“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 RulesRacists 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 "character 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 -- particularly (but not exclusively) 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.
Then there is the utter hypocrisy of the prior induction of managers Tony La Russa and Joe Torre, who acquiesced while their star players used performance enhancing drugs -- not to mention former commissioner Bud Selig, who was recently voted in despite presiding over the whole debacle.
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 character 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.
And that goes beyond alleged steroid use but applies to other character issues such as offensive and hateful political speech. Curt Schilling -- a borderline candidate in my view -- may be an intemperate and odious transphobic, anti-Islam, right wing clown, but that should have no bearing on his worthiness for the Hall.
In my view, the best and most dominant players of every era should be Hall of Famers, period. Without Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, 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 2017 Hall of Fame class (without regard to real or imagined steroid use or other non-baseball issues) would include Clemens, Bonds and Jeff Bagwell. I would also vote for Tim Raines, the greatest leadoff hitter east of Rickey Henderson. And I would vote for Edgar Martinez, who was without a doubt one of the best pure hitters of his day, despite the fact that his achievements came from being almost purely a designated hitter.
As for those appearing on the ballot for the first time, I would vote for Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, one of the greatest catchers of all time, as well as for Vladimir Guerrero and Manny Ramirez -- two of the most dangerous hitters of their era.
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 hypothetical ballot this year. The closest calls for me are Trevor Hoffman, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling and Gary Sheffield. Hoffman was a relief pitcher with a devastating change up. After Mariano Rivera, Hoffman has the most career saves -- a statistic, however, that I believe is way overvalued. (See Save It) In fact, Billy Wagner, also on the ballot this year, was arguably a more dominant closer. Sheffield, like Guerrero and Ramirez, was a feared hitter for many years but he is not quite of their caliber, in my opinion. Maybe next year. 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.
And finally, I'd like to say a word about Jeff Kent. Sure, his offensive numbers are as good as just about any second baseman in the modern game. But when I watched him play, I never thought to myself, "there's a hall of famer." He was a pretty average player for the first third of his career with the Blue Jays, Mets and Indians. He benefited greatly when he was traded to the Giants from hitting behind the otherworldly Barry Bonds and from the era of inflated statistics in which he played. More damning for Kent is that he was a terrible fielder while playing a key defensive position, and arguably gave up many of the runs he produced offensively. (He couldn't run either) All of the other great second basemen who are or should be in the Hall were excellent fielders in addition to being great hitters. Kent simply doesn't compare to Joe Morgan, Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar or Rod Carew. And, in my opinion, he was no Bobby Grich or Lou Whitaker either -- neither of whom made it to the Hall. Besides, he wasn't a very nice guy.