real and in every sense. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, the two greatest players of their (and any) era, are now eligible for the HoF with their first-ballot results soon to be announced. Fans and sportswriters everywhere are no closer to an agreement on whether they belong in this exclusive institution, than they were when these players were finishing up their careers. This article is an attempt to strip away the nonsense, and honestly address the issue(s) of who belongs in the HoF, and why?
Baseball fans, whether they admit it or not, have always had very strong feelings concerning who belongs and who doesn’t belong, in the Hall of Fame. Let’s start with the premise that the Hall of Fame largely belongs to the fans. I am of that opinion. If the fans don’t care, then the institution is largely meaningless. It is that recognition of greatness by the people who cover the game, with the support of the fans who love the game, that gives the HoF its mystique. So what is needed now, more than ever, is a clear and consistent rationale for electing players from baseball’s PED era into the HoF. It needs to be as fair as possible in an era that is defined by its unfairness.
For starters, it is necessary for all of us to give up our misconceptions of reverence and purity for the HoF, which never really existed. A more realistic perspective shows the HoF to be an institution stocked with racists, ruthless businessmen who cruelly exploited their players, and various types of rule breakers/cheaters. For the remaining members, let’s keep in mind that while they are mostly great players, they are all also human beings, and therefore fallible.
For example, when I was growing up in Wisconsin, Paul Molitor played for the Milwaukee Brewers in the AL East, and he became my favorite player after Joe Morgan declined. I still rooted for Joe Morgan, but Molitor was awesome and there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that he is a HoFer, but there was a time early in his career when he struggled with cocaine addiction. I don’t know if his drug use helped or hurt his on-the-field performance (I suspect it hurt it), and I didn’t consider his personal history an important criteria when I judged his HoF worthiness, long ago. I thought he was qualified and that was it. I bring this up to illustrate that all of us, even our heroes, have vices. All of us do things we aren’t proud of, that don’t necessarily define who we truly are. They are called mistakes we make as a part of growing up in life. If we don’t make them, it’s often because we were too afraid to attempt greatness.
Molitor was always regarded as a consummate team player, and I’d like to think he wouldn’t mind me using his story to help build a case for other players who deserve to be enshrined. You could find serious character defects in many players who have been elected to the HoF. All that would prove, is that they are human beings. It would be unfair to exclude Molitor or anybody else, based on that criteria. He simply did what a significant number of successful and relatively wealthy young men did at that time. He overcame his addiction to have a storied career, and nobody held those choices against him when it came time to give him his plaque.
It is highly hypocritical that a majority of sportswriters now want to selectively set a new, higher standard for this 73-year-old institution. The first player selected to the HoF was Ty Cobb, because he was considered the purest essence of a ballplayer by those who voted at the time. Ty Cobb also once brutally attacked a handicapped fan in the stands who called him “a half-nigger.” Clearly, there never has been a serious standard for character and ethics when it comes to selection to Cooperstown. It has always been about numbers and on-the-field performance.
The next moral progression for these proponents of exclusion is that they/we know better now, so we need to raise our standards as society has become more egalitarian. I would agree with that point, if it actually applied to these sportswriters or even society in general. During the 1990’s when PED use was rampant, there was very little honesty and ethics concerning players doping. The writers mostly didn’t want to investigate or report on it, the front offices and owners kept quiet, Bud Selig’s commissioner’s office swept it under the rug, and the MLBPA repeatedly ignored the obvious health risks to its rank-and-file. Only when the scandal became impossible to deny, meaning when Barry Bonds broke Mark McGwire’s and Henry Aaron’s home run records, did writers, officials, and fans find their “ethics.”
For those who insist there is no way to prove PED usage increases player performance by increasing fastball velocity, the number and distance of home runs, etc., I say to you: Stop being silly. At some point each of us has to look at the numbers, look at the players and how their bodies developed and changed over their careers; and make an extrapolation, which is often a best guess. It is inherently inexact, but it sets us closer to the truth than if we ignore these clues, and pretend PEDs don’t help players get better, stronger, faster; or that there is no evidence. Comparisons to previous players in pre-PED eras, and how their performance naturally decreases past a certain age are all pieces to a puzzle which must be accounted for in any serious HoF ballot. In other words, there is a lot to consider, and part of it is subjective, which is fine, as long as we are honest about our method.
It is a lie that baseball is somehow abstract from the moral standards of the world we live in; that it is, or at least was, a sanctuary from everyday problems. The same issues we have in the real world exist in baseball, and the game’s history proves that over & over. The Jim Crow exclusion of non-whites until 1947, the exploitative Reserve Clause until 1976, and the Collusion conspiracy of the owners and management in the 1980’s are all permanent stains on the game; and they are all on display in Cooperstown, in some form. So be it with Performance Enhancing Drugs.
Baseball is a game of eras. We have the pre-1900’s era, the 20th-century dead-ball era, the era of Ruth and the sluggers, the Integration (Branch Rickey/Jackie Robinson) era, the Expansion era, and the Labor Union/Free Agency (Marvin Miller) era. We now need to acknowledge and correctly define the PED era. Eras are rough approximations, but they make sense; and they do trace a reality of their epoch. Thus we now open the PED wing of the HoF, and start facing some hard truths about our pastime.
Jose Canseco, the man who first brought steroids into MLB, is the founding figure of the PED wing of the HoF; so he gets the first plaque. I don’t like it either, but the fact is he profoundly changed the game forever, symbolizing and quantifying many of the benefits, limitations, and risks of PEDs. He even wrote a book about it, which was universally panned at first, but later proved to be much closer to the truth than anything that came from MLB or the players’ union at the time. This needs to be recognized and well-understood by all fans of the game. We need to be able to say, “Here are the greatest players of this era, many of them took PEDs, decide for yourself who they are, and come to your own conclusions as to why they did it, and how it affected the game. It’s part of its history, for better and for worse.” I would much prefer to see the HoF reflect this reality, even in its ugliness, than trying to perpetuate an outdated myth of sanctity.
===============Ric Size’s 2013 MLB HoF Ballot======================
My criteria: I imagine looking each player in the eye, and having to explain my vote without blinking. Thanks to Jay Jaffe at Baseball Prospectus for his JAWS HoF measurement system, which in my opinion is an honest use of the scientific method in order to objectify HoF standards.
Barry Bonds: Clean through 1998, and already a HoFer. Robbed of the NL MVP in 1991. My feeling is that he took PEDs because he felt slighted by the baseball establishment which refused to recognize him as the best player. He was by far the best player of his era, and is likely the best player ever. It’s either him or Babe Ruth. At his peak he had to listen to everyone talk up Sosa & McGwire being better than him. How would you feel if you were the best at what you did, and most of the “experts” in your industry refused to recognize it?
Roger Clemens: If I get to take one pitcher for his whole career, it’s Clemens. Aesthetically I prefer Greg Maddux, but the Rocket was better. The question of course is PEDs. I don’t believe he took PEDs when he was with the Red Sox, and he was a Hall of Famer by the time he got to Toronto. What he did after that, made him the best ever. Walter Johnson, Satchel Paige, Maddux, and maybe Randy Johnson, Lefty Grove and Tom Seaver are the arguments, for me. He was always great as long as he could stay healthy, and that was the question with him at the end in Boston. I’m guessing he felt he needed PEDs to continue to be able to pitch at the highest level. I think many athletes would very likely make the same choice. This is why it is essential that the caretakers of the game make sure competitors are not allowed to make these types of decisions for themselves. The MLB owners, the office of the commissioner, and the MLBPA have never proven themselves reliable on this, to any degree. What is required is strict testing and enforcement, along with comprehensive education and prevention for players and fans on the potential risks, dangers, and consequences of PED usage.
Mike Piazza: Career– .308/.377/.545. Best hitting catcher ever, by far. Did he juice? I don’t know, some insist he did. I say he was a great player from the start, and any edge he may have received wasn’t enough to exclude him from the HoF. One of the best right-handed hitters in the NL for over a decade. We’re talking about a catcher.
Craig Biggio: Career– (All with the Houston Astros) .281/.363/.433. Started as a catcher and converted to 2B. Great player who is believed to be outside of the PED stigma. Probably played two seasons too long in order to reach the 3000-hit milestone which ensured Cooperstown, and I don’t blame him. He was already a HoFer, but there are those who would have excluded him if he didn’t have a traditional milestone like 3000 hits. I blame the Houston Astros for putting individual glory ahead of doing the right thing, which was to bench an old hero for the sake of the team. They are still paying for that short-sighted approach.
Edgar Martinez: Best right-handed hitter of his era, although I won’t argue those who say it was Frank Thomas. They both were awesome. Edgar’s career was shortened due to injuries, and he couldn’t have played without the DH. Considered PED-limpio. Career– 2055 Games (All with the Seattle Mariners), .312/.418/.515. Hombre could rake & take. Q: Is he overlooked because he was quiet, Puerto Rican, and played in Seattle? A: Of course.
Tim Raines: Career– .294/.385./425. The second-best leadoff hitter ever, behind Rickey Henderson, is a Hall-of-Famer. Favorably comparable to Lou Brock. Is Lou Brock not a HoFer?
Jeff Bagwell: Career– .297/.408/.540 are HoF numbers. Did he juice? Looks possible, but I have no evidence. Played with Ken Caminiti, who admitted PED usage. Everybody else who played in the majors at the time also played with someone who used PEDs. You can’t reasonably exclude him from the HoF. He was feared.
Curt Schilling: Career– 216-146, 3.46 ERA in an extreme hitters era. Let me start off by saying I’ve never been a fan of him when he opens up his mouth, and his financial difficulties don’t surprise me. None of that matters when it comes to his HoF resume. Great pitcher, with numerous (not just one game) dominating post-season performances. He was as tough as anybody, with unbelievable command, and is considered PED-free. He was definitely shot up with something when he pitched with a bloody sock.
=================Those who didn’t make the cut========================
Rafael Palmiero, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire: HoF numbers, but I vote no because as opposed to Mike Piazza, I believe steroids gave each of them enough of an edge to turn them into a HoFer by performance; whereas if they had been clean, each would have come up short. No science, just my opinion. This is where I subjectively draw the line.
Lee Smith: Career– 71-92, 3.03 ERA, 1289.1 IP, 478 Saves, 110 Blown Saves. That’s a high ERA for a closer, mostly due to his high career walk rate. When he gave it up, there were often men on base, whom he had walked, which lost the game instead of just tying it. No post-season bona fides to help his cause. Billy Wagner, Trevor Hoffman, and Mariano Rivera are all better reliever candidates.
Jack Morris: Career– 254-186, 3.90 ERA 3824 IP in a neutral-to-slightly-inflated pitching era. Slightly above-average workhorse career value, but just not good enough for the HoF. If Lonnie Smith hadn’t screwed up on the bases in Game 7 of the 1991 WS, we’d be talking about what a great game John Smoltz pitched. Like a few other recent writer-selections, he’s old-school over-rated.
Alan Trammell: This one is really close for me, and I won’t argue too loudly against those who back his case. I just thought that Ozzie Smith, Robin Yount, Cal Ripken, and Barry Larkin were a cut above him. Career– 2365 Games, (all with the Detroit Tigers), .285/.352/.415, good fielding shortstop. Robbed of the AL MVP in 1987. This is where I start blinking, sometimes.
Everyone else on the ballot: No.
In a Pioneers & Off-the-Field Contributors to the Game section of the new PED wing, Bill James the founder of Sabermetrics and modern baseball statistical analysis is given his plaque along with Marvin Miller, posthumously. Miller rightly belongs in his own era, but too many traditionalists don’t want him, so we’ll proudly take him. His legacy will help cleanse our dirty wing. Speaking of cleansing, Drs. Frank Jobe and James Andrews are given their plaques next to John Smoltz when he is inducted. Billy Beane is the first GM inducted from this era. No owners or league/labor officials from this era are recognized as HoF-worthy.
Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson are finally given their due, as the HoF baseball players they truly were. People make bad choices and have to live with the consequences, but it is American, and ultimately human, to forgive and help them rehabilitate. I consider it particularly cynical of MLB to condone a Charles Comisky Cooperstown plaque, and deny Shoeless Joe. It was Comisky’s extreme exploitation of the White/Black Sox that drove Jackson and his teammates into the clutches of gamblers/gangsters with their promise of a big payday. Pete Rose is a case of excessive vice and selfishness. He has paid his debt to society and is not allowed to be a part of the organized game, but the HoF is a separate institution with no official affiliation to MLB. Therefore he can be made eligible, and therefore he gets in. Since this is the tainted wing of the museum, we get imperfect heroes. It will help us remember our own fallibility.