I should start by admitting that I am the worst kind of voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame, at least according to the modern reformers. I am an “honorary” member of the Baseball Writers Association of America rather than an “active” one.
In fact, I’m still as active as ever, although that’s not a particularly high standard. My BBWAA category changed because my employer changed. I’m still in the media and I still cover baseball, so this is mostly a reflection of the ambiguities of a modern media landscape in transition.
Here’s how it happened: I was an active member while covering baseball as a columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post. When I moved to KOA radio two years ago, I told the BBWAA I would still be attending Rockies games on a media credential from time to time and writing about baseball in my new blog. As many bloggers will tell you without prompting, that is not enough to make you an active member. I remain an honorary member only because I had the requisite ten years or more as an active member.
The reason that many who advocate reform of the voting process object to honorary BBWAA members voting for the Hall is the category includes retired writers who may or may not keep up with the game. Of course, Hall of Fame voting is all about the past — a player must have been retired for five years to be considered and can remain on the ballot for fifteen years after that — so retired voters are often passing judgment on players they watched or covered at one time. But I’m not retired yet so I’ll let those folks carry their own water.
The Hall of Fame ballot, as you are probably aware, has become more contentious than ever. There were always disputes, of course; fans have passionately argued their differences of opinion for as long as I can remember. I still engage in the Roger Maris argument every now and then. Whether the Hall was essentially a lifetime achievement award or a recognition of true brilliance, even if short-lived, was the most common area of disagreement. Sandy Koufax made it, but generally speaking, the lifetime achievement award won out. Career statistics, including volume statistics that rewarded longevity more than brilliance, became the standard measuring stick.
Then came sabermetrics and a new divide. Older baseball writers were slow to adopt the Bill James template of advanced metrics; a younger generation embraced it. Older writers tended to think the false precision of new metrics allowed those who had never covered the game or talked to players or managers to believe they had a better understanding of it than those who had. Younger analysts often thought those who rejected or ignored the new metrics were allowing anecdotal recollections and inferior statistical measures to stand in for better, more modern rulers.
Jack Morris is the personification of this divide. Many of us considered him the dominant pitcher of the 1980s and remember his signature moment in the 1991 World Series – a 10-inning, 1-0 victory in Game 7 – as the very definition of greatness, of rising to the biggest occasion. Many sabermetricians look at his career numbers and say he’s not even close to Hall-of-Fame worthy.
Then came steroids and a divide that allowed an unbecoming sanctimony to emerge on both sides. Let’s call it a divide between the moralists and the moral relativists, to use allegations that both sides like when they’re about the other side and neither side likes when they’re about them.
I’m not that fond of either characterization. I look at the emotionalism in our politics, at people whose minds are closed by ideological bias and go to name-calling as a first resort, and I admire those in the middle taking arrows from both sides while trying to solve complex problems that don’t lend themselves to the solutions of sloganeering. That’s sort of where I am — in the muddy middle — with respect to the Hall.
In my opinion, there is no question that the game was changed more dramatically by the illegal use of steroids and human growth hormone than any form of cheating that came before. For those who claim these drugs are really no different from greenies, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated points to the rather large difference in baseball’s penalties for a first offense between the two categories of drugs (“mandatory evaluation” and follow-up testing for amphetamines; 50-game suspension for steroids and HGH) as a measure of their relative impact on the game. The top six single-season home run totals in baseball history all happened in a four-year span, from 1998-2001, at the height of baseball’s steroid era. For a game that’s been played for more than a century, that’s quite a coincidence.
It is true, as the critics of “moralist” voters suggest, that baseball’s ambivalence on the subject of steroids is a complicating factor. Coming out of the 1994-95 strike, commissioner Bud Selig was only too happy to see the home run race of 1998 bring fans back to the game. Many of the BBWAA’s critics wonder why writers are trying to enforce a Hall of Fame penalty for activities baseball didn’t even prohibit through collective bargaining until the 21st century. Selig, who now condemns PEDs with the zeal of a religious convert, claims the failure to prohibit their use before that was all the union’s fault. It is true that union chief Donald Fehr might have succeeded in blocking an all-out push for reform by Selig, but Selig never made one, whatever he says, so we’ll never know.
In any case, having or using steroids without a prescription has been a federal crime since the early 1990s, so PED users were on the wrong side of the law even if the commissioner remained oblivious, as he claims. The involved and complex ways they went about keeping their use a secret make it clear they knew on some level what they were doing was wrong, or at least prohibited.
Just as important to some of us who followed the game for many years was the distorting effect PED use had on the game’s historical record. Baseball’s blind eye allowed players to obliterate records established without the use of PEDs and to be rewarded and glorified for it. Consider the difference between what happened to Lance Armstrong, the disgraced cyclist subject to the enforcement mechanisms of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, and Roger Clemens, subject to the non-existent enforcement mechanisms of major league baseball. Armstrong has been stripped of his titles and is now subject to a variety of civil lawsuits based on taking money under false pretenses. Exclusion from the Hall of Fame is the only penalty Clemens may face, and even that is not certain.
There is a feeling among many older voters who covered great players before the steroid era that somebody has to stand up for them and the records they established. If you want to know how some of these existing Hall of Fame members feel about steroid users being enshrined, just ask them.
So I don’t vote for otherwise worthy candidates for whom it seems to me there is more than adequate evidence of PED use on the public record. Game of Shadows, the excellent investigative book by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, provides this evidence in the case of Barry Bonds. The public record of Clemens’ trial on perjury charges, including the detailed testimony of trainer Brian McNamee, provides it for Clemens. I understand he was acquitted. Given the standard of proof in a criminal proceeding – beyond a reasonable doubt – I understand how the attack on McNamee’s credibility by Clemens’ able legal team produced that result. To quantify “beyond a reasonable doubt,” I think of a standard of 85 percent or 90 percent certainty. The standard required to convince me of any given proposition is more like the civil standard of “preponderance of the evidence” – something greater than 50 percent. In the case of Clemens, the government’s case and McNamee’s testimony get me past that threshold easily. The performance of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa before Congress – one wouldn’t answer questions about PED use, the other temporarily forgot how to speak English — and Rafael Palmeiro’s failed test do the same.
On the other hand, I do vote for otherwise worthy candidates about whom it seems to me there is little more than unsubstantiated allegation and innuendo with respect to PED use. It’s an imperfect, subjective standard, I admit. But given the history, and baseball’s abject failure to police itself during this period, it is the best I can do. I have little sympathy for the argument that since we don’t have perfect knowledge, we should give up and let ‘em all in. As someone who made a living as a journalist for most of my career, I know I never had perfect knowledge. You acquire as much as you can and make judgments on that basis. It’s the best you can do. I’m also not comfortable with a formulation that says we don’t have perfect knowledge, therefore keep anybody out who was ever accused of using steroids by anyone. Adopting standards for the credibility of information is at the very heart of what journalists are supposed to do.
Critics of the BBWAA and its recent voting results tend to make fun of the Hall’s rules for election, especially this one:
5. Voting – Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.
These are not my rules, but if I agree to be a voter, I agree to abide by them. It seems to me obvious that people who cheated and lied about it in ways that glorified themselves, disadvantaged competitors who didn’t indulge and distorted the game itself were not exemplifying integrity, sportsmanship or (good) character and are therefore missing three of the six stated criteria for election. It is not the voter bringing morality into the conversation, it is the Hall and the rules it asks voters to respect. I understand there are people already enshrined who may not have met these criteria. I do not agree that this justifies ignoring the criteria now. If the Hall wishes to eliminate these considerations, it can do so at any time. Until then, I’m including them in my deliberations, as I’m instructed to do.
This year, there is an additional, rare complication, which is that there are too many worthy candidates to fit under the limit of ten votes each voter is permitted to cast. Had I been able, I would have voted for more than ten this year. But since I couldn’t, I allowed a very practical consideration — time on the ballot — to influence me. There are first-time nominees I didn’t vote for that I expect to vote for in the future. But, for example, I was not going to abandon Morris in his final year of eligibility in favor of a first-year nominee who would have won a head-to-head competition in my head. I realize that might make some people’s heads explode, but since I have already admitted to being an honorary voter, I’m guessing this will come as no great surprise.
So, anyway, here’s my ballot. Happy new year.
- Jeff Bagwell
- Craig Biggio
- Tom Glavine
- Greg Maddux
- Edgar Martinez
- Jack Morris
- Mike Piazza
- Tim Raines
- Frank Thomas
- Alan Trammell