Here was the reaction of Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, to the news that not one player had been elected to Hall of Fame on Wednesday:
“It is what it is.”
Wow. Selig used one of my personal pet peeves, a vacuous cliche uttered by people with nothing useful to say. I’d expect more from a man who has been running our national pastime, for better or (mostly) worse, for two decades.
Selig might have borrowed something poetic from the Beatles and said “Let It Be.” That was his position during the height of the steroid era, when skeptics looked at the bloated physiques and home run totals and knew something was amiss.
Let it be. Turn your head. Ignore the whispers of performance-enhancing drugs. Rake in the money from TV and the gate. Let the public slobber over Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa – smiling, overmuscled heroes for the white and Hispanic communities.
It all came crashing home on Wednesday, when the Hall of Fame vote was announced and the writers issued a stinging indictment of the steroid generation. For the first time since 1996, not a single player received the 75 percent of votes necessary for induction to Cooperstown.
Now the writers are under siege from all angles: Fans who feel Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds should get in; former players who feel the writers are too soft on steroids; from modern stat mavens who think they’re behind the times; from critics who feel they shouldn’t be legislating morality.
Good for the writers. For all its flaws, the baseball Hall has the most qualified and objective panel of any sport. The 574 writers don’t always agree; they’re not all hip to the new analytics. But they generally get it right.
But on the issue of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), they were on shaky ground. There’s no sure, safe position on the issue. Neither the Hall of Fame nor the commissioner’s office gave the writers specific eligibility guidelines for PED users – as they did for Pete Rose and the players from the Black Sox. They let them figure it out on their own.
Is it any wonder the voters are conflicted? Most of them anguish over the responsibility. They want to be thorough and unbiased. But there’s no clear answer to every technical and moral uncertainty. It’s tough enough without steroids muddling the process.
I’m glad I don’t have a vote. I’ve said publicly that I would vote for Clemens and Bonds because they were Hall-worthy before they took PEDs. But is that a reasonable standard? Admit some users because they took them ONLY to prolong their careers?
What if a man is a faithful husband for 30 years, then runs away with a younger woman? Do you put him in the Spouse Hall of Fame because he held off on cheating for years? How do you decide if a player’s natural talent superseded steroid use? What do parents tell kids about it?
It’s a sad time for baseball, even sadder to see your fellow sportswriters made out as villains. The bad guys were the guys who cheated for an edge, the people who turned their heads (and yes, that included media who were happy to lead the McGwire-Sosa lovefest).
Clemens got 37 percent of the vote, Bonds 36. It’s hard to see them reaching 75 percent any time soon, if ever. Some writers are very particular about voting for players in their first year of eligibility.
A few will shift over to Bonds and Clemens in future years. But the great majority are taking a harsh stand. Bonds won seven MVPs, Clemens seven Cy Young awards. On merit, they would be slam-dunk choices. It’s not as if writers need to further examine their numbers.
I have no sympathy for Bonds and Clemens, or for Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza. The latter two have admitted using Androstenedione, which had the same properties as steroids and was banned by the NFL, the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee before baseball entered its steroid era (conservatively seen as 1997-2005).
McGwire admitted using “Andro” during his home run chase in 1998. Much of America shrugged its shoulders. Why rain on baseball’s happy parade? It didn’t matter to me if it was illegal. It gave McGwire an unfair advantage, which tainted the record for me. Baseball banned Andro in 2004.
So if voters frown on players who gained an unfair advantage, so be it. It gets tiresome to hear the argument from people who say the writers should vote solely on a player’s performance on the field, while eliminating the character clause in the current Hall of Fame criteria.
It’s fashionable to compare steroid users with the bigots, drunks and petty criminals who populated baseball over the years. It’s a specious argument. Drinking and bigotry didn’t give players a decided advantage, making one player wealthy while a man of equal talent faded out of the game.
Amphetamines are a better case. Yes, players used them over the years and it helped them perform in a grinding, daily sport. But it’s hard to find anything like the dramatic spike in home runs that occurred during the peak of the steroid era, compromising the sport’s statistical essence.
Baseball suffers because of it. Instead of talking about PEDs, we should be talking about Craig Biggio, who will almost certainly go in next year, or debating the merits of Jack Morris, Tim Raines and Alan Trammell, borderline candidates whose chances were diminished by the furor over steroids. Some voters submitted blank ballots in protest.
Regrettably, the Hall of Fame simply doesn’t matter as much anymore. I’ll always love baseball. But more and more, it’s the game itself – the bang-bang play at first, the relay from deep right field, the mental battle between hitter and pitcher – that I cherish, not the men who play it.
It hurts me to say it, but the Hall of Fame will never be the same wondrous place it was when I was a kid. The writers try their best, but no vote, however well-intended, can restore baseball’s innocence.