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.