HOF FLAP NOT WORTH ALL THE DRAMA

The most notorious of suspected PED users came up for election to the Hall of Fame last week and none of them got in, thus spawning an endless string of commentary on the state of humanity, among other things. The Hall is a fantastic institution that certainly deserves our attention, but the non-election of anybody on their first ballot isn’t anything to get too upset about.

This debate, of course, is about more than first-ballot worthiness, but that’s a good place to start. Nobody’s ever been elected unanimously to the baseball HOF and some of the greats didn’t get in the first time around. So in the first case, there were writers out there who didn’t vote for Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, etc. In the second case, those who didn’t get in the first year they were eligible, the list includes Joe DiMaggio, Mel Ott and Cy Young.

So that’s what frames this discussion. The voters and the criteria they use when casting their ballots. The voters are baseball writers, as we all know. I am not a member of the BBWAA and most likely never will be. I don’t judge those who are too harshly or hold them up on a pedestal. The requirements to become a member (see the bottom of the page in the link) of the BBWA are pretty solid and it isn’t like anyone on the list would have only a vague knowledge of the game.

But they vote their opinion. The guidelines set forth outline the length of playing time, when they played, how long since they retired, etc. There are no benchmarks such as 500 career homeruns, 300 wins, X number of All Star appearances or World Series wins. So, no hard and fast litmus test for greatness is laid out when it comes to entering the Hall.

But there is this provision:

5. Voting: 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.

Record and playing ability – vague
Contributions to the team(s) on which the player played – vague

Integrity, sportsmanship and character – oh, here we go.

The last three have been used rather selectively over the years. It is hard to talk about Ty Cobb without someone mentioning his lack of all three in some measure. Ruth and Mickey Mantle had a lot going on off the field, so much so that it affected what they were able to accomplish on the field from time to time. Who’s the judge?

The writers have navigated that minefield for decades and there really hasn’t been much of an uproar about any player’s inclusion or non-inclusion based on these criteria. Pete Rose is out because he broke a rule that everyone in baseball knows can’t be broken. Everyone also knows the consequences of breaking that rule. Pete is living out the result of his actions.

Who knows what definition of character is to be applied? Setting aside cases of criminal misconduct, baseball players have all kinds of personality quirks as they come from all walks of life and some are cozier with the media than others. MVP votes and Golden Gloves may be affected here and there, but inclusion into the Hall Of Fame doesn’t seem to have been held up by writers who just, plain didn’t like somebody. Steve Carlton and Jim Rice weren’t media darlings by any stretch and they’re in. Dale Murphy, with numbers that can at least make a case for the Hall, is out. When greatness has shown up on the ballot, the vote has come through, even for Carlton, who stopped talking to the press altogether when he was one of the top pitchers in the game.

But a ballot full of known or suspected PED users has changed all that. Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds couldn’t possibly be kept out otherwise. Their resumes are so good that it seems to many that they are too good. Mike Piazza has Hall-worthy numbers but his story is easy to speculate on. He would have gone undrafted had not Tommy Lasorda asked the Dodgers to take him with a late-round pick as a favor. Then Piazza turned out to be the greatest hitting catcher in history. The alleged “bacne” is what is being tossed around as evidence these days, but when you look back on the era, the performance is what looks fishy.

The whole thing is such a crapshoot. Who did, who didn’t? Jeff Bagwell? He sure hit a lot of homers in the Astrodome. Do we know anything more? If he’s one of the clean guys that just got thrown into this mess because of the era he played in, you’ve got to feel sorry for him. If he wasn’t clean, how do we know that now?

So, back to the writers. It has been pontificated that these guys who didn’t vote in Bonds, Clemens, et al., are the same ones who glorified the mounting home run totals and said nothing. That’s where it really gets tricky. If writers knew what was going on and didn’t say anything, why not? Was it the same as not reporting that Mantle had been out all night or that Ruth was the life of the party in some nightclub way after curfew?

I’ve heard several prominent national writers on radio and TV bemoaning the fact that they have asked for direction on how to vote on this matter and they haven’t gotten it. If that’s the case, if they asked the Hall and the Hall was vague or unclear on how they should vote, I say all you can do is vote your conscience. If you covered the 73-homer season in 2001 and you were clueless then but you are enlightened now, fine. Don’t vote for Bonds. If you knew then and thought it was good for the game, then by all means, vote the all-time home run king into the Hall of Fame.

For the guys we’re not sure of, the ones who haven’t really been implicated in the Mitchell report or elsewhere, again, vote your conscience. That should put Bagwell’s 449 homeruns in Cooperstown.

But I think it is much more complicated than that. As I said before, I am not a member of the BBWAA and I have not been a beat writer or any other kind of writer that covers baseball for a living. I don’t know what they know. I am not privy to what is common knowledge, what is going around the rumor mill or what is a dirty little secret. As a regular fan, an outsider, I looked at baseball in the 1990’s and throughout that explosive era and I thought something was too obviously wrong to have everybody be in the dark. I laughed at the revelation of Mark McGwire’s bottle of andro that was “discovered” on a shelf in his locker. Guys got too big, the numbers got too inflated and I just couldn’t believe that the people who were around the sport on a day-to-day basis didn’t know what was going on. So how much of the consternation of the writers is honest-to-goodness confusion and how much of it is a guilty conscience?

I don’t know those answers, but I do know that the game has changed over the decades and has seen many different eras in its history. Maybe that mess just needs to be chalked up as one of them. There are power hitters in the Hall from the “dead ball” era that had home run totals that look laughable to us today. Spitballs were once legal, the height of the mound has been adjusted and until 1947 the game didn’t include players who were black. Players from all of these eras are included in the Hall of Fame.

Is that just giving up and giving in? A cop out to keep from having to make a tough decision? Maybe, but we don’t even know to what extent juicing is going on now. This debate is going to be with us for a while. This was just the first batch of blatant PED users. A bunch more are going to cycle through and by the time they’re tapering off, we might know that the PED era didn’t end when we declared it over. We might have more heroes in the crosshairs down the road. Steroids and HGH have the highest profiles but testosterone is in the news these days for major leaguers and there was a lot of discipline handed out in the minors this year for various substances.

For all the news that the Hall of Fame shutout made this year, I still think these same writers are going to vote Bonds and Clemens in soon enough. Maybe even next year. Maybe some ruling comes down on how to vote or maybe they collectively feel like they made their point (whatever that is) and they vote differently. A lot of players need years of balloting to finally get the call. Though this is different than Bert Blyleven finally getting in after all those years of eligibilty, I believe the writers will put Barry Bonds in, and when they do, the rest will follow over time.

But the funny thing is, it really isn’t that important. The players play, they have their careers and they post their numbers. Then a bunch of writers from all over the country decide, based on whatever their baseball lives’ experiences are, who they think is worthy. They may say you’re not for 10 years and then say you are. As fun as the Hall of Fame experience is for the fans and as rewarding as it is for players, what kind of process is that? Murphy can hold his head high knowing he excelled in every area of the vague guidelines that the voters are supposed to use. The batting average is a little low at .265 but he was a 2-time MVP, a team leader who was an absolutely wonderful role model, and 398 home runs is nothing to sneeze at. This was his last year on the ballot and he never came close.

The older I get, the less the annual Hall of Fame election results mean to me. I would like to see some guys get in but it doesn’t bother me at all if they don’t. The process is too quirky. Enshrinement looks more and more like hero worship. I don’t know who all of the voters are and what motivates them. Roger Clemens had his career and everyone who follows baseball knows how it played out. Same with Bonds and Bagwell and Piazza. The numbers will be in the books forever. I still think those four will all be in the Hall eventually. It’s worth talking about but not worth losing any sleep over.

And that is one long, rambling post to say: aaahh….whatever.

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