I had the feeling it might turn out this way. Not since Bill Clinton looked his second presidential election campaign in the eye have the Baseball Writers Association of America ended up electing nobody to the Hall of Fame. And I’m not sure which, among factors gaining serious discussion as the voting commenced and, at last, the results came in, may prove the most controversial of them all:
* The first-time presence of several players whose careers have been tainted by serious enough suspicions involving actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, including the arguable greatest position player ever to step onto a field, and a seven-time Cy Young Award winner who once looked as though he might have been the greatest starting pitcher ever to step onto the mound.
* The limitation to ten names on the BBWAA ballots when this year’s field—comprising the A/A-PED players, a sizeable volume of holdovers from prior ballots, and the newcomers who’ve arrived at minimum because they’re retired five years from active major league play—was overwhelming enough to make possible no new Hall of Famer(s) even without the A/A-PED spectre. I get the impression that the one thing on which all the writers might have agreed was that that ten-name limit needs to change, post haste.
By the time the final week before the results arrived it felt almost predictable that Craig Biggio had a chance to pull in with the highest vote total a) among the new arrivals on the ballot; and, b) period. That’s precisely what happened. Biggio drew a 68.2 percent ballot presence and was probably hurt by the ballot crowd, the ten-man limit on each ballot, and a certain not-in-the-first-year ballot bias still in play despite the overwhelming PED spectre.
My personal call, had I a vote, would have been to elect Biggio and first ballot syndrome be damned. And if you’re among Biggio’s supporters, you should be encouraged that four players since 1966 who earned between 65 and 75 percent in their first try got in on their second. (The four? Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Carlton Fisk, and Roberto Alomar. A fifth, Gaylord Perry, went in in his third eligible year.)
Now, about some of the other players and some of the other issues, hopefully with a sober eye:
1) Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, considered two of the prime poster children of PEDs, managed to creep into the top ten votegetters. It seems surreal to say that the game’s home run (and other) king (yes, Bonds would have been a Hall of Famer even if he’d left the game in, say, 1998, and he’d have been recognised in due course as maybe the greatest all around player who ever stepped on the field) and a seven-time Cy winner topped an otherwise glittering ballot and didn’t get in, first time bias or no. Sammy Sosa crept into the top twenty votegetters (he finished 16th), and it seems likewise surreal on the surface to say a man who hit 60+ home runs in a season three times didn’t finish higher.
There’s really no concrete evidence against Clemens, when all is said and done. Whatever Bonds did or didn’t put into himself between 1999 and the day baseball finally instituted its first anti-PED rules, there’s no concrete, scientific, no-questions-asked way to prove whether any such substance did all that much of anything to help him fatten his statistics, advanced (for baseball) age or no. You can look at the players who did use such substances and discover (assuming you’re willing to be absolutely objective) that the majority of them saw no great statistical performance jumps and that quite a few of them actually saw statistical dips.
It’s all well and good to thunder, as several writers did, that no “cheaters” will get into the Hall of Fame. Perhaps that argument would hold far greater weight—and it certainly would make life and baseball analysis a lot simpler—if it could be proven, once and for all, with no controversy involved, what the substances did or didn’t do for those players. Then, of course, you contend with no less than a recent comment from Mark McGwire:
It’s a mistake that I have to live with for the rest of my life. I have to deal with never, ever getting into the Hall of Fame. I totally understand and totally respect their opinion and I will never, ever push it. That is the way it’s going to be and I can live with that.
McGwire admitted to PED use and said his reasoning came strictly from injury concerns. It’s not impossible that a lot of the PED users did it for similar reasons, even as it’s not impossible that a lot of them did it because they thought the stuff would give them a performance acceleration that may or may not have come. If you’re going to factor motive into the picture, you can’t just wave the users away too readily, either. If you’re going to say flatly that “cheaters” don’t belong, you’d better be ready to disclose whom—Babe Ruth? Ty Cobb? Gaylord Perry? Whitey Ford? Don Drysdale? (Suspected at times of loading a ball.) Among others?—you’d like to throw out of the Hall of Fame.
But there is one reason why, absent the PED issue, you might consider making Bonds wait a few years before you finally confer his Hall pass upon him. Put it this way: This was, arguably, the greatest all-around player the post-integration game had ever seen . . . and, yet, he was also the single most divisive player in any clubhouse in which he played. One player put into words how a small boatload of teammates probably did feel: I’d rather lose without Barry Bonds than win with him. I don’t know that anyone ever said anything like that about the game’s more dubious personalities—including Ty Cobb (who probably makes Bonds look like a saint). Like Dick Allen long before him, Barry Bonds was at war with the world, but not even Allen’s worst enemies are known to have said they’d rather lose without him than win with him.
If part of your Hall of Fame criteria is “Did he help his teams win?” then there’s a powerful case that Barry Bonds—and Sammy Sosa, for that matter, who wasn’t the most popular man in his clubhouse no matter how much of a love affair he once had with fans—did at least as much to keep his teams from winning (you probably had to be in his clubhouses to get the idea and to know just how heavily carpeted they were with eggshells when he was around) as he ever did to help them win. And if that case exists, there’d have been nothing wrong, if enough controversial, about letting Bonds wait a few years.
(The truly bizarre stat among the first-time Big Three: Sosa had three 60+ home runs seasons—and didn’t win the home run title in any of them. Surrounding the third of those seasons, he hit fifty homers in one and 49 in the other . . . and won the home run crown both times.)
2) McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro may not have much ballot life left. In fact, they may, as Sports Illustrated‘s Jay Jaffe points out, drop off the ballot entirely “before resistance to PED-related candidates softens enough.” (If you think it’ll be strange to have a Hall of Fame without a 760-bomb man, how strange will it be to have one without one of the men who had 3,000+ hits and 500+ home runs?) Having discussed McGwire, I’ll simply repeat an argument I’ve made about Palmeiro in the recent past: There actually is a case to make that his failed 2004 drug test, practically at the finish of his career, probably did come by way of a tainted vitamin shot. He also tested negative a) in 2003, and b) a month after the positive that wrecked his reputation. There actually is the prospect that the closer you look at Palmeiro viz a viz actual or alleged PED’s the less there is to see.
3) You’d better have a lot better evidence than just back acne to spurn Mike Piazza. He’s never failed a drug test. He’s the best-hitting catcher the game ever saw; it isn’t close, and he did much of it in home parks (Dodger Stadium, Shea Stadium) that weren’t exactly famous for facilitating fat batting statistics. He’s not the best all-around catcher baseball has ever known (Yogi Berra holds that distinction, with Johnny Bench about an inch or three behind him), but his bat should have made him a Hall of Famer. How long is it going to be before we get it into our thick skulls that suspicion is not evidence?
4) Had they entered a far less crowded ballot, it’s not unreasonable that Craig Biggio, Curt Schilling, and even Jeff Bagwell might be starting to prepare their Cooperstown induction speeches. Yes, I said Curt Schilling. He was the very essence of a big game pitcher.
5) I’m still absolutely on the fence with Jack Morris. I don’t know if I would have voted for him yet again if I had a Hall of Fame vote. I understand both sides of the Morris issue. It seems still to come down to two things: a) He embraced the role of a staff ace and lived it, even to the point of refusing to come out of games too early if he could help it; and, b) he still has a big game reputation regardless of what his final performance papers say about it. Voters who feel likewise will only have one more year to resolve it—and it won’t be easy with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Mike Mussina coming onto the ballot next year; Schilling holding over from this year; and, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz arriving in 2015.
6) We bid a reluctant farewell to Dale Murphy. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: it was the reluctant right resolution. If all you needed was character Murphy would go in in a walk. Stated simply, his body betrayed him before he had a chance to add even three more seasons at which he played at a Hall or near-Hall level to compound the few seasons in which he played like a Hall of Famer in the making. His family made an admirable push on his behalf this time around but to no avail. It’ll take a future Veterans Committee to get Murphy in in the future and there’s no guarantee they’ll see things any differently.
7) We’ll be bidding the same farewell next year, probably, to Don Mattingly. Same problem as Murphy: Character to burn, injuries killing the Hall of Fame case he was certainly en route making.
8) Shawn Green, we hardly knew ye. His first and last time on the ballot. And he, too, looked like a Hall of Famer in the making, until his shoulder began betraying him in earnest after a few too many collisions in right field. Call him the Murphy/Mattingly of the late 90s/early-to-mid Aughts: Character to the tenth power. He’ll always be remembered a) for 23 May 2002, when he hit four bombs, five extra-base hits total, and piled up 19 total bases (breaking Joe Adcock’s single-game record); b) for his endearing habit of tossing his batting gloves to a kid in the field boxes every time he hit one out; and, c) for sitting a game out on Yom Kippur. Class player, class act, the injuries sapped his bat.
9) Bernie Williams was one classy Yankee and a terrific player, but he leaves the Cooperstown ballot in his second year of eligibility after pulling up below the 5.0 percent he needed to stay aboard. At his best, Williams was solid and reliable.
10) Kenny Lofton actually turns out to have had an out-of-left-field Hall case thanks to advanced sabermetrics, but he’ll never get the chance to prove it—one and done, with one percentage point lower than Williams. He was both great and fun to watch at his best, and he was by God a pest on the bases who probably helped build a lot more runs than he was credited with building.
11) Steve Finley, too, probably got robbed of a Hall of Fame career because of injuries. He, too, is one and done on the Hall ballot. But he’ll be remembered. Especially in Los Angeles: 2 October 2004, the day Finley made it game, set, and National League West for the Dodgers. The Giants pulled in the infield and the outfield, while the Dodgers had the bases loaded and one out, after tying the game at three in the inning. All Finley needed to do was get something, anything, in the air to score the winning run. He got one in the air, past the pulled-in infield, past the pulled-in outfield, and just over the right field fence. Making for a seven-run bottom of the ninth and the division championship.
Finally, when too much was said and done, I’m not sure I can improve on Jayson Stark’s valedictory about this most anguishing Hall of Fame vote period in recent memory:
[W]e need to have a long, serious national conversation, starting right now . . . I’m ready if you are , . . Maybe we’ll decide we want a Hall of Fame that aspires to be a shrine, not just to greatness but to purity. I don’t know how we get there, but maybe that’s where this conversation will lead us.
But maybe we’ll decide, once we think it all through, that’s impossible. Maybe we’ll recognize that what the Hall needs to be, in these complicated times, is a museum, and nothing more sainted or noble than that.
Maybe it needs to be a place that does what other great history museums do—tell the story of a time in history, for better and for worse, wherever it leads. Maybe that’s not exactly what we would hope and dream a Hall of Fame should be. Maybe, though, that’s what it has to be, because if we try traveling down that other road, we’ll find nothing but forks and detours and roadblocks.
But once we have that conversation, at least we’ll know how to vote and how to proceed and how to build a Hall of Fame for the 21st century.
That’s a conversation I’m looking forward to having. Even if I won’t always be comfortable with some of the details.