Peter Gammons: The Hall of Fame Debate; PEDs

mark mcgwire

This is the first of two pieces on the 2014 Hall of Fame Election. This is about dealing with the ballot. Saturday will be one man’s ballot, however flawed.

“The problem with the ballot in the split on sports-drugs issues. It’s the only issue that matters.”’

-Joe Sheehan

The problem is that this is an issue which no one can wrap his arms around. We have some failed drug tests since actual testing—not the experimental, supposedly anonymous testing of 2003—was put in place in 2005. Fine. But we can’t go to Baseball Reference or FanGraphs to see who did or did not do whatever.

The Baseball Writers Association has, at times, been reduced to the judgmental religious right, owners and union leaders have been excluded from the Hall of Fame on moral grounds while other owners are inducted despite their histories of excluding minorities from their teams and despite the 24/7 work of Ron Manfred and his office today, there is almost no way they can know who does and who doesn’t because laboratories have come up with patches that get in and out of the bloodstream in the time it takes for a Yankee-Red Sox game.

Joe Posnanski’s thoughtful call for guidelines for voting on players from The Steroids Era was poignant, but it didn’t call on a committee to determine who did and who didn’t cross the PED line, or define that line. Meanwhile, we have stared at the Hall of Fame ballot and realized that if one rates the position players by WAR, the rankings would be Barry Bonds, Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, Larry Walker and Rafael Palmeiro; Thomas may be the only one of those five elected on January 8th.

If one ranks the position players on the ballot by OPS+, it would go Bonds, Mark McGwire, Thomas, Bagwell, Edgar Martinez and Mike Piazza.

For all the preaching about cheating, no one has differentiated one form of cheating from another. A splitter killed a batter, one Hall of Famer wrote a book about throwing one 50 years later. The day after Sammy Sosa was caught with a corked bat, I participated in a two hour ESPN special in which one writer demanded Sosa be suspended; never mind that one of Ted Williams’ teammates regaled me with a story about Ted’s corked bats, and we all laugh every time we think about the superballs out of Graig Nettles’ bat.

Some writers say their eyes are judge and jury. Some go by hearsay; Ken Caminiti told many that Jeff Bagwell was a juicer, and it is accepted, yet one time Caminiti, a sad character, cornered me at a Players Choice Awards function and ranted about Steve Finley also being a steroids guy, which I do not believe. In any way. Or care, because Caminiti turned into one of those “everyone did it” persons.

Of course many believe that from 1994-2004 a lot of players—maybe more pitchers than hitters—did use PEDs. Mark McGwire refused to lie in front of Congress, then later admitted his use, and now is one of the most respected coaches in the game. Jason Giambi admitted use under oath, and is now so revered by the Indians players and management that his name is mentioned as a future manager. But a blogger can throw Jose Bautista’s name into the user category because of a power surge similar to that of Roger Maris—who hit more than 33 homers twice, 39 in 1960 and 61 in 1961—and the phrase “whose name has been attached to PEDs” goes onto Wikipedia.

Sheehan is right. These elections will forever be fractious until we come to grips with The Steroids Era, which despite the hours and money put in by Bud Selig, Manfred, et al to try to get the enablers and chemists that lie below the skin of the sport, we still don’t absolutely know still don’t exist. Again: not one of the 13 players suspended because of the Biogenesis lab actually tested positive, and if one believes what those who should know have privately passed on, those who have tested positive in the last couple of years did so because they strayed from their professional trainers and chemical specialists.

Oh, we also have players who have tested positive for amphetamines. Are they now supposedly ineligible for Cooperstown? Greenies and beans were rampant in the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, eyesight’s were affected and the ability to ramp it up again helped career home run totals creep past 400 or 500 or 600. I love watching the grainy film of The Mick, head down, rounding the bases, or Don Larsen jumping into Yogi’s arms, but baseball was not played in a Franciscan ordinary; did the Giants really find an edge in the ’51 playoff?

The question was raised on MLB Radio about three managers being inducted into the Hall this summer and that no questions were raised about whether or not any of them won games using players who used PEDs.

Bonds was the best player of his era, an unforgettable talent, a student of hitting whose long discussions about that art were near-exact echoes of the words of Ted Williams. Roger Clemens is one of the greatest pitchers who ever stepped on a mound. They will not get into The Hall next month, and either will McGwire or Sosa. Someday, when we have resolved the issues of the best players…period…versus the best players we think were “clean,” this will be a more valid election. But for now, while many players like Bagwell and Mike Piazza are being told they must prove their innocence, an impossibility, no one is asking about the Golden Era, when red juice was easily obtainable.

We need to step forward out of the past. We need to admit that baseball records are not stone tablets handed down from heaven.

For all the due credit for baseball celebrating Jackie Robinson’s place in sports and American history, there was a cross-section of baseball that opposed Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers in 1946, a short time after Robinson was ordered off the Fenway Park field. That same team later rejected scout George Digby’s signing of Willie Mays, and it wasn’t until 1959 that that team had its first African-American player.

Racial discrimination is a far more serious blight than performance-enhancing drugs, and 21 years after Elijah (Pumpsie) Green broke the Red Sox color bar, owner Tom Yawkey was posthumously voted into the Hall of Fame, forgiven. A Boston street is named after him.

There are some who would argue that human beings who were cheated out of the opportunity to play in the major leagues represent a darker period than records that were shattered by cheaters, but we learned to live with it. The time has come when we have to figure what we can live with, and what we cannot.

  • RC O’Leary

    Peter, great column. No perfect answer. Perhaps the players could be voted in on the merits,but a committee could be put together that created an exhibit or small section of the Hall that honestly discusses the steroid era. That way the players’ careers could be put into proper context.

    I agree wholeheartedly that keeping players out based on race much worse than PEDs.

  • EddieD_Boston

    Amazingly complicated. Great column.

  • Side Walk

    Can there ever be a written piece about baseball without race being injected into it? …and I think Peter meant to say “positive” …not “position”.

  • Side Walk

    People make this out to be far more complicated then it should be. If the players have the numbers they should get in …regardless if they used modern medicine and science to achieve it.

  • Doug in Ellicott City

    Justifying a wrong with a past wrong perpetuates the fraud.

  • JohnSharp

    Thanks Peter for a great article. Looking forward to part two.

  • Jeremy Ray

    Great article…..if baseball writers are not going to put hitters in because of suspected PED use, then election of pitchers like Schilling and Mussina should occur because they pitched in the “steroid era”. If baseball writers believe those pitchers didn’t use PED’s and batters did, than their numbers would be even better if batters were not using PED’s.

    There is no link to Biggio and PED use and it was an injustice that he didn’t make the Hall with 3000 hits on the first ballot. Biggio, who played clean, most likely faced pitchers who were using PED’s thus numbers may have even been higher.

  • Harvey Soolman

    That was an okay opening statement that raised no new questions, took no position and settled no arguments. Now what?

  • Harvey Soolman

    You’ve already got managers and writers (soon to be followed by Bud Selig), who turned a blind eye to the issue, and probably some players, who took PEDs, in the Hall of Fame now. How can you keep a Bonds or a Clemens out? They were still the best of the best. Not-so-puny .220 hitters also took steroids. You can’t draw a line – I think we all agree – so I think we ought to live with our imperfection, and in they go. I just would rather hear “he led this and that” instead of numbers. Numbers would be the insult. But among a player’s peers he was dominant.

    • Greg Gutlessfeld

      I’ve never heard Selig as a HOF candidate. Give us his resume.

  • HudsonValleySlim

    How ’bout leaving the juicers (and suspects) for the Veterans Committee. In a decade or 2 everything might have more perspective.

  • Fred C. Dobbs

    Terrific article…BUT…why the gratuitous dig at the “judgmental religious right?” Not cool.