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Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012

Of Fame, Blame and Shame

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Holiday deadlines leave the Observers unable to keep up with breaking news for a while. But there's a topic big enough for a two-part discussion to take us into the new year.

The annual Hall of Fame vote by the Baseball Writers' Association of America will be announced Jan. 9. In recent years two candidates tied to performance-enhancing drugs, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, have been rejected by the vast majority of voters. This year, however, the steroid issue gets thornier because of two new names on the ballot: Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Arguably the premier hitter and pitcher of the last 30 years, they are strongly suspected of steroid use—but perhaps not until after they’d already compiled Hall of Fame credentials.


Does that make it tougher to evaluate Bonds and Clemens? In years to come, how should voters evaluate players like Alex Rodriguez, who admitted to cheating before baseball had drug testing, but not since?


As a retired member of the BBWAA, Frank has a vote. As a baseball fan for 50-plus years, Artie has expert opinions. This week they discuss the steroid issue; next week they'll look at the overall ballot.

 

Frank: Besides Bonds and Clemens, Sammy Sosa joins the ballot under a steroid cloud.

Artie: There are also suspicions about another newcomer, Mike Piazza, but hardly as extensive as with those three.

Frank: Last year McGwire got only 19.5% of the vote and Palmeiro 12.6%. More than suspicion is involved there; McGwire has admitted using steroids and Palmeiro failed a drug test.

Artie: Although he told a congressional committee he never “juiced,” ain’a?

Frank: With Bonds and Clemens one can argue that they were Hall-worthy before their presumed drug use. Bonds had won three of his seven MVP awards by 1993, long before anyone thinks he used, and Clemens had won three of his seven Cy Youngs plus an MVP by 1991.

Artie: But I think most voters will send a message by snubbing them, at least on their first ballot.

Frank: It's pretty clear that McGwire and Palmeiro will never be voted in. And Sosa is too closely connected to McGwire because of their home-run race in 1998.

Artie: Besides, a huge part of Sosa's power-hitting production came from 1995 on, presumably after he started 'roiding.

Frank: Before '98 he had only one season with as many 40 homers. From '98 through '03 he averaged 55 and topped 60 three times.

Artie: All-natural improvement? I think not.

Frank: Piazza has great numbers: a .308 lifetime batting average, .377 on-base, more than 1,300 RBIs and 427 homers playing the most debilitating position. He was a poor defensive catcher but he was paying the price physically, as opposed to a DH. But if there are suspicions...

Artie: In a piece on Grantland.com Jonah Keri wrote regarding Piazza, “A player being muscular, plying his trade in the '90s and having back acne does not constitute real evidence that he took banned substances.”

Frank: That's one big complication of the steroid era. McGwire made a clear admission but so much else is incredibly murky. Palmeiro failed that test in '05 but claims it was tainted, and the failure doesn't show how long he was using.

Artie: So how can anyone know how many of his 3,020 hits and 569 homers were dirty?

Frank: Bonds and Clemens had perjury trials stemming from their steroid denials, but Clemens was acquitted and Bonds was convicted on only a minor count of misleading grand jurors.

Artie: But they sure don't have any public goodwill to fall back on. They're both major jerks.

Frank: You never see former teammates rush to their defense.

Artie: Same with Sosa; he was Smilin' Sammy in '98 but his exit from the Cubs a few years later was bitter.

Frank: With all that as background, I'll explain why I'm voting for all six of these players. Apologies to readers who have seen this before, but every year I try to express my reasons better.

Artie: And I like to hear them because I'm on the fence about the whole steroid thing.

Frank: Here we go. I believe all six of these guys have Hall of Fame statistics...

Artie: I disagree on McGwire, who hit only .263 with his 583 homers, and Sosa, at .273 despite his 609 dingers.

Frank: I'm not saying steroid use was good or proper, but it appears that—in the absence of testing by Major League Baseball—many, many players were doing it to stay competitive.

Artie: Three years ago Robin Yount told the Journal Sentinel, “I'm glad I didn't have to make that call because it would have been very difficult decision...”

Frank: Yet only a few players put up superlative numbers, just like in any era of baseball. You evaluate players by how they did against their contemporaries.

Artie: But there were players who did great things without steroids, like another first-time candidate, 3,000-hit man Craig Biggio. And those who used steroids were breaking the law.

Frank: I know the words “integrity” and “character” are part of the Hall's criteria. But baseball has always involved some degree of cheating. Many pitchers messed with the baseballs; Jim Bouton's Ball Four described rampant use of amphetamines in the '60s and '70s.

Artie: And any Hall with Ty Cobb in it has at least one character issue.

Frank: When McGwire joined the ballot in '06 I said that as long as he was listed I'd judge him on the numbers. After MLB banned Pete Rose in 1989 for gambling, the Hall excluded him from the ballot. If MLB made a similar judgment on Bonds, Clemens or anyone else for steroid use, I'd be fine with it. But it's up to MLB and the Hall; I think it's wrong for them to look the other way and rely on the BBWAA to make the moral judgments.

Artie: On the other hand, somebody's got to do some judging.

Frank: Bud Selig had an interesting quote when the Marlins recently shipped several high-priced players to Toronto. He said, “I want to be my usual painstaking, cautious, slow, conservative self in analyzing it.” Then he quickly approved it.

Artie: He's had plenty of time to ponder the steroid issue. So let's hear from him!

Frank: By voting for these steroid guys I'm trying to compel MLB, the Hall and everyone involved in the game—owners, the players' union, media and fans—to confront the fact that we were all complicit in what happened before MLB finally established drug testing.

Artie: Everyone dug the long ball.

Frank: And everyone except the fans made big money off the long ball. Really, didn't we have suspicions in the '90s when it seemed like everyone was suddenly hitting 40 or 50 homers? Or in '98, even as we enjoyed the Big Mac and Sammy Show?

Artie: It helped restore the game after the strike that killed the '94 World Series.

Frank: I think electing some steroid guys would force some consensus on how to present this page in the sport's history. One way would be to isolate the steroid users, admitted or suspected, in a separate, permanent exhibit in the Hall.

Artie: I see more being written these days about doing that. But I think we started it.

Frank: We've said it since '08, when we started this column. A new development came from McGwire himself in November. Asked by Dan Patrick if he would vote for himself for the Hall, his reply, printed in Sports Illustrated, was, “No, not by the guidelines they have now.” But he added, “I sort of wish I (had) the kind of guidelines that athletes have today because it would never have happened.”

Artie: So McGwire's made his peace, I guess. I wonder what Bonds, Clemens and Sosa are thinking.