Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Baseball Hall of Fame 2016 Ballot: Vote For 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.

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.

Baseball writers who vote for Hall of Fame induction need to 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 -- or a definitive ruling by the Hall itself with regard to certain players or practices (see, e.g., Pete Rose) -- voters should 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 (I wrote about Piazza's snub last year) -- the Hall of Fame's avowed goals of "preserving history and honoring excellence" will be greatly diminished.  (As for other character issues, Curt Schilling should be judged on the merits of his playing career, not his distasteful political views that include bigoted remarks against Muslims.)

For what it's worth, my vote for the 2016 Hall of Fame class (without regard to real or imagined steroid use) would include Clemens, Bonds, Piazza and Jeff Bagwell.  It would, of course, include Ken Griffey, Jr., one of the greatest players of his generation, who is appearing on the ballot for the first time.  I would also vote for Tim Raines, the greatest leadoff hitter east of Rickey Henderson.  Another who, like Raines, has lingered too long on the ballot and deserves induction, in my view, is Alan Trammell, a shortstop whose career compares favorably to recent inductee Barry Larkin and future inductee Derek Jeter

There are strong statistical arguments for other eligible players, but the numbers don't tell the whole story in assessing the career of a baseball player (see Damn Statistics) and ultimately the Hall of Fame vote is a gut call.  And using my gut, I would not add anyone else to my imaginary ballot this year.  The closest calls are Edgar Martinez, Trevor Hoffman, Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling.  Martinez was without a doubt one of the best pure hitters of his day, but his achievements came from being almost purely a designated hitter, and I am not ready to get over my strong antipathy for the DH.  First-time candidate Hoffman was a dominant closer who, after Mariano Rivera, has the most career saves -- a statistic, however, that I believe is way overvalued.  (See Save It)   Schilling and Mussina were both excellent pitchers with stellar careers for whom a reasonable case for the Hall could be made; just not by me. 


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