Friday, January 17, 2014
The Hall of Fame, the BBWAA, and the Steroid Era
Author's note: my colleague Jeff Kallman wrote a fine piece on the recent Hall of Fame elections and the state of the BBWAA and the election process. My approach here is different, but I agree with Jeff on nearly everything and I'd encourage you to read his column.
If you care at all about the Baseball Hall of Fame, the election results released last week made you somewhat happy. On the most stacked ballot in 70 years or so, three players reached the 75% threshold for induction: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas. If you're an anti-PED crusader or a "small Hall" fan, you were glad to see so few players selected, while stars like Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, and Curt Schilling — not to mention Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens — were left out. And if you're a sabermetrician, a younger fan, or a "big Hall" advocate, you're just glad Maddux wasn't the only one elected.
Of course, both groups have their disappointments. Many of the Baby Boomers are bummed about Thomas, a DH for most of his career, getting in. And even though Thomas was among the most vocal critics of steroid use, and an early advocate for testing, because he was a big, strong guy who hit 500 home runs in the '90s and '00s, there are probably people who suspect him of PED use. For some reason, a lot of these voters also latched onto Jack Morris as the one candidate who represented their position, and Morris just fell off the ballot, after 15 years without reaching 75%.
If the small-Hall crowd had to deal with a disappointment or two, though, the folks on the other side of the argument are dealing with some kind of devastation. I'm in that group, and my problem is this: none of the players I grew up with are getting into the Hall of Fame.
I've always had a great appreciation for sports history. I grew up on stories of Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle, Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. I got baseball books for my birthday, read them and re-read them. Growing up, I had a sense for who the best active players were, but I always had one foot in the past. One year, I stopped watching the Super Bowl at halftime to go read about previous Super Bowls. My grandfather used to take me to football games. We'd buy a program outside, and he'd sneak in a bag of peanuts for me. The games didn't always hold my attention, so I devoured those programs (metaphorically; I did eat the peanuts). My favorite page was the one in back, listing all the team record holders. Those guys were the measuring stick, and when one of the records fell, it was always a big deal to me.
I can live in the moment like any sports fan, but I have always approached the games with an eye to history: "They'll talk about that when he's inducted into the Hall of Fame." If I had known, growing up, that most of the great players in MLB would never make the Hall of Fame, I would have been devastated. I probably would have stopped following the sport.
Cooperstown is a museum, a celebration of baseball history. And as it stands now, there's a 20-year period of history that the BBWAA is largely ignoring. What that means — and what many of the voters, and the people associated with MLB and the Hall itself, seem not to understand — is that there's a generation of baseball fans that the BBWAA and the Hall of Fame are ignoring. I'm in my 30s. By the time I understood baseball well enough to appreciate it, Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn and Rickey Henderson and Cal Ripken had already had their best years. When I think of the best players I've seen, that list effectively begins around the same time as the Steroid Era.
Along with Albert Pujols, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez are the two best everyday players I've ever seen. I don't like Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez, and I hate steroids, but those were the dominant players. My friends and I used to argue about whether Rafael Palmeiro was a Hall of Famer. He was never the best player in baseball, and he was never really close, but he was very good every year, and he had those great stats. That argument isn't much fun any more.
Even apart from steroids, the players of this generation aren't having much luck with BBWAA voters. No one (other than witch hunter Jeff Pearlman) believes Craig Biggio used PEDs, but Biggio came up an agonizing two votes shy (74.8%) of election this week, his second year on the ballot. Biggio was a Gold Glove second baseman, who at various times led the NL in runs, doubles, stolen bases, and HBP. He had 3,060 hits, over 1,000 of them for extra bases. Excepting Palmeiro, Biggio is the first member of the 3,000-Hit Club since Paul Waner in 1952 not to be elected within his first two years of eligibility. And Biggio's not a weak 3,000-hits guy. He wasn't a first baseman or designated hitter, he was a good fielder at a key defensive position. He walked (1160 BB, .363 OBP), hit for some power (almost 300 home runs, fifth all-time in doubles), and was a good base-runner (414 SB, 77.0%).
Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza have even stronger cases than Biggio, but they've been voted down largely on unsubstantiated suspicions about steroid use. They've never admitted use, never tested positive, never been linked to a clinic or trainer that provided steroids, never been accused by Jose Canseco, or named in the Mitchell Report or the leaked list of players who tested positive in 2003. There is no meaningful evidence against either one, and both should have been slam-dunk, first-ballot HOFers. Some BBWAA voters have actually admitted they won't vote for anyone who played in the late '90s and early '00s.
As someone whose formative experiences with baseball came precisely during those years, you're basically telling me my experience as a fan doesn't matter. And you're saying that to millions of fans, disenfranchising us from a game we love. All we want is for our heroes to be honored the same way as yours.
I personally believe we should try to evaluate PED users, that players who were great before they used PEDs or who excelled at the very highest level should still go in, while borderline cases like Rafael Palmeiro and Andy Pettitte drop off. Reasonable people can disagree with that position, but every fair-minded person acknowledges that there has to be some minimum standard of evidence against players who might be excluded from Cooperstown on the basis of performance-enhancers. The burden of proof lies with the accuser, to provide reasonable evidence of guilt, and not with the accused, who should be presumed innocent except in the face of evidence to the contrary. You can't accuse a professional player of something as serious as steroid use simply on a hunch, and you certainly can't apply that accusation en masse to an entire generation of ballplayers.
The result of the voters' reluctance to enshrine newer players is a ballot overcrowded with worthy candidates. This year, several voters indicated that they support Biggio for the Hall, but he didn't make their 10-man ballots. Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina are strong candidates who got only 20-30% of the vote this year, and that could drop in 2015, when Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz all become eligible. One of those guys is going to be the fifth-best pitcher on the ballot.
With voters limited to 10 names per ballot, and some of them listing only one or two players, even returning blank ballots, no one can reach the 75% threshold for election without near-unanimous agreement. If we assume everyone will support Johnson and Martinez, you've got eight spots left to divvy up among players like Bagwell, Piazza, and Biggio, Schilling, Mussina, and Smoltz, Bonds and Clemens, Tim Raines and Fred McGriff, Edgar Martinez and Larry Walker, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, Lee Smith and Alan Trammell, and so on. Even if you won't vote for PED users, there are a dozen strong candidates
Dave Cameron at FanGraphs wrote a very good summary of the HOF divide. Fundamentally, many fans believe the voting process should be fact-driven. There's room for opinion, of course; there's a ton of room for opinion; opinion is essential to the process. But that opinion falls within the walls of logic and fact. Reasonable people can disagree about how great was great enough, about the importance of postseason performance, how to approach known PED users, and so on. Was Frank Thomas better than Jeff Bagwell? Who was best among the pitching trio of Tom Glavine, Mike Mussina, and Curt Schilling? Did Jeff Kent meet a Hall of Fame standard? Those are all reasonable questions, important questions, even, for a Hall of Fame voter.
There are other positions, though, which simply are not valid. Poor Jack Morris has been used as an example so often, let's go in a different direction and say Neifi Perez was on the ballot, and someone voted for Neifi Perez. That's just not okay. People say that the voters have earned their positions, that they're being asked for their own opinions, and they can choose whoever they want. Look, anyone who votes for Perez is not qualified to cast a vote. Similarly, anyone who would vote against Greg Maddux is not qualified. Certain opinions simply are not valid: someone who says Neifi Perez was a Hall of Famer, and Greg Maddux was not, is bonkers. It's a hop, skip, and a jump from Maddux to Biggio, or Schilling, or Raines. The idea that it's acceptable for voters to return empty ballots, trying to prevent anyone from the last 20 years from reaching Cooperstown, is horrible. It's not an opinion that has merit or deserves to be respected.
Roberto Alomar and Barry Larkin are in the Hall of Fame. Maddux, Glavine, and Thomas are going in. Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez will get elected, and Ken Griffey Jr. and Chipper Jones will get elected. Craig Biggio and John Smoltz will probably get in, and I suppose you could count Derek Jeter as a player from my youth; he's going in. Probably a few others will. But that's only a dozen players from a 15-year period, several degrees of magnitude below the normal rate of Hall of Fame elections. The BBWAA voters need to stop seeing themselves as guardians of the gate and start voting like they have a responsibility to induct the game's greatest players.