This is the first in a series of posts on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot. I don’t usually give away what I’m writing about for the Hall of Fame, but because this year’s ballot is so crazy, I’m going to give you some titles I’m thinking about:
— David Ortiz and Gary Sheffield
— Should bad guys be in the Hall of Fame?
— WAR and the Hall of Fame
— Buehrle and Pettitte
— The Jimmy Rollins Experience
— How Mariano Rivera changed everything
— How long does a pitcher need to be dominant?
— You say Abreu and I say Sosa
— What more can you say about Manny?
I’d like to get to all of these and maybe more (Jeff Kent?). It’s going to be a busy new year. But first, let’s write what I hope will be the last Hall of Fame PED post — or at least the last PED post that focuses on Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
There’s something satisfying about this year’s Hall of Fame ballot because it is the last time around for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens (and Sammy Sosa, for that matter). Every year for a decade, the winter months have been filled with talk about steroids and HGH and cheating and morality, what we know and what we don’t know, and it has been utterly exhausting. I’m so ready for it to end.
You would think after 10 years of talking about it, we would have made at least a little progress in making sense of the Selig/Steroid Era, but we really haven’t. It has been obvious for the longest time that Bonds and Clemens are not going to get voted into the Hall of Fame even though they are two of the greatest players in baseball history. It has also been obvious for a long time that while most of the voters think those two should be in the Hall — they have each gotten well above 50% of the vote in each of the last five years and will get more than 60% this year — there is not a 75% consensus and, honestly, there will not be a 75% consensus for the foreseeable future.
And that’s … just the deal. The Hall of Fame — particularly when voted on by the BBWAA — is reserved for those players who rise above every argument. Was your career too short? Did you stick around too long? Was your peak high enough? Did you get on base enough? Did you win enough games? Can we tell the story of baseball without you? Did you hurt the game more than you helped it? Did you help your teams win? These questions, and many more like them, are designed to be harsh and judgmental and uncompromising because it is the Hall of Fame and it is meant to be guarded by a moat and a Cerberus and, scariest of all, cranky sportswriters who look at the incredible careers of, say, Eddie Mathews or Robin Roberts or Larry Walker and think, “eh, falls short for me now but maybe I’ll change my mind later.”
What strikes me most about the Bonds-Clemens saga is how the arguments never change. They never evolve. They never lose even a little bit of their heat. They’re exactly the same arguments of 2013, when those two first came on the ballot.
The con argument, as you know, is that they cheated, and cheaters shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame. The con argument is that PED use wrecked baseball in a way that is different from other drugs and other kinds of cheating and no proven PED user should be in the Hall. The con argument is that their incredible achievements are not authentic, particularly when they got older and began doing things that no player had ever done before. The con argument is that they broke cherished records by cheating and, as such, wrecked a beloved part of baseball, which overshadows whatever good they might have done. The con argument is that electing them to the Hall of Fame would be tantamount to rewarding them for using PEDs, and that’s simply vile and unworkable.
The pro argument, as you know, is that in their time, PED use was widespread and rampant and the people who ran the game did absolutely nothing about it — they TACITLY encouraged steroid use and perhaps encouraged it even more directly than that. The pro argument is that there are already multiple PED users from their era in the Hall of Fame, I don’t think anyone doubts that. The pro argument is that the man who oversaw baseball during that era, Bud Selig, is in the Hall of Fame, and several managers who won with PED users are in the Hall of Fame, and it simply doesn’t add up to reward all of them but cut out the two best players of the era. The pro argument is that Clemens and Bonds were clear Hall of Famers before they probably started using any drugs. The pro argument, inevitably, is that they were two of the greatest players who ever lived, and it’s the BASEBALL Hall of Fame, and it’s more than a little bit ridiculous to have a plaque room filled with hundreds of players who weren’t even close to Bonds and Clemens.
Round and round the arguments go, but we never get anywhere. It’s the Robert Frost poem come to life:
We dance around in a ring and suppose
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows
Something semi-new did strike me this year — oh, I don’t know if it’s really new, but it is something that connects with David Ortiz, who is new on the ballot this year. I believe Ortiz is going to get elected, as he should, but he does have two strikes against him. The first is that he was basically a DH — he played 88% of his games as a designated hitter — and voters have historically been reluctant to vote in DHs. I do think that the election of Edgar Martinez has opened that door much wider, but the point is that designated hitters get extra scrutiny, and I believe they should.
*This is an aside, but I find the “Hey, designated hitter is a legal position,” argument to be unconvincing. Yes, it is a legal position as is kicker in football and middle reliever in baseball. But it is a position with limitations. Only the very best kicker should get into the Hall of Fame. And I’m not sure even the very best middle reliever should get in. With Ortiz, it was determined he was not good enough play the field on a regular basis, and as such he did not offer any defensive value. That absolutely should be taken into consideration. Now, in Ortiz’s case, he was such a good hitter who had so many epic moments that he’s a sure Hall of Famer. But, in my mind he HAD to be that good to clear the higher bar that comes with being a DH.
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The second strike, as you know, revolved around a 2003 failed Ortiz drug test that was leaked to the media. We can go into all the details about how that test was supposed to be anonymous and how unreliable the leak is and how Ortiz has denied ever using steroids, but the point is that leaked test swirls around his Hall of Fame case and will be considered by each and every voter. There will be those who do not vote for Ortiz because of it. And there will be those who will vote for Ortiz even though they generally vote against steroid users because of the questions surrounding that test.
Finally, there will be those who will vote for Ortiz regardless because they believe, for any of a number of reasons, that steroid use should not eliminate a player from the Baseball Hall of Fame.
And what strikes me is that the Ortiz case demonstrates just how silly this whole thing has become. What are we even doing here? Are we really parsing the validity of an illegally leaked drug test and what it means in a time when there was no punishment for using PEDs in baseball? Why? What value is this? How did this become the essence of Baseball Hall of Fame voting?
Sammy Sosa’s failed drug test was also illegally leaked — exactly the same situation as Ortiz’s even if he has not received anything close to the same support.
Barry Bonds never failed a drug test — but he was convicted of obstruction of justice and that conviction was overturned.
Roger Clemens never failed a drug test — and he was found not guilty in his perjury trial.
Mark McGwire never failed a drug test — he did a full interview with Bob Costas admitting he took steroids and apologizing profusely for it. As far as I know, he’s still the only prominent player to do so.
PED whispers surround numerous players who are already in the Hall of Fame — I don’t need to say their names, you know who they are, and you know that they did a good enough job denying steroid use that 75% of the voters voted them in.
And where do we end up? Do we even know what the argument is anymore? I’ve heard PED stories from numerous players that completely, utterly and unconditionally crash against the narratives that everyone just seems to accept about “clean” and “dirty” players. And, of course, that’s true because those narratives are based entirely on innuendo and believability and simply what we choose to consider true. Everybody (except McGwire) has denied using steroids. Some are better at denying than others.
Is that what the Hall of Fame is about now — voting in those who are better at denying it? Is the Hall of Fame about baseball or plausible deniability?
Look: Nobody — or, anyway, almost nobody — is happy that players used illegal drugs to get stronger and better at playing baseball.
Nobody — anyway, almost nobody — is happy that MLB and the Players Association and many others looked the other way and refused to put real drug testing in place.
Nobody — anyway, almost nobody — is happy that some cherished home run records were shattered with steroids at the center of it all.
And as I’ve written many times, if someone simply doesn’t want to vote pre-testing PED users into the Hall of Fame, that’s certainly their right and I totally get their motivation. I just don’t think it’s feasible unless they want to be one of those people who sends in empty Hall of Fame ballots every year — and who wants to be THAT person?
More to the point, I don’t think it’s much fun.
Did David Ortiz use steroids? I have absolutely no idea. I know about the leaked test. I know he was tested many, many times after MLB finally put in testing and none of those came back positive. I know that his career was on the brink after the Twins released him and that a lot of players, particularly power hitters, used steroids in that time. I know that he has denied using steroids again and again.
So, really, when it comes to all that, I don’t know anything.
But I DO know he was one of the greatest hitters I ever saw, maybe THE greatest clutch hitter I ever saw, a force for good in so many ways and particularly after the Boston Marathon bombing, the difference maker between Boston’s Curse of the Bambino years and their World Series championships. I know you cannot fully tell baseball’s story without him.
I believe that guy should have a plaque in the Hall of Fame. And I believe he will get that plaque in the same year that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens fall off the ballot. “Fate, it seems,” Morpheus said, “is not without a sense of irony.”