Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Baseball Hall of Fame Voting: Focus On Substance Over Substances

“Voting shall be based on the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, their contributions to the team on which the player played.” -- BWAA's Hall of Fame Rules
Racists and segregationists who conspired to keep African Americans out of baseball are in the Hall of Fame.  So are players who regularly used amphetamines to "enhance" their performance on the field and others who took illegal drugs off the field.  Cheaters are in the Hall, from spitballers to sign stealers.  The Hall includes adulterers, sexual assaulters, drunks and batterers.  But some of the greatest players of the past couple of decades, including some of the greatest in the game's history, are denied induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame because they allegedly used steroids, probably used steroids or simply looked like they used steroids.  (Meanwhile, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre, managers whose star players used steroids, were voted into the Hall easily.)

This wholly arbitrary application of the so-called "integrity clause" argues for its elimination as a factor altogether.  This would help dampen the sanctimony of the current group of Hall of Fame voters and their misguided effort to prop up an idealized, idyllic view of the National Pastime that never was.  As S.F. sports columnist Ray Ratto put it:  The Hall of Fame is not a church; it is history, for good and for ill.
It is unquestionable that steroids were used by a large group of players --  hitters and pitchers -- from about 1995 until 2005, when the baseball establishment, under pressure, finally began to crack down on the use of performance enhancing drugs.  During this time, when offensive numbers (and players’ heads) were suspiciously inflated, the fans cheered and the owners gleefully looked the other way.  For better or worse, steroids were part of the game and unless we are going to disqualify everyone who played during these years, we simply have to accept it.  Moreover, with the exception of the few players who have admitted steroid use or where the evidence appears overwhelming, we have no way of knowing with any hope of accuracy who juiced and who didn’t.

I wish baseball writers who vote for Hall of Fame induction would stop using their votes to impose their idiosyncratic view of morality on the game.  In the absence of any guidelines from the Hall on how to apply the integrity clause, voters should simply ignore it and focus on the players' performances on the field.  Determining who deserves enshrinement is tricky enough without adding a whole other layer of subjectivity.

In my view, the best and most dominant players of every era should be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and steroid use or other alleged character flaws should not be insurmountable barriers to entry.  Without Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Mike Piazza -- who is apparently suspect based on little more than a case of back acne -- the Hall of Fame's avowed goals of "preserving history and honoring excellence" will be greatly diminished.

For what it's worth, my vote for the 2015 Hall of Fame class (without regard to real or imagined steroid use) would easily include Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza and first timers Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson, all of whom are among the best at their respective positions in the game's history.  I would also vote without hesitation for Tim Raines, the greatest leadoff hitter east of Rickey Henderson.  Craig Biggio and his 3000 hits over an excellent 20-year career would also get my vote, as would his long-time teammate, Jeff Bagwell, a bit of a closer call.  John Smoltz, a truly dominant pitcher in his own right and part of an incredible Braves rotation (Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine were elected last year) should also get in.  With my tenth hypothetical vote, I would probably choose Alan Trammell, a shortstop whose career compares favorably to recent inductee Barry Larkin and future inductee Derek Jeter. 


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