The Hall of Fame tide is turning. If you’re one of those who believes that anyone who took PEDs – or was suspected of taking PEDs or just, you know, kind of looked like he might have thought about taking PEDs – should be barred from consideration for forever and a day, you’ll recoil in horror. To which I say: Go ahead and recoil. Pardon me if I don’t join in your righteous shuddering.
My Hall of Fame ballot: Jeff Bagwell, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Manny Ramirez, Tim Raines, Ivan Rodriguez, Curt Schilling and Larry Walker. By my loose count, half of those – Bagwell, Bonds, Clemens, Manny and Pudge – have been brushed if not outright tainted by the suspicion of PED use. My response: I don’t care.
I don’t care because baseball, back when PEDs became the blatant thing to do, didn’t care enough to test for them. I don’t care because the commissioner at that time, the bumfuzzled Bud Selig, was front and center when Mark McGwire hit No. 62 to pass Roger Maris in 1998 and box offices and TV ratings were booming. By 2007, when the sneering Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s record of 755 career home runs, the commish was conspicuous in his absence.
MLB’s policy, to the extent that it had one, was to dig the long ball until Bonds, whom everyone hated anyway, made a mockery of the sport. Even after Steve Wilstein of the Associated Press spotted androstenedione – a substance banned by the Olympics but fine and dandy by baseball’s lights – in McGwire’s locker in the summer of ’98, Selig was happy to look the other way.
“Maybe I should have said more,” Selig told ESPN’s Jayson Stark in December, a statement that to this correspondent induced not shudders but laugh-out-loud incredulity. (“Maybe?” Really?) Conveniently enough, Selig had been named to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee the day before. The PED commissioner gets enshrined. But PED users should be scorned until the end of time?
I didn’t change my ballot due to Selig’s HOF inclusion. Mine’s the same as it was last year, with three changes. I couldn’t vote for Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza again because they’re in. I couldn’t vote for Alan Trammell because he’s no longer on the ballot. This was Year 1 for consideration of Manny and Pudge, and Edgar Martinez, my first man out last year – you can vote for 10 – made it this time.
Five or 10 years ago, I’d have included Trevor Hoffman. He was the career leader in saves under Mariano Rivera surpassed him, and I used to vote for big-time closers as a matter of course. My feeling about closers has, shall we say, evolved. The most valuable reliever in the postseason just completed was Andrew Miller, who worked 19 1/3 innings while recording one save, which reminds us that the final three outs aren’t always the most important three outs. If it’s a choice between a starting pitcher of the highest caliber – Mussina and Schilling, say – and Hoffman, that’s no choice at all.
(Truth to tell, I came closer to voting for Billy Wagner, who had 179 fewer saves than Hoffman but at his peak was the more dominant pitcher. And I will have no problem voting for Rivera in 2019 because – duh – he’s the Babe Ruth of closers. If you add Hoffman’s and Wagner’s Baseball-Reference WAR values together, you get 56.5. Mo’s career WAR is 57.2.)
Back to PEDs: I’ve voted for Bonds and Clemens every year – and voted for McGwire a time or two – because I cannot sit in my comfy chair and say, “X number of homers/strikeouts should be voided because they took PEDs.” How many of Bonds’ 762 home runs wouldn’t have been home runs if he’d taken only Vitamin C? Ten? Twenty? Two hundred? When exactly did he starting juicing? How many homers did he hit off pitchers who were themselves using PEDs? Should those have canceled each other out? Should they have counted double?
The point being: I don’t know, and neither do you. Baseball, in its blithering idiocy, left it to us HOF voters to be ex post facto pharmacologists while allowing the records of PED users/suspects to remain on the books. As much as we might like to believe that Hammerin’ Hank remains the Real Home Run King, he’s not. You could look it up. He’s still at 755. Bonds has seven more.
In 2013, Bonds’ first year of Hall eligibility, the greatest player post-Ruth was named on 36.2 percent of the ballots – less than half the 75 percent needed for enshrinement. Clemens, among the five best pitchers ever, made 37.6 percent. Last year the two were at 44.3 and 45.2 percent, respectively. But if we check Ryan Thibodaux’s HOF tracker of ballots made public by the voter, we see that Bonds is at 62.5 and Clemens 61.6 for this year, while Bagwell and Pudge are above the 75 percent line of demarcation. (Results will be announced Wednesday.)
I don’t know if this surge of support for suspected PED miscreants is due to the HOF’s tightening of voter ranks, or to a hey-Bud-got-in backlash, or simply to a softening over time. But I do know that Bonds and Clemens now have a real chance to make it – not this year, but soon. Whatever the cause, something is different.
Baseball tried to have it both ways, but the only certainty we voters can find are the numbers in the record book. As long as those records are allowed to stand — without even a Ford Frick asterisk — the men who compiled those records shouldn’t be regarded as second-class citizens. I cannot vote on what’s unknown and surely unknowable. I can vote only on what’s there.