Steroids, Character, and the Hall of Fame

One thing I like about the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame is that, some years, no one is inducted. It sort of speaks to a certain integrity that the electors are willing to say, "This year, no one deserved it." Can you imagine an NFL Hall of Fame weekend with no induction speeches, no garish yellow jackets passed out? An Academy Awards Show with no Best Picture nominees? This was one of the years no one was inducted.

Two players passed up this year were Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Certainly, without steroids, they would have been ushered into the Hall overwhelmingly. I don't think most people have a problem with cheaters failing to be canonized in the sport they cheated at, but maybe there is a case to be made for these characters to get in the Hall. Jeff Passan, in an article published on Yahoo!, did not make that case.

His column is one of those I suspect was written with, "Heh, this ought to get people talking" in mind (I call such columns Baylesses). It goes a little something like this:

"The sport is evermore human because the Black Sox succumbed to greed and threw the World Series, because the segregationists won until they could no longer bottle up social change, because the Hit King was a flawed man who couldn't overcome a gambling addiction. Baseball is all of us."

Well, no actually. Yes, we are all flawed, but most of our flaws stop short of match-fixing, overt racism, and gambling on events you have control over. That last characterization is especially rich. Pete Rose, simply a man with an addiction. Does Passan think he still wouldn't be in the HOF if he had gambled as much as his addicted heart desired, but stuck with horse racing and football? Apparently, that's what he wants us to think.

"This wasn't just a referendum on steroids. It was one on the writers and their failure to recognize as long as they want the privilege of creating history, they must in doing so protect the worthy institution that finds them fit for the task."

They didn't let in guys that cheated at their sport. What a failure to protect the institution.

"[A]ll writers must understand — and perhaps it is the Hall's charge in the coming years to remind them as much — that this vote is about the player and his merits, not the moralistic preening of people who have been told to commingle something evident and measurable (performance) with something so subjective (character)."

Yes, the very subjective character issue. Who is to say that taking PEDs to cheat at your sport isn't right within the context of receiving that sport's highest honor? Maybe it's totally right.

"That clause didn't stop racists, bigots, jackasses, misers, criminals and a wide assortment of otherwise unsavory people from induction, and the Hall's halls seem no less gilded now than before."

The logical fallacies are killin' me. Hey guys, racists from the '20s are in the Hall of Fame, so what right do we have to keep Barry Bonds out? Hell, let's induct Steve Howe while we're at it, just to prove the point.

"The character clause is like so many other things written more than 70 years ago: well-intentioned but positively archaic in 2013."

Character: archaic in 2013. I hope he prints up a bumper sticker saying that.

"Our baseball players are no longer heroes, but take-the-good-with-the-bad humans like all of us. The character clause was put in place as an idealistic nod to what was supposed to be a gentleman's game. Anybody who thinks he or she can accurately apply it to these ballplayers we don't know need only look at Kirby Puckett, media darling and, it was later alleged, wife beater."

Oh God what is this I don't even...

Okay. I must press on. This is not the first time in this article he's made the, "Hey man, nobody's perfect" argument, and now he wants to say that they used to be sort-of perfect? After just saying racists and scumbags from an era ago are in the Hall of Fame? The reason guys like Ty Cobb and other racists and scumbags are in the Hall of Fame is because, sadly enough, that attitude was par for the course among the voters themselves. Today's voters, in high dudgeon with their judginess about not letting baseball cheaters in the baseball Hall of Fame, actually have a difficult time sympathizing with guys who excelled due to PEDs. So unfair.

As far as Kirby Puckett goes, let me make this perfectly clear: If he beat his wife, that is truly reprehensible. As reprehensible as it was, it does not have to do with baseball. The guys Passan is going to bat for in this article (Clemens, Bonds, and Pete Rose) committed transgressions that had everything to do baseball. It was their actions in regards to baseball that is keeping them out of the Hall of Fame. I will say it again: THEY CHEATED AT BASEBALL.

If Puckett was somehow proven to have beaten his wife, and they took him out of the Hall of Fame because of it, I probably wouldn't have a problem with it. If they kept him in anyway, I also would not lose any sleep over that, either. But that's not the point I'm trying to make anyway. The point I am trying to make is, if the guardians of the Hall decide that the "integrity, sportsmanship, character" that they require of HOF inductees be limited to their actions in baseball, that's a completely reasonable stance to take.

"Similarly, the electorate does not know who did and who did not take steroids — or whether a pitcher gave up home runs to PED-aided hitters or if a hitter struckout to a juiced-up pitcher. From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, the game operated in a haze of drugs that corrupted what we knew about the sport."

Oh man, did he just use the "but everyone's doin' it!" argument? He did. And not for the first time. It's distressingly similar to the gun-control debate, where I'm hearing a lot of arguments that easily reduce to "Criminals break laws ... no point in having laws, then!" Some bad guys and cheaters are in the Hall of Fame, and will continue to be voted into the Hall of Fame...might as well not consider whether a guy is a bad guy and cheater in deciding his fitness for the Hall, then!

The rest of Passan's article sort of goes off on a tangent here, talking about how out of touch with the game so many HOF voters in, complete with a hilarious bon mot that his dentist knows as much about baseball as some of these guys! It's funny 'cause his dentist has no business deciding who should be in the Hall of Fame!

So ... good job, Hall of Fame voters. I'm not sure whether or not to keep off-the-field villains out of the Hall or not, but please continue to keep baseball cheaters out of the baseball Hall of Fame. Thank you.

Comments and Conversation

January 10, 2013

Brad Oremland:

Kevin,

Is YOUR column a Bayless (great name, btw)? Forgive my rudeness, but you always seem a bit out of your depth writing about baseball. Cooperstown’s character clause IS archaic, and more than ever now it’s misinterpreted and used a crutch to justify grudges and dislike.

The Pete Rose controversy is simple: he was banned from playing or coaching baseball, but why from the Hall of Fame? Pretending Pete Rose (or Joe Jackson) wasn’t one of the very best players in history is absurd. I think it comes across to most fans as a petty vendetta.

I agree that it’s refreshing the HOF doesn’t feel like someone needs to be inducted every year (although three new members WILL be enshrined via the Veterans Committee) — though as an aside, the PFHOF is so backlogged it would be totally insane to go a year with no new members — but why are players like Bagwell and Biggio and Tim Raines not going in? That’s not positive, it’s disgraceful.

I don’t necessarily disagree with your larger point, even though I personally can’t condone a Hall of Fame without the best players. I am curious how you feel about Babe Ruth (corked bat) and Hank Aaron (amphetamines) and Gaylord Perry (spitball) being in Cooperstown. Knowing what we know now, should we throw those guys out? Should Cobb and Hornsby and all the others who were elected when we just didn’t know any better get tossed, as well?

Personally, I’d rather see the best players in, and assume fans are smart enough to know that some of them didn’t always play by the rules. That’s especially true with regard to the steroid issue, because most of the great players we “know” used PEDs never tested positive.

January 11, 2013

Kevin Beane:

Brad,

Denying Pete Rose a spot in the HOF is not tantamount to denying he wasn’t one of the best players in the game, it’s denying him a bust and a plaque.

People (you didn’t quite say this, but your attitude seems to be the same) like Jayson Stark are saying, “These guys really played. All this happened. These guys really did kick ass, and it’s stupid that they are not being acknowledged.” But they are acknowledged by history, everyone will always know what Rose/Bonds/Clemens accomplished, they just are not being given a bust and a plaque.

Whatever you think about the character clause, it exists, and it existed long before people started accusing the VC/BBWAA of “grudge-holding.” Just as there is no dispute what these guys accomplished on the field, there is also no dispute that their actions ran very seriously afoul of any measure of character with their actions *in baseball.*

I think Raines, Bagwell, and Biggio should have gotten in. My article was not about them in the slightest.

I already addressed the issue with Ruth, Perry, Aaron et al in my article. I understand that other cheaters are in the HOF. That is not sufficient justification to take away the “did he cheat?” bullet point when one is considering a new player’s Hall worthiness. I’m not swayed by Argument ad populum counterpoints.

And to reiterate what I said in my earlier paragraphs, if people are smart enough to know that some of the best players in baseball didn’t play by the rules, they are smart enough to know that even if they don’t get a bust and a plaque.

January 11, 2013

Brad Oremland:

Kevin,

You’re right that in this instance, my attitude lines up pretty well with Stark’s. I support the idea of applying the character clause as it relates to on-field performance (which does not necessarily apply to Rose and Shoeless Joe, fwiw), but seeing the magnitude of PED use in the late ’90s and early ’00s, denying so many great players HOF induction strikes me as trying to whitewash history.

Regarding the character clause, though, it was probably never intended to keep players of bad character OUT, but rather to get nice guys who weren’t good players IN. It’s a recent phenomenon that the voters use it as an excuse not to vote for players they don’t like.

You’ll have to forgive me if I interpreted your lead paragraph as celebrating the voters’ choice to induct no one (including Biggio, et al) this year.

You say that you addressed the issue with Ruth, Perry, Aaron et al in the article, but I’m not sure where you mean. Is it the Kirby Puckett section, where you say you “wouldn’t have a problem with” pulling players of low character out of Cooperstown? If so, where do we stop? When we’re down to Mathewson and Wagner?

btw, I know we’ve had several exchanges like this recently, and I want to be clear that while I disagree with your position, I’m also trying to understand it more fully, and it’s nothing personal.

January 11, 2013

Kevin Beane:

“Regarding the character clause, though, it was probably never intended to keep players of bad character OUT, but rather to get nice guys who weren’t good players IN”

Really? Cite?

“You’ll have to forgive me if I interpreted your lead paragraph as celebrating the voters’ choice to induct no one (including Biggio, et al) this year.”

No. I haven’t really looked at whether two of the killer B’s or Raines should get in, besides reading the pundits. I just meant that, in principle, I like that they are willing to do that.

I’ll be clearer on my point about Puckett and guys already in the Hall. I do not support purging existing players from the Hall. If the BBWAA/Veterans Committee voted them in, then fine. If they DID start purging guys like Pucket…I mean, that’d be weird and overreaching but I doubt it would inspire a column from me.

This is getting into some hardcore speculation here, but for Sosa and Bonds especially, their bodies and their numbers reached superhuman levels late in their careers, and this was unquestionably the result of PEDs. The record-breaking numbers that “really happened” would not have happened if not for PEDs.

That’s as cheating as cheating gets, and it hardly can be dismissed as an “excuse” to keep them out of the Hall. “But PED use was rampant anyway” and “we don’t know who else from this era was taking PEDs” is not adequate justification, in my opinion, to instate obvious PED users whose beyond-HOF numbers were fueled by PEDs into the Hall.

Clemens might have an argument, because he was doing amazing things before the PED era took off.

Rose is a bit of a special case, not really comparable to anyone. It’s been demonstrated he bet on Reds games. While he did not bet AGAINST them, thank God, even betting FOR them creates potential situations wherein the money you have on the line could affect your managerial decisions.

I haven’t seen anything stating he DID make any strange decisions that could be justified by betting activity. But…I’m just so appalled that he placed money on a commodity that he had so much control over to be so…so very wrong and heinous on so many levels that it’s hard for me to give him any kind break when it comes to HOF consideration.

I think Shoeless Joe should be reinstated from the ineligible list.

January 14, 2013

Brad Oremland:

“Really? Cite?”

“The Politics of Glory”, by Bill James. Check the link in my name, or http://joeposnanski.blogspot.com/2010/12/hall-of-fame-borderline-five.html (Dale Murphy section), or lots of others (do a search for: “character clause” “Eddie Grant”).

Forgive me if I’m being dense, but I’m still unclear. You say that if the HOF did “start purging guys like Puckett”, it would be weird and overreaching but wouldn’t really bother you. Same goes if they un-inducted Ruth and Aaron and half the pitchers from 1930-80?

You can’t really think Roger Clemens was doing amazing things before PEDs and Barry Bonds was not. If you believe Game of Shadows (and I do), Barry didn’t start using until he was already a 3-time MVP who probably deserved a couple more. Bill James ranked him then as the 3rd-best left fielder in history, behind Williams and Musial but ahead of Rickey and Yaz and Shoeless Joe. Modern defensive analysis shows that Bonds was probably the greatest defensive LF of all time. And steroids or no, from 2001-04 he was probably the greatest player in baseball history. I find that hard to dismiss. Lots of guys cheated, and no one else came close to Bonds.

I know you don’t follow MLB closely, and I wonder if you appreciate how far the “PED use was rampant anyway” problem extends. My position on PEDs in baseball has evolved (see links on my previous comments), and I’m disturbed by the notion that the ’90s and ’00s might produce only a handful of HOFers because so many of the best players used steroids. I’m not comfortable omitting half of the great hitters from the PED era.

And then there are guys like Bagwell and Piazza who were voted down this year largely because of unsubstantiated suspicions. Bagwell had big muscles, see, and Piazza had bacne. Jose Canseco has proven one of the few truth-tellers on this subject, and he says Ivan Rodriguez used steroids. Should we vote down Pudge on Canseco’s word? The phrase “slippery slope” is overused, but it’s a slippery slope.

Bonds and Clemens never tested positive, and our colleague Jeff Kallman writes that Rafael Palmeiro’s positive sample may have really been tainted. Where do we stop? When does, “everyone KNOWS” stop being good enough? I’m just not comfortable with the moral judgments, and I’d rather enshrine two cheaters than unjustly deny enshrinement to one who was clean.

Why Joe Jackson but not Rose? Not trying to defend Rose, just not sure I understand the distinction.

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