Hall of Shame

With No New Cooperstown Entrants, Baseball Enters Purgatory

Cooperstown can’t keep juicing ballplayers out forever. Allen Barra asks: How long must the game wait?

The day after the voters of the Baseball Writers Association of America failed to find a single ballplayer worthy of the Hall of Fame—well, at least not one since the 19th century’s Deacon White, who retired in 1890—the team owners and players’ union agreed to a plan for testing for human growth hormones, the first in professional sports.

This is no real cause for excitement; HGH is a hormone, not an anabolic steroid, but it is a powerful agent for repairing damaged tissue and building muscles and bones. Doctors are split on whether or not HGH should be counted as a steroid—no matter, they’re close enough in the eyes of many.

The two sides reached an accord on this several months ago, and it’s probably no coincidence that they finalized it so quickly. The steroid issue—or let’s call it the performance-enhancing-drug issue, since there are PEDs that are not actually steroids—is threatening to destroy the Hall of Fame as we know it.

Don’t kid yourself that anything less than that is happening right now. The New York Times got it right with the front page of Thursday’s sports section. I’d put up a link but there’s nothing for you to see. After “And The Inductees Are ...,” the rest of the page is blank.

There’s no point for further debates on the subject of PEDs in the Hall of Fame. At this point, everyone knows how they feel, and no amount of reason or passion is going to change anyone’s mind. At least for some time.

Sports Illustrated’s fine baseball writer Tom Verducci vowed never to vote for any player with connections to PEDs. In Thursday morning’s New York Daily News, veteran baseball writer Bill Madden told his readers that “Kicking the steroid needles down the road for another year, the Baseball Writers Association of America made a powerful statement Wednesday that it does take the integrity/sportsmanship clause seriously … To the critics of the Hall of Fame and the BBWAA, I can only say: save your breath. The system isn’t going to be changed because it is working …”

I respect Madden’s stance for integrity, but he is wrong. The system isn’t working and hasn’t for some time.

The late Marvin Miller, founder of the Major League Baseball Players Association and almost certainly one of the four most important men in baseball history (along with Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and Branch Rickey), was not once but several times denied a plaque in Cooperstown, even though his most constant nemesis, former Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, the man Miller bested in every confrontation, was voted in. Dick Allen, still remembered for several racially charged incidents but regarded by most of his peers as the best hitter in baseball during the 1960s, was never elected and hasn’t even been on the ballot in several years. Tim Raines, who admitted to using cocaine and who was probably a better all-around player than Pete Rose, has never gotten as much as 53 percent of the vote (75 percent is needed for election). And Pete Rose, who has more hits than any other player in baseball history, isn’t in the Hall of Fame because he bet on baseball games—though you can pay your money to see his bats and balls on display in Cooperstown.

I’m not lumping these cases together with what has happened with Hall of Fame voting in the era of PEDs. In each case, the man was wronged in a different way. But taken together, they point to one very serious problem, namely an inability by the Hall of Fame voters to define their own standards. This season the voters couldn’t find one eligible player who they believed qualified as one of baseball’s immortals.

We all know why Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire didn’t come near the required 75 percent of the vote. But we have to wonder: did Craig Biggio, a 20-year veteran and a consensus Hall of Famer among baseball analysts, fail to be elected because his career batting average is below .300 or because of his longtime friendship with teammate Jeff Bagwell, who didn’t get in because his name has been linked to PEDs? Mike Piazza, the greatest hitting catcher in baseball history, has never been charged of using PEDs by anyone; is he being denied simply because he was so much better than his contemporaries that he had to be too good to be true?

These questions and many others are never going to be answered—they’re probably not even going to be addressed. We may have no recourse other than to wait and see what happens over the next decade or so as emotions cool and we learn whether future members of the BBWAA take the same moral stand on the use of PEDs.

Meanwhile, we’re left wondering whether this year’s sweeping indictment of those who played in the steroid age is merely a short-term answer, meaning that those known and suspected to have used PEDs must sit in a penalty box for a few years. Or whether the baseball writers hang on to their adamant “no steroid” position forever.

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Because it strikes me that there’s only two ways to go on this. The first possible solution is total forgiveness, a blanket pardon for all, and I’m guessing that isn’t going to happen any time soon.

If in the name of the integrity of the game some writers are not only going to ban known users but even players suspected of using PEDs, then the only fair way to go is to institute a total ban on everyone who played during the steroid era, and to only begin electing new players when the writers are absolutely certain that the drug testing implemented by the owners and union is foolproof.

Sorry, folks, but there’s no other course of action that is even remotely fair. If Biggio is to be tainted because he was a teammate of Bagwell, then Derek Jeter must be banned because he played so long with Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez.

Maybe there is a third possibility. The Boston Globe’s Peter Abraham has changed his stance over the years from excluding anyone he suspected of using PEDs to disregarding PEDs altogether. His logic is that sooner or later a player who has been merely suspected of PED use will be voted in and “once somebody with even just suspicion gets in, at that point it becomes hard to say ‘My vote will help keep the Hall of Fame completely clean.’ Once there’s a doubt over guys enshrined in the Hall of Fame, it becomes more likely that people more directly tied to it [PEDs] will get in.”

To which I would add, how are Hall of Fame voters going to react when the inevitable happens—that is, when a Hall of Famer who they all believed was clean is found to have juiced? There is, after all, no provision at all for kicking someone out of the Hall of Fame. Sooner or later, the baseball writers, Hall of Famers, Cooperstown officials, and Major League Baseball are going to have to come to terms with the fact that one way or another they can’t keep PEDs out of the Hall forever. All that really matters is to decide how long the players—and all of us—are going to have to wait.