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Matt Smith is the editor and lead writer at BaseballGB. An Oakland A's fan, Matt has been obsessed with baseball since 1998 and started writing about the sport in 2006.

Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Hall of Fame

The past week was dominated by the announcement of the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot results in which none of the 37 eligible players were elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

An election shutout has occurred seven times in the past. What made the eighth so notable is that it came from arguably the most star-studded ballot that the voters have ever been presented with.

The voters, 569 members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA), have attracted plenty of flak for their collective decision. However, in fairness to the BWAA this wasn’t a situation completely of their own making. MLB’s drug-taking past was the open secret that everyone acknowledged but no one really wanted to deal with. This year’s ballot was the most public case so far of one part of the baseball community, the Hall of Fame voters, having no choice but to confront it.

As expected, the process was difficult; the outcome was divisive.

In a strange way this is something to celebrate. It was difficult and divisive because people care so passionately about baseball stats and history.  The Hall of Fame, the way we recognise the history of MLB, matters because the sport itself is such an integral part of so many people’s lives.

Reconciling this with the complex realities of the game as it is played is not always easy, as seen during the 2012 season.

The official records show that Buster Posey’s .336 batting average led the Senior circuit in 2012. Baseball-Reference has highlighted his name and average to indicate that things aren’t quite that straight forward.  According to the normal rules, his ex-teammate Melky Cabrera should have won the ‘batting title’ with his .346 average. He didn’t because he failed a drug test in August and the player, Players Association and MLB agreed to pass a one-season-only rule to disqualify him from the running.

Introducing temporary rules to gain a more palatable result is hardly ideal, yet it seemed to be the pragmatic response to a difficult situation. Cabrera had tested positive and the batting title if awarded would have been a hollow achievement for the player. The most important part of the decision was to act quickly and to give the other players a chance to compete for it, rather than revise history once the season was over.

The difference between MLB today and when the Hall of Fame class played the bulk of their careers is the presence of the drug testing programme that caught Cabrera.

This was not introduced until the 2004 season. You can debate for hours what that might mean for any user’s culpability before then – was it truly against the rules etc – but any decision on that doesn’t change the fact that there was no mechanism to catch people and to provide actual evidence of use or non-use.

It is the non-use that should be emphasised here.

There is no reason for any genuinely clean athlete to accept the intrusion of being subjected to random testing on a consistent basis if they cannot hold up their clean record at the end of a long career as evidence that they did not take drugs.

Whilst we all know that drug-testing is not perfect and determined cheats may find ways to thwart the testers, the onus is on the drug-testing programme to catch up with them and the possibility of people cheating the system should not stain the reputations of everybody else.

The problem for the ‘clean’ players on the recent ballot is that they don’t have a resume of clean tests to help their case. From a collective point of view it is valid to point out that the players, through the Players Association, could have pushed to introduce drug-testing years ago. It wasn’t simply a case of bad timing, they could have helped to avoid this situation, and I’m sure there were players that tried to do so.

Why it didn’t happen until 2004 is no doubt a complex answer heavily influenced by the years of labour disputes, culminating in the 1994-95 strike.

The simplest answer is that baseball was booming during the so-called steroid era and it was easier for everyone, if not to turn a blind eye in every case, to feel a tinge of discomfort and then get back to revelling in the incredible excitement of the Run to 61 and all that followed.

That’s why landing all the blame on the players does not seem right. Fans and writers enjoyed the exploits on the field at the time. Many were expressing doubts by the time Barry Bonds was edging past Hank Aaron’s all-time home run total, but we all kept watching all the same.

The only reason Mike Piazza and Craig Biggio (I would add Jeff Bagwell to name at least one other) will not be giving induction speeches at Cooperstown this year is due to doubt caused by the ‘steroid era’.  With no actual evidence of drug taking by them to point to, that seems completely unjust.

The argument can even extend to Bonds and Roger Clemens. Although there is some evidence at least linking them to drug-taking, it is in part due to their elevated standing in the game – plus, I suspect, their possibly undeserved reputations as being surly and generally disliked – that they have been subjected to such scrutiny.  I’ve yet to see anyone construct a convincing argument that shows that alleged drug use turned them from being merely very good players to greatness.

If unarguable evidence showed they had taken drugs during their career – and with Bonds at least the case already seems set – that would affect my opinion of them, but it wouldn’t change my belief that they were two of the greatest players ever to play the game.

As such, they belong in the Hall of Fame.

Let the spotlight created by being elected for such an honour, not least the focus on their induction speeches, make us all reflect upon the era in which they played.  The best and most constructive way for us to learn from the era is to remember it, not to forget it.

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2 Responses to “Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Hall of Fame”

  1. Joe Cooter #

    Part of the argument that writers used was that players who used “performance” enhancing drugs were cheaters and cheaters should be kept out of the hall because they quote unquote violate the Character Clause of the Hall of Fame. I do hope they realize that that boat sailed a long time ago and if they were ever truly serious about the Character Clause being enforced then a lot of members of the Hall of Fame would have to have their placks tacken down from the walls.

    For example:

    Cap Anson- was responsible for the color Barrier in Baseball which lasted from the n1880’s to the 1940’s.

    Ty Cobb- All around Citizen who sharpened his spikes in a diliberate attempt to maim opponents.

    Babe Ruth- used illegal drugs ( alcohol was illegal in the United States during most of his playing career) and associated with Prostitutes.

    Mickey Mantle -Took performance enhancing drugs, had extra marital affairs.

    Willie Mays- Took Performance enhancing drugs.

    Whitey Ford- Cheated by throwing spit balls, which had been illegal for years.

    Hank Arron- Admitted to taking performance enhancing drugs in his autobiography.

    Mike Schmit – Took Performance enhancing drugs.

    Gaylord Perry- Openly Cheated by throwing a spitball to win 314 games when is was clear that he couldn’t cut it with a normal pitch.

    Ferguson Jenkins- Drug conviction during his playing career.

    If you were serious about the character clause the Hall of Fame wouldn’t be what it is and the history of the game would be seriously obscured. Which is the true crime here.

    Writers, it seems, have decided to use the character clause as an excuse to punish anyone whom they considered to have used performance enhancing drugs. And in most cases, if not all cases, they really didn’t have proof. They just used the fact that their were rumors as an excuse to leave players out. Take the cases of Mike Piaza and Craig Biggio, niether of whom has been proved to have taken steroids or PED’s but were denied entry into the hall because their were rumors. In a fair and just society, that would not happen. But the writers of the BBWAA don’t seemed to be interested in justice or fairness because they seem to believe rumors are proof enough to convict somebody, which we all no it is not.

    What really angered me about the who process was that every writer who used the rumors as an exuses didn’t seem to care about the fact that were punishing the innocent. All they cared about was sending a message and they didn’t seem to care about who they hurt in the process. I have never been more about something in my life because I had the feeling that had lived in the 50’s they would have gladly assisted Senator McCarthy in his Witch Hunts. HAd they been around for Salem they would have gladly accused innocent people of Witchcraft.

    The writers have lost their way and have been come blinded by their moralistic crusade. They have become so blinded, in fact, that they don’t even realize that their really is NO sciencentific connection between Steriods and hitting a baseball. They seem to forget that we really don’t have evidence that connecting steroids to homeruns. Yet they seem still seem convinced that you can set a record for homeruns simply by shooting up with a needle. It doesn’t work that way.

    Steroids are not quite like other Performance Enhancing Drugs because we do not quite know what their connection is too hitting. They are not like Anphetamines which enables an athlete to play when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to plays; like when they’ve had an all night bender the way Mickey Mantle did. Steroids are not like the painkillers that players in the NFL take on a regular basis just to play every Sunday so that they can continue to maim one another. The connection between Steroids and hitting a baseball just isn’t that clear because hitting a baseball is a mechanical process. Yet the somehow, the writers seem to have forgotten that.

    It is just a shame what happened because there were some really good candidates on the Ballot this year, all of whom deserved to get in. If I had had a vote, I would have voted in Bonds, and Clemons. I would have voted for Biggio and Piazza as well. I would have voted for them because there really isn’t any proof that these players used steroids or cheated. There for i could not deny them entry.

    January 14, 2013 at 11:43 am Reply
  2. Matt Smith #

    I think some of the writers (not all) didn’t know how to address the issue and therefore took the easy option out, latching onto the ‘character’ clause even though such an approach is clearly very questionnable for the reasons you point out.

    It is a difficult topic, few would deny that, but I don’t see how waiting a few years to consider it further will really change anything. Unless some hard evidence miraculously appears from somewhere – and that seems extremely unlikely – there will always be some suspicion over everyone if you want to look at it that way.

    I feel sorry for those at Cooperstown. The induction weekend this year will be a curious affair with everyone focusing on the players that aren’t there. Okay, having Bonds, Clemens and others stepping forward to make a speech may have been uncomfortable for some, but it’s better to face up to these things rather than keep burying heads in the sand.

    January 14, 2013 at 9:19 pm Reply

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