Category Archives: cheating

My Baseball Hall of Fame ballot

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

Goose Gossage: ‘If these guys are elected . . . I would never go back.’

So no living player was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this year, prompting the New York Times to run a mostly-blank sports section front under the headline, “And the inductees are . . . ”

The failure to elect anyone from a star-studded ballot prompted more moaning and kvetching than usual about the annual balloting by veteran members (ten years or more) of the Baseball Writers Association of America. (Full disclosure: I’m one of them and you can see my ballot, along with those of other writers who have disclosed theirs, here.)

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who would have been elected overwhelmingly if it weren’t for their well-documented links to performance-enhancing drugs, received 36.2 and 37.6 percent of the vote, respectively, roughly half the 75 percent required for election. The 200-plus writers who voted for them (out of 569 ballots cast) and many others argue that a Hall of Fame without two of the best players in history would be a joke.

Like it or not, this debate has barely started. Bonds and Clemens will be on the ballot again next year, and the year after that. The issue will be revisited annually until they are elected or fifteen years have passed, whichever comes first. But the argument that their numbers are so big they must be accepted no matter how they were achieved stands in stark contrast to the fate of Lance Armstrong’s unprecedented achievements in cycling, which have been eviscerated in the wake of findings by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that he engaged in a sophisticated doping program.

Baseball has no such independent watchdog. Instead, it belatedly developed an in-house drug testing program after its principals — commissioner Bud Selig and then-players’ association chief Donald Fehr — were embarrassed in a public hearing before Congress. As a result, the sport and many of its apologists have developed a lengthy series of rationalizations for giving up on any attempt to make the distinctions among accomplishments that are standard procedure for sports that fall under international rules and the Olympic umbrella.

But baseball still has a big problem — the apparently universal antipathy for steroid users among existing Hall-of-Famers. If the argument takes hold that a credible Hall must include Bonds and Clemens, Cooperstown will face the threat of a boycott by its most cherished constituency — those already enshrined there.

One of the most outspoken is Colorado’s Goose Gossage, the power relief pitcher inducted in 2008, but a number of others have made their views known as well. In the wake of this year’s balloting, I asked Gossage what he thought existing Hall-of-Famers would do if Bonds or Clemens or both are eventually elected.

“I didn’t make it there last year, it’s the only year that I’ve missed since I got elected, but they had some discussion last year, and as I understand, there were a lot of guys that said they would not come back to the Hall of Fame,” Gossage said.

“It would be a black day not only for the Hall of Fame, but for baseball, if these guys are elected. I’ve got to say honestly, I would never go back to the Hall of Fame because I don’t think it would mean anything.”

In addition to the substantial minority of veteran writers that voted for Bonds and Clemens, many critics of the BBWAA say any attempt to exclude steroid users is an exercise in sanctimony. Baseball abided a pervasive culture of permissiveness during the steroid era and there’s no undoing it now, they say.

Existing Hall-of-Famers do not share this sentiment, at least in part because many of their accomplishments pale in comparison to the steroid-fed numbers put up by some of the leading suspects.

“There are those writers that think cheating is OK,” Gossage said. “We’re going to reward these guys? The last paddle that we have for these guys’ asses is an election to the Hall of Fame. They’re laughing all the way to the bank. They cheated. They, meaning Bonds and (Mark) McGwire, they broke two of the most sacred records that baseball has had, and that’s the (career) home run champion, which was Henry Aaron — and in my eyes Henry is still the home run king — and Roger Maris’ sacred record of 61 home runs (in a season), and McGwire broke that.

“I think these records ought to be reinstated because they were (broken) by cheaters. Are we going to reward these guys, is the bottom line, to Cooperstown? What kind of message is that sending to our kids?”

One person’s sanctimony is another person’s right and wrong. Advocates of letting bygones be bygones deride any reference to the message tolerance sends as hopelessly naive and sentimental. But many others still think it’s important. When this year’s ballot was released, cartoonist Drew Litton drew a classroom in which the teacher writes on the board, “Cheaters never prosper.” The kid in the front row replies, “Then why do they get on Hall of Fame ballots?”

Gossage thinks baseball’s current system of testing and punishment is still too lenient. He cited Melky Cabrera, the most valuable player in last year’s All-Star Game who was batting .346 for the Giants when he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and was suspended for 50 games.

“What I don’t get is this guy got voted a full (postseason) share by the players,” Gossage said. “He got busted for PEDs and wasn’t around for the end of the season, nor the playoffs, and they voted him a full share. What are these guys thinking? We’re going to reward this guy? I wouldn’t have given him a nickel. If you get busted for PEDs, I think you ought to be suspended for the whole year . . . and a heavy fine. The second time, I think you ought to be kicked out of baseball.”

The Giants had only 45 games remaining when Cabrera was suspended and cut ties with him.

As a Hall of Fame voter, I made a distinction between players linked to steroids by substantial evidence in the public domain and players linked to PEDs merely by rumor. I asked Gossage how he believes writers should treat this latter group, which included Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza on this year’s ballot. Both of them did substantially better (59.6 and 57.8 percent of the vote, respectively) than Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Sammy Sosa or Rafael Palmeiro, all of whom have been linked to steroids by evidence of one sort or another.

“Other than Clemens and Bonds, because we know that they did, Sosa, all of a sudden he goes to Congress and he can’t speak English,” Gossage said. “I think that these guys where there are innuendoes, there’s talk, whispers of these guys taking performance-enhancing drugs, I think if there is nothing directly linking them to them, I think you’ve got to vote with your heart and if they’ve got the stats, they should be in the Hall of Fame.

“On top of that, if they did do it, they’ve got to sleep at night. And they’re going to wonder the rest of their lives when that knock’s going to come or that phone call’s going to come that ‘Hey, here’s some evidence that you cheated.’ And if it was ever found out that they did cheat, then their plaques should be taken down at the Hall of Fame.”

Among both the public and the writers, outrage over baseball’s steroid era is dissipating. The belief that a Hall of Fame without Bonds and Clemens is somehow invalid could continue to gain traction over the coming years. But there is no sign yet that this view is making much progress among those already enshrined. Until it does, the election of a known steroid user such as Bonds or Clemens would likely create a major fissure within the Hall of Fame itself.

The difference between Lance Armstrong and Roger Clemens

A modern Aesop’s fable unfolds in Texas this weekend: Lance Armstrong being banned permanently from his sport and Roger Clemens making a celebrated comeback in his.

They are the same, these two, in the most relevant respect: They cheated in their respective sports by using performance-enhancing drugs. Both accomplished unprecedented feats as a result. Neither has been convicted in a formal proceeding, but the evidence in the public domain is overwhelming in each case.

The difference is that Armstrong’s sport, cycling, falls under the jurisdiction of the tough U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Clemens’ sport, baseball, does not.

So Armstrong is disgraced and will soon be stripped of his record seven Tour de France titles. All of Clemens’ baseball records remain intact. The only threat to his legacy is the one baseball writers hold in their hands — withholding his otherwise automatic election to the Hall of Fame later this year.

Knowing this, and not wanting to be lumped in with fellow steroid cheats Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, also on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year, it’s my guess that Clemens’ comeback, which begins Saturday night for a minor league team in Sugar Land, Texas, is a wily tactical move.

If he appears in as much as a single game for his hometown Houston Astros — and the Astros, the worst team in major league baseball, say they are open to the possibility — he will push back his eligibility for the Hall another five years. By then, the already dissipating outrage at the drug cheats may have died out altogether. He may yet slip and slide his way into being a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

The contrast in outcomes between Armstrong and Clemens is unfortunate for at least two reasons:

1. Armstrong, for all his faults as an apparent bully and drug cheat, has inspired millions of cancer patients around the world after coming back from testicular cancer and mounting the most famous anti-cancer campaign in the world. His yellow Livestrong bracelets adorn the wrists of cancer patients everywhere. The countless hours he has spent with those patients, particularly pediatric patients, made him one of the most admired athletes in the world.

Clemens, by contrast, is just another self-absorbed athlete of the modern age, known for little more than a great fastball, dissembling before Congress and a terrific defense attorney.

2. Armstrong and Clemens are subject to very different standards. USADA is the toughest anti-doping agency in the country. It is single-minded and relentless, as it should be. Even when federal authorities dropped their pursuit of Armstrong, it never did.

Aside from professional wrestling, perhaps no sport ignored drug cheats longer than major league baseball. For most of Clemens’ career, it had no testing program at all. Armstrong famously claimed to have passed hundreds of drug tests. Clemens didn’t have to.

Federal prosecutors failed in their attempts to get both men. Clemens was found not guilty in federal court of lying to Congress about his use of performance-enhancing drugs after his defense lawyer destroyed his former trainer, the government’s star witness, and a former teammate grew suddenly uncertain about previously certain testimony. The feds didn’t even try to prosecute Armstrong.

USADA picked up where the feds left off and went after Armstrong. Baseball threw up its hands and said there was nothing to be done about past drug cheats.

There’s one other difference that affected the opinions of many fans:

In cycling around the turn of the century, virtually all of the top riders were at least blood doping, if not also using testosterone and other aids to strength and recovery. Every Tour de France winner from 1991 to 2006 was linked to doping, through positive drug tests, admissions or other evidence. There was only one goal — to come in first — and the perception was widely held among cyclists that one could not be competitive without doping.

In baseball, one could not hit 73 home runs in a season, as Bonds did, or win the ERA title at age 42, as Clemens did, without cheating. But one could do lots of other things — including being part of a championship team — without doping. And many players did.

So baseball had two classes of players — the cheaters and the non-cheaters. The latter group, naturally, resented the former group in a big way. And because the sport’s commissioner, Bud Selig, and the players’ association chief, Donald Fehr, did nothing about it for so long, a perception of unfairness, of a tilted playing field, grew among both players and fans. Even today, many members of the Baseball Hall of Fame say they will not attend the annual induction ceremony if any widely-acknowledged, never-sanctioned drug cheats are elected.

In cycling, the list of those caught and punished is a who’s who of the sport’s top stars — Armstrong, Miguel Indurain, Jan Ullrich, Marco Pantani, Alberto Contador, Floyd Landis and Frank Schleck among them. So a perception grew among fans that while cheating in their sport was just as morally reprehensible as it was anywhere else, it didn’t necessarily result in an unfair advantage for anyone since everyone was doing it.

Armstrong and Clemens are alike in one way. They both continue to deny cheating for public consumption despite evidence and testimony that has the court of public opinion finding both of them guilty. For admirers of both athletes, this incessant, relentless lying is perhaps the hardest part to accept. The cheating itself is often rationalized by fans as the natural result of their competitive drive combined with sports organizations that were late to enforce (or, in baseball’s case, even impose) their rules. Indeed, there is a libertarian strain of thought that says what they do to their own bodies is their business.

But the ongoing lies are a constant reminder that these are not, ultimately, men of honor, men worthy of admiration, even if some of their acts are.

The difference is Armstrong will now suffer his long-delayed punishment. He has given up the fight against USADA’s case, knowing he could not beat it. He will ultimately be stripped of his Tour titles, his name expunged from cycling’s record books.

Clemens will suffer no such punishment from his sport. In fact, he will be celebrated Saturday night as he begins his comeback bid at age 50 in Sugar Land, just outside his hometown of Houston. Sometime soon, it is very likely he will take the mound for the woebegone Astros, who could use the attendance bump, thereby delaying for five years the only sanction he might face — not from his sport, but from the writers who cover it.

In the end, dirty as it was, cycling can at least make the case that it has worked tirelessly to clean itself up and identify the cheaters. Baseball can make no such claim. It did finally impose rules and testing, although not until Congress embarrassed Selig and Fehr on national television. Even so, its system is not nearly as rigorous as USADA’s.

But baseball never made any attempt to identify the drug cheats. Many of its records, including all its major home run records, are held by known cheaters. Selig won’t countenance so much as an asterisk by these marks.

So this weekend Armstrong will absorb his public disgrace in Austin and Clemens will take the mound to cheers and acclaim 150 miles away. After all these years, cycling can say it finally set things right. Baseball never will.

The moral to our modern fable? If you’re going to cheat in athletics, pick a sport with spineless leadership.