I’m writing this on Christmas Day, with the Colorado wind rattling my windows. This is my penance. Granted, penance is an amorphous concept for an atheist. But lots of people — even as a lifelong journalist with much evidence to the contrary, I would say most people — are trying to do the right thing most of the time. The trick, as somebody famous once said, is figuring out what the right thing is.
This will be my last ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame. It has been a privilege to participate in this ritual for the last few years. I qualified in 2010, so it hasn’t been that long. I was term-limited anyway because I left my last job as a newspaper sportswriter in 2012, although I continued covering the Rockies for a radio station’s website for a few years after that. Much of that coverage ended up on this blog.
Under the Hall’s recent rule revision, I would have been done as a voter in 2021. So I don’t want to imply my departure has any great significance for anyone but me. But I do want to explain why I’m cutting out a few years early, no doubt with characteristic longwindedness, because when I first got the vote I thought it was about the coolest thing in the world. Much of this will be personal stuff that readers interested only in this year’s ballot will find boring or useless or self-indulgent or all three. So, please, if that’s you, just scroll to the bottom for the ballot. I am over the charm of internet snark, so don’t waste the effort.
I did not think having a Hall of Fame vote was cool because I share with many of my fellow voters a reverence for the museum in Cooperstown. I took the obligatory trip one summer with my son when he was young. I got to show him video of Luis Aparacio, which was cool. You can do that now on YouTube. I got the obligatory speeding ticket on our way there, which I gather is one of the revenue sources used to prop up local government in those parts. But my son and I agreed that watching actual big league ballgames in different cities was more fun than walking around a museum, even a cool one, so that’s what we did with our summertime trips thereafter.
Furthermore — and here I am in a small minority of humans, I think — our various attempts as a species to achieve immortality have always seemed to me doomed and delusional. I think the most likely outcome is an abrupt end to our little science experiment, and even the great Greek philosophers will be lost, let alone the best outfielders measured by wins above replacement. Besides, why baseball and not medicine or rocket science or something? So it was never the Hall that I revered. But I did revere baseball itself, and still do.
My father grew up in Newark, N.J., where his parents took him to see the Newark Bears, the Yankees’ top farm club at the time. Most of the Yankee greats of that era passed through. My paternal grandmother was the first devoted baseball fan I knew. She told stories of the great DiMaggio. Until I was 8, we lived outside New York and my father would take me and my two brothers to the old Yankee Stadium. The summer before JFK was assassinated, we moved to Chicago, where, despite living on the south side, my father fell in love with Wrigley Field, home to daytime baseball and Ernie Banks. Many years later, long after my father died, I took my son to Wrigley on one of our summer ballpark trips from Denver, and we sat in about the same spot where my father and I sat. For a nomadic family like mine, there are not that many opportunities for this sort of continuity.
I sort of remember picking my first favorite team. When you get to be my age (62), most of your older memories are actually memories of memories — you remember how you have told the story over the years, not the event itself. The story I have told, which I can only hope is grounded in the actual event, is sitting in the back seat of my mother’s tan DeSoto — a tank with tires — with my older brother waiting for my mother to return from some store. He is leafing through a baseball magazine — Street & Smith’s, I presume, because that’s the only one I remember from those days. He has a favorite team and now I must pick one so we can root against each other. I look through the black-and-white pictures and I pick the Orioles because of the bird on the cap. Still my favorite baseball cap. Of course, when they had the full bird on the cap, they sucked. Then they went to the cartoon head of a bird and got really good. Then they followed the nostalgia movement and went back to the full bird and sucked again. Then they went back to the cartoon head and got good again. So.
When I was a kid, you could pick up WBAL after dark all over the eastern half of the country and I would listen to Chuck Thompson and Bill O’Donnell call the games. When the Orioles were on the west coast, I would fall asleep with a transistor radio at my ear. That sort of stuff. The 1966 World Series came just after my 12th birthday. It was the event that taught me miracles could happen. Many years later, when I was unemployed for a few months following the demise of the Rocky Mountain News and brief, unremarkable stints at two subsequent employers, I wrote a letter to Jim Palmer proposing a book for the 50th anniversary of the ’66 team. Never heard back. Palmer was eight days shy of his 21st birthday when he threw a four-hit, complete-game shutout at the Dodgers in Game 2 of the ’66 Series. Sandy Koufax was the losing pitcher. Wally Bunker was three months shy of his 22nd birthday when he followed up with a six-hit, complete-game shutout in Game 3. Those were miracles.
When big league baseball came to Colorado in 1993, I bought season tickets. I couldn’t really afford them, they weren’t very good seats and I didn’t use them most of the time, but that was how big an event it was to me. My son was 3 when I took him to the first Rockies home game. Eighty thousand people showed up at Mile High Stadium. Eric Young led off the bottom of the first — the first home at-bat by a big league player in Colorado — with a home run. The pennant proclaiming that he was there still hangs on the wall in my son’s room at my house.
Baseball and cars were the safe subjects I could talk about with my father. As I was growing up, there were also the options of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but we stuck pretty much to baseball and cars. I like to think my son and I have a broader menu than that, but there is something to be said for continuity.
So anyway. It felt like a privilege to be invited into an electorate charged with curating and cultivating a real-time celebration of a history that had come to mean so much to me. I was not your typical Hall voter. I had never covered baseball as a beat guy. I started my career in news, covering local politics and government, got hired by the Rocky as a City Hall reporter, then moved to sports and covered the NFL and NBA as a beat writer before getting a column and a baseball writer’s card in 2000. I got to work with Tracy Ringolsby and Jack Etkin, a couple of veteran baseball writers who were extremely kind to and tolerant of a newbie who came in writing opinions, as columnists do, knowing far less than they did about the immediate subject matter.
But I also had a distance that was helpful journalistically. As I learned in my own career, there is an ongoing tension in journalism between experience and sympathy. Let’s say you’re an editor. You’re hiring someone to cover a beat. You want someone aggressive, someone smart, someone who will be more than a stenographer; someone who will dig beneath the surface and the public relations and tell your readers what is really going on. You want someone fearless, and yet personable enough to develop the sources one needs to do such a job well. Over time, as that person becomes more experienced, she comes to understand better and better the reasons the people she covers do the things they do. Maybe they’re good reasons and maybe they’re not, but as she gets to know them she comes to understand why those reasons make sense to them and she endeavors to explain this to her readers, which inevitably sounds like justifying and rationalizing to a reader without any of the personal sympathy. So the debate among newsroom managers was always how long to leave someone on a particular beat. Some papers had institutional rotation programs; everybody switched assignments after a certain period of time. Some papers let beat people stay on their beats indefinitely, cultivating “experts” in the field, which became more and more useful as the era of sportswriters on television dawned.
So, yes, finally, I am coming around to this year’s Hall of Fame ballot. During my days as an NFL beat writer, Pete Rozelle was the commissioner. During my days as an NBA beat writer, David Stern was the commissioner. Everybody knew these guys were hired by and operated at the pleasure of the club owners, but they both managed to rise to a level higher than that. Each became the face of his sport. Their highest calling did not seem to be making their employers rich, although they certainly did. Their calling seemed to be guiding their sport through all the treacherous waters of modern-day American life, into which each of these sports will inevitably wade, employing young people from every social, economic, ethnic and racial segment of life, as they do. These two did a pretty good job of it. Any close observer can point to individual mistakes, but they left their sports in better shape than they found them, and not just financially.
My immediate impression upon beginning coverage as a columnist of post-season baseball was that most of the baseball beat writers were apologists for Bud Selig. And I could see why. He was very good to them. He treated them the way politicians used to treat political writers — as part of an association, their common bond being knowledge and understanding of a complex subject most other people knew less about. As a journalist, you get used to being treated as an outsider most of the time, which is fine, because that’s what you are. But, contrary to common perception, journalists are people, too. They like to be liked; they like to be respected. Bud respected the writers and they protected him.
When you read the litany of Bud’s accomplishments as commissioner, they’re all about money. He made everybody rich. So, good for him. He was a car salesman, and a really good one. Everybody has known a great sales person. They’re ebullient, they’re infectious, they make you want to come along. Bud sold baseball.
By the time I started covering it, baseball’s steroid era was in full bloom. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa had just had their memorable home run battle of 1998, obliterating the previous record, held by Roger Maris for 37 years. Maris had exceeded by one home run the previous record, held by Babe Ruth for 34 years, and he had an extra eight games on the schedule in which to do it. That was what passed for controversy at the time. Bud gushed over the ’98 race. It was the greatest thing ever, mainly because baseball had been struggling to right itself after a labor dispute washed out the 1994 World Series. Good times were here again. Everybody was making money. Suspicions about the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs were nothing new. The NFL had instituted its first steroid ban 11 years earlier. Bud was having none of it. These were baseball’s glory days and anyone who said otherwise was a nattering nabob of negativity.
It was, as many have said, an institutional failure all the way around. Between Bud and Donald Fehr, the head of the players’ union, Fehr is perhaps the more reprehensible character because he’s smarter and there’s a greater likelihood he knew exactly what he was doing. Gene Upshaw had famously pioneered rules against steroid use in football as a union man because, as a former player, he thought he was protecting the health of his members. Still, Fehr was doing his job as he saw it, which was akin to being a defense attorney. Your guy may have done it, but it’s your job to argue convincingly that he didn’t because the process requires somebody to do that. You are purely a partisan; what is right, what is true, doesn’t necessarily matter because that’s somebody else’s job to figure out.
In baseball, of course, it was nobody’s job. Bud was doing his job as he saw it, too — to sell the game of baseball. There are only two ways to explain how he could have taken so long to arrive at his come-to-Jesus moment in which he morphed into a vengeful steroid hunter so late in the day: He was a liar, or he was an idiot.
Up until three weeks ago, I thought I understood where the Hall of Fame was on the steroid business. True, it had never said anything explicit. And, true, the public conversation, especially as it moved to the internet and social media, has consistently moved against trying to impose “moral judgments” on the Hall by penalizing candidates with steroid use on their resumes. But the Hall clearly made a decision to leave its statement of voting criteria the way it was:
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.
I knew it had left “integrity, sportsmanship, character” in there on purpose because the Hall has been on the case recently with respect to revising and updating its rules. It has reduced the period of a player’s consideration by the 400 or so voters from 15 years to 10. It has instituted a code of conduct for voters. It has revoked lifetime voting privileges. Over the years, these three words in the voting directive have been examined as if they were forensic evidence. And two of the game’s most accomplished stars, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, have been denied admittance to the Hall through their first few years on the ballot for no other reason. The Hall chose to make no change in rules that clearly had a part in that outcome.
So I thought the Hall management was reflecting the will of the players already enshrined, many of whom have expressed the view that they would be disappointed or angered or both if known steroid users were to be admitted. Some have even said they would not return for the annual induction ceremony. There will come a time when the powers that be figure out a solution. I think it was my former Rocky colleague Derrick Goold, now of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and finishing up a term as president of the Baseball Writers, who suggested including obvious transgressions on the player’s Hall plaque. That’s a good journalist’s solution — this is part of the story, too; you decide. On the other hand, historians may marvel at the fact that Lance Armstrong was thoroughly disgraced for cheating through chemistry in cycling, stripped of his titles, forced to surrender sponsorship money received in bad faith, a complete fall from grace, while baseball players who did the same thing suffered only a short delay in their deification.
Three weeks ago, the Hall’s latest iteration of a side-door committee — panels charged with reviewing players no longer eligible in the general voting as well as non-players associated with the game — elected Bud Selig not two years after his long-awaited and merciful retirement as commissioner. So that’s the Hall talking, too. Somehow, Bud isn’t stained with the era he enabled. Talk about a sales job.
I don’t know if these side-door committees are given the same voting rules as the writers, but if they are, you can justify shoving Bud in at the first available opportunity by resolving the previous question — liar or idiot — in favor of the latter. Over time, I’ve come to that position myself. “Useful idiot” is the phrase that comes to mind. Going back to those days in the late ‘90s and early aughts, it was a time when nobody in baseball wanted to know nuthin’. It reminds me a little of the college football coach who doesn’t want to know about the methods used in recruiting. Or, to get more sinister, higher-ups in the Catholic Church during the period before the pedophilia scandal finally broke. Willful ignorance is not the same thing as knowingly hiding damaging information, but it’s pretty close. Baseball was enjoying commercial success of a sort it had never known, and few people inside the game wanted it to stop. Everybody was getting paid. They looked only when they had to, when prosecutors and Congress and mostly non-baseball writers began to investigate what had become an open secret. The use of steroids without a prescription, after all, had been a federal crime since 1991. All this was against the law, if not baseball’s rules. It was only after Congress called Selig and Fehr in and berated them publicly that Bud converted. Like many converts, he became more sanctimonious than anybody about the things he had ignored for so long.
A lot has been written already about Bud’s election to the Hall. Some voters who had withheld votes for the obvious steroid guys switched as a result. If he’s going in then they should go in. That sounds rational to me, and yet I see an important distinction in the mechanism used to slip him in. Had Bud appeared on the main ballot, would he have been elected in his first year? Uh, no. Too many of the writers withholding votes from Bonds and Clemens would have withheld their votes from Bud, too. And rightfully so, in my opinion.
So the guy who made everybody rich gets a special dispensation. Shockaroo, there.
The two columns I’ve read on this with which I identified the most were by Wallace Matthews of New York Sports Day and Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Like them, I don’t look forward to Hall of Fame voting anymore, which is probably why I procrastinate this way. It also doesn’t make sense to me anymore. I now view the Hall as a hypocrite, so being one of its instruments now seems more like being a stooge.
Matthews gave up his vote immediately and Schultz made this his last ballot, only because he’d already sent it in when he made the decision.
I have a different reason for casting one last ballot: I have a dream where I don’t vote — I’ve got only six days left and have received two reminders from the Hall already — and Tim Raines fails to be elected by one vote in his last year of eligibility. It’s unlikely, sure, but in an electorate of roughly 400, it’s possible. So the little kid in me casts one more ballot so as not to be haunted for the rest of my life by an event with an infinitesimal chance of occurring.
On the bright side, removing the fun from this also spares you last year’s unusually obsessive determination to write about every freaking player on the ballot, which might, frightfully, have turned into an obsessive-compulsive annual ritual. I’ve expressed my thoughts on pretty much everyone I’m voting for this year in previous ballot posts, other than the first-year guys, which anyone interested can probably deduce from the longwinded previous discussions.
Except for Gary Sheffield. I made Sheffield my 10th vote last year and took a fair amount of grief for hypocrisy myself. Here was a voter with “obvious cheaters” as a category refusing to vote for Bonds or Clemens or McGwire or Sosa, voting for a guy named in the Mitchell Report. I have two excuses for not explaining this at the time. One is it was late on a Sunday, late in last year’s Hall of Fame voting season (in fact, past the Hall of Fame voting season, although before the results were announced), and the post explaining my ballot was already absurdly long. The other is my brain had long ago decided what it thought about Sheffield and steroids, and the distinction between him and those “obvious cheaters” seemed so obvious to me, it went without saying. It became obvious to me shortly thereafter that I was completely wrong about this.
So let’s start with that mental blind spot because I’m doing it again. Throughout my career as a reporter and columnist, generally speaking, when people were ashamed of something they’d done, or, even if they weren’t ashamed, if they knew other people would think it was a bad thing, they found ways to avoid admitting it. Maybe by refusing to comment. Maybe by changing the subject. Maybe by resorting to a line of bullshit designed to filibuster until the time for questions had expired. The methods they used to avoid admitting what had in some cases been authoritatively documented were generally not that hard to spot. It’s basically nothing more than having a working bullshit detector.
This was mostly what we saw from the people I now label “obvious cheaters,” those who engaged in concerted, prolonged programs of ingesting performance-enhancing drugs. McGwire didn’t want to talk about the past. Sosa forgot how to speak English. Bonds thought it was flaxseed oil.
Sheffield is a different kind of cat. He is one of those people who has no apparent filter between his brain and his mouth. From pretty much the moment he showed up as a young big league player, Sheffield was a fountain of opinion and feeling. It got him in trouble, too, on a pretty regular basis, throughout an exceptional career. He talked about race. He talked about money. He talked about his resentment over these things, about what seemed his chronic feeling of being disrespected. Often, these comments were not particularly well thought out. But they were unfiltered Gary. He could have spared himself a lot of grief if he’d had a filter going, but he didn’t.
So when Sheffield talked to Sports Illustrated in 2004, a year before the congressional hearings where McGwire and Sosa would play dumb, when he appeared before the BALCO grand jury, when he wrote his own book, published in the spring of 2007, when he appeared on HBO’s Real Sports in the summer of 2007, before the Mitchell Report was issued the following December, he did pretty much the opposite of what McGwire and Sosa did before that congressional committee. And if you knew anything about Sheffield, if you’d followed his career, it didn’t surprise you at all. Gary Sheffield was not going to go with a no-comment, and he wasn’t going to change the subject.
So he told his story. He’d gone out to California during the height of the steroid era, the off-season after Bonds set the single-season home run record in 2001, to train with Bonds. I’d covered the NBA during the Michael Jordan era, so this was a familiar phenomenon. A young trainer named Tim Grover had pitched Jordan after the Bulls star was beaten up and beaten down by the Bad Boys of Detroit. Grover’s pitch was Jordan needed to get stronger. It began a famous 15-year relationship that made Jordan one of the strongest players in the game and a six-time champion. So other really good players who wanted to reach the highest level would go to Chicago to train with Jordan and Grover. They wanted what he had.
That’s what Sheffield did. The tale he told Andrea Kremer on Real Sports was told in exactly the same way Sheffield gave every other interview. The words came tumbling out of his mouth. He wanted to train with Bonds. Bonds told him his lab could provide vitamins uniquely suited to his body’s needs. They came in the form of a cream. Sheffield thought steroids were administered with a needle to the butt. After a little while, Sheffield grew resentful of Bonds’ controlling personality, got fed up and booked. BALCO, Bonds’ lab, followed up with a bill for the cream. Ultimately, Sheffield had his wife write a check. That’s why he’s called before the BALCO grand jury. That’s how he ends up in the Mitchell Report.
If Sheffield knows the cream contains steroids, which it does, maybe he figures out a slightly less incriminating way of paying for it than a check. If he wants to make himself look heroic, maybe he claims he booked because he discovered, to his shock, that Bonds was giving him steroids and he wanted no part of it. He did neither of these things. He told his tale the way he always did. He didn’t avoid questions, he didn’t deny anything except knowledge of what was in the cream.
I believed him. That was based on watching him earnestly express himself throughout his career. My bullshit detector didn’t go off. He didn’t hide from the press like Bonds. He didn’t clam up like McGwire. He didn’t pretend not to understand English like Sosa, although, granted, that would have been a harder route for a native of Tampa.
There is no allegation that I know of connecting Sheffield and PEDs other than his time with Bonds before the 2002 season. That season just happened to be his least productive between 1999 and 2005, so it doesn’t look to me like he got any competitive advantage out of it. Cheating requires willfulness. I didn’t see any.
Could I be wrong about all of this? Of course. We are in the murkiest area of the steroid debate, the area where those who want to let them all in have the strongest argument. I am making distinctions based on feelings and suppositions. The spectrum runs from those who have been the subject of rumor or innuendo to those whose deeds have been documented in books or courtrooms or both. So each voter is on his or her own to draw lines in this swamp in an attempt to abide by the Hall’s stated voting criteria. I have always argued that we never have perfect information in journalism; we do the best with what we have. But, admittedly, in this case, in the area closest to the line, wherever we draw it, we are doing little more than guessing.
Ivan Rodriguez, for example, on the ballot for the first time this year, is not named in the Mitchell Report. But he’s named by Jose Canseco as part of the steroid crew in Texas. For all the grief Canseco has taken as a clown, there’s a pattern to those guys he named: They all deny it and, one by one, those denials crumble. McGwire and Jason Giambi eventually admitted using steroids. When tests were finally implemented, Rafael Palmeiro tested positive. That leaves only Juan Gonzales and Rodriguez among the high-profile teammates Canseco named in his book, “Juiced.” Rodriguez has adroitly avoided the subject all these years, except once, when he was asked if he was among those who tested positive in major league baseball’s first, anonymous testing, as names began to leak in 2003. “Only God knows,” he said.
So my opinion, my guess really, is that Canseco was telling the truth about the deal in Texas, including Pudge. I don’t know that, but I suspect it, and Rodriguez has behaved in a way consistent with those who did steroids and didn’t want to admit it, so I’m not voting for him in his first year on the ballot, even though I probably would otherwise.
I get that a lot of people will find these distinctions untenable. And they are. Although I would note for the record that the religion that has grown up around the Mitchell Report is a little funny. Give Bud credit: When it finally came time to cover his ass, he got one of the most respected men in America to front for him. George Mitchell’s panel had no subpoena power and few people with a potential of legal jeopardy were willing to talk voluntarily, so he was basically going through the same thin public record as everybody else.
As Schultz wrote, Bud’s election gives a pretty good indication of what’s coming around the bend. Make it all about the numbers, that other stuff is too hard. And that’s fine. If the Hall had said that to start with we could have avoided all this, although it might have had an insurrection on its hands from existing members. During my years as a voter, I thought I was helping the Hall be whatever it wants to be, which felt like an honor. Now I think the Hall and Bud are pretty much alike, seeing exactly what they want to see.
My 2017 ballot had 11 names on it, which is one too many and happens surprisingly often to me, so I removed Curt Schilling just for being a dickhead. This isn’t a good reason; the Hall has no prohibition against dickheads and is already home to several, as has been well-documented in defense of the obvious cheaters. I probably wouldn’t have gone with that as a reason if this weren’t my last year, but hey, I’ve already admitted I’m making purely subjective judgments, and maybe Schilling will hesitate the next time he is moved to share the comedic appeal of lynching people. Then again, he’s Curt Schilling, so maybe not.
My 2017 ballot (ballot no. 238):