(In addition to appearing at The Captain’s Blog, this post is also being syndicated at TheYankeeU.)
The holidays are also major league baseball’s Hall of Fame season. Once the ballot is released after Thanksgiving, hundreds of BBWAA members endeavor to narrow down the choices, and in the process, usually write about their selections ahead of the official announcement on January 5. As a result, an undercurrent usually emerges from the collective prose to offer a hint as to the eventual outcome.
Unfortunately for the likes of Bert Blyleven, Tim Raines, Roberto Alomar and Alan Trammell, there really hasn’t been a resounding sentiment that would foreshadow their deserved elections. Instead, the major theme of the process has been steroids. With the addition of Rafael Palmeiro to the ballot, the focus on PEDs is certainly understandable. After all, despite collecting 3,000 hits among many other accomplishments, the former All Star first baseman is now best known for his finger pointing denial in front of Congress just months before testing positive for a banned substance in 2005. Interestingly, Palmeiro, who joins Mark McGwire on the ballot as a qualified candidate stained by PEDs, still maintains his innocence, but the overwhelming sentiment is that he has virtually no chance of being elected.
I was telling the truth then, and I am telling the truth now. I don’t know what else I can say. I have never taken steroids. For people who think I took steroids intentionally, I’m never going to convince them. But I hope the voters judge my career fairly and don’t look at one mistake.” – Rafael Palmeiro, quoted by AP, December 30, 2010
Although no one can come close to knowing the true impact that steroids and other “performance enhancing” drugs actually have on the playing field, it is perfectly legitimate to hold an admission or failed drug test against a particular candidate. According to the Hall of Fame’s BBWAA elections rules, “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.” Clearly, taking performance enhancing drugs calls into question the qualifications of integrity, sportsmanship and character. Of course, the impact of those qualities still has to be weighed against the overall contribution, not to mention measured against the prevailing attitude of the era. Nonetheless, when there is evidence of PED use, it becomes reasonable to disregard an otherwise perfectly deserving candidate.
Unfortunately, far too many members of the BBWAA have gone beyond the careful consideration of evidence and allowed rumors, unverified allegations and, even worse, mere hunches to factor into their decision. The chief victim of this perverted process has been Jeff Bagwell. Although some might argue that Bagwell wasn’t as dominant as other more prominent first baseman of his era, it’s nearly impossible to build a case against him on a statistical basis. Based on his numbers and reputation within the game, Bagwell should be a slam dunk, no doubt about it, first ballot Hall of Famer. So, what’s the problem?
Apparently, a large segment of the voting population has gotten it into their heads that Jeff Bagwell did steroids. In what Craig Calcattera perfectly labeled “Steroid McCarthyism”, several eligible voters have openly accused Bagwell of being tainted without offering one shred of evidence to support their vitriolic allegations. Instead, these writers have cowardly hid behind hunches, suspicions and undisclosed circumstantial evidence to not only smear an individual, but make the entire process seem so illegitimate.
The baseless accusations against Bagwell are somewhat curious because his career followed the normal path that one would expect from a superstar player. At the age of 23, he broke into the majors as a productive player, had several strong peak years in his mid-to-late 20s and then slowly declined into his 30s until finishing his last full season at age 36. Unlike other players of the era, Bagwell did not resurrect a stalled career, nor find the fountain of youth in the years after his prime. He has repeatedly denied using PEDs, but that hasn’t stemmed the tide of cowardly innuendo. In fact, the repeated allegations have done so much damage that the truth probably doesn’t even matter anymore.
So much has gone on in the last eight or nine years, it’s kind of taken some of the valor off it for me. If I ever do get to the Hall of Fame and there are 40 guys sitting behind me thinking, ‘He took steroids,’ then it’s not even worth it to me. I don’t know if that sounds stupid. But it’s how I feel in a nutshell.” – Jeff Bagwell, quoted by ESPN.com, December 29, 2010
Another argument many have used against Bagwell is “guilt by association”. Although no evidence exists about his personal use, the theory goes, he still warrants a scarlet letter because of the era in which he played. Clearly, that’s a nonsensical approach to the issue that can’t possibly be applied with any consistency. In fact, one who holds that sentiment should recues himself from the voting process.
Over the past 10-20 years, it has become obvious that the voting process for the Hall of Fame needs a major overhaul. Just as it has demonstrated with its annual post season awards, the BBWAA is no longer uniquely qualified to serve as the sole arbiter of baseball’s greatest honor. Before the advent of the internet and proliferation of television, sportswriters, by virtue of their access, were among a select group of people with particular insight into the game. Nowadays, however, that is no longer the case. On the contrary, the aging BBWAA population has proven to be significantly out of touch with the game’s development, and therefore woefully inadequate in its role as a third-party overseer. This disintegration is perfectly illustrated by the dozens of trade group members who have deemed themselves qualified to serve as doctors and lawyers when considering Hall of Fame candidates.
The current electorate’s inability to see the distinction between Jack Morris and Bert Blyleven is disturbing enough, but its mob mentality in handling players like Bagwell is really the last straw. Using pens as pitchforks, some BBWAA members have torched reputations and tarnished accomplishments, all in the name of preserving the game’s integrity. In reality, however, the opposite has been true. Therefore, the time has come for major league baseball and the Hall of Fame to take a serious look at the electoral process as well as the qualifications of those casting votes.
There are many intelligent, thoughtful sportswriters who should remain a part of the process, but as recent events have proven, there are also many who should not. Simply being a tenured member of a trade group should not merit such a distinct honor. Last decade, baseball endeavored to clean up the game by enacting a strict drug testing regimen. This decade, it should aim to revamp the Hall of Fame election process by ensuring that a more deserving and better qualified group of voters is entrusted with preserving its history. It’s time to put an end to the age of suspicion, and those who wish to wallow in rumor and innuendo should be left behind.