Hall of Fame issues

Some guy named Mitchell released a report last week. I can tell you that it was long, it had a lot of players listed in it, there were photocopies of checks, and a lot of people have been writing about this Mitchell guy and his report.

Really, there has been so much written about the Mitchell report that I can’t possibly summarize it, or even link to the “best” pieces, because that would presume I’ve read most of them and can tell you which were best. I’m not quite that arrogant. But I will say that you should read this letter to the editor of the New York Times. It was written by Steve Kettmann, the guy who “ghost wrote” Jose Canseco‘s book Juiced, and it’s a pretty telling swipe at the hypocrisy of Brian McNamee, one of the primary sources in the Mitchell report.

Kettmann doesn’t claim that McNamee was wrong in his accusations (far from it), but he does point out that McNamee wrote an article for the Times seven years ago, in which he denied that major leaguers were taking steroids and called Kettmann to task for saying so. At the end of his article, McNamee had this to say about baseball players…

…their superiority is not because of steroid use, but because of the advancement in sports-specific science and commitment of the organizations to strength, conditioning and nutrition. To suggest otherwise is irresponsible and disrespectful.

In the Mitchell report, McNamee admits that he had injected steroids in Roger Clemens‘ butt the same year he wrote that article.

Don’t believe everything you read in the papers.

But doesn’t this say something positive about the Mitchell report? I think so. Finally, we can all see that many players took steroids. Several of the named players are now admitting that they did indeed take HGH or steroids, and maybe more will, too. That can only be a positive development. And don’t you find it kind of ironic that one player a lot of people defended (because of the “hearsay” evidence involved)—the Orioles’ Brian Roberts—has also confessed?

I had a couple of quick reactions to the report. At first, I wished Mitchell hadn’t named names. I thought that was a mistake because it pulled attention away from his recommendations. However, I’ve changed my mind about that. Naming names makes the affair real to people, and makes them realize that steroid use wasn’t isolated to a few big-name sluggers. And if they think about it, fans will realize that steroid use must have gone far beyond those mentioned in the report, because those names were based on only a few sources.

Actually, that was my second reaction. I was surprised the Mitchell guy didn’t find more names, even with his limited sources. I think it’s fair to say that steroid use wasn’t anywhere near 50%, and probably under 25%. Serious, habitual steroid users probably made up an even lower percentage—maybe less than 10% of regular major leaguers. I’m just making those numbers up, but that was my visceral reaction to reading the report.

Speaking of the New York Times, they ran an editorial the day after the Mitchell guy’s report was released, in which they opined:

One effective punishment ought to be a roll of dishonor. If the commissioner’s office determines that Mr. Clemens was using performance-enhancers during the seasons he was voted best pitcher, that should preclude his election to the Hall of Fame. Records achieved while a player was relying on chemical assistance, should be prominently marked with an asterisk — to signify that the achievement was less praiseworthy than it seems.

Think maybe the notoriously “liberal New York Times” is choosing steroids as their chance to be tough on crime? Their opinion stands in stark contrast to the Mitchell guy’s recommendation to Bud Selig…

…to forego imposing discipline on players for past violations of baseball’s rules on performance enhancing substances, including the players named in this report, except in those cases where he determines that the conduct is so serious that discipline is necessary to maintain the integrity of the game.

So, according to the Times, any players who relied on “chemical assistance” should have their records asterisked? How about all the players who took amphetamines, the ones that were offered free to the players in clubhouses, set out in bowls for easy grabbing in the 1970′s and 1980′s? Isn’t that a type of chemical assistance?

Now, I’m not saying that steroids aren’t a serious issue, or that players who took them weren’t cheating. But the history of baseball is filled with cheaters, some of whom are in the Hall of Fame. On a grand moral scale, I certainly agree that taking steroids is more serious than throwing a spitball or corking a bat. But is it more serious than popping greenies? I’m not so sure. And, from all the evidence I’ve read, popping greenies is probably a bigger offense than taking Human Growth Hormone.

I know that baseball fans feel violated. I know that many of us want the truth, so that we can punish the cheaters, praise the good guys and clear the statistical record. But the history of “chemical assistance” and baseball is long and complex and I don’t see much good coming out of a witch hunt that would take years and never be fully resolved.

I love baseball statistics, but few of them are really “pure.” There are always quirks in the numbers, and sometimes those quirks are the result of cheating. And baseball statistics aren’t “sacred,” either. The more you study them, the more you realize that there are stories behind them all. From a numbers point of view, steroids are just another numeric adjustment that has to be considered.

There’s something else to consider here. The more we engage in a prolonged witch hunt, the longer it will take to find the larger truths. That is, the more we try to find individual cheaters, the harder they will try to cover their tracks (Cough, Roger Clemens. Ahem, Barry Bonds). That will make it much more difficult to work cooperatively with the players and the union to spot future trends, gain their cooperation and stop further drug abuse—which ought to be the goal.

I suppose MLB could take the approach of investigating past abusers aggressively, and giving amnesty to all those who come forward and admit that they used steroids. But MLB can’t offer amnesty from federal prosecutors, and players who might admit they took steroids in the past would be caught in a trap in which they can receive MLB amnesty but not federal amnesty. To me, that road looks like those old treacherous mountainside “S” curves (without guard rails) I used to drive in West Virginia.

I don’t believe the reputation of the sport is so tarnished that it can’t regain fans’ respect with anything short of a purge. The fans have hung in there so far. And, really, everyone deserves some level of blame here. Even the “clean” players who didn’t take steroids yet never stepped forward to say that there was a problem. How do you punish something that was systemic? You can’t, really. You can only fix it.

As I see it, there is only one major reason to attempt to get at the truth, one major reason to pin down who did what: the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Right now, I feel bad for the BBWAA. I really do. They’re assigned the task of deciding who gets elected to Cooperstown. They have to decide who will receive baseball’s greatest honor, and the decision couldn’t be murkier.

Can MLB relieve them of this burden, as the New York Times suggests, by officially branding the offenders? Some people hail back to the 1919 World Series and Black Sox. Despite being found innocent in a court of law, the players involved in the Black Sox scandal were barred from ever playing professional baseball and also barred from the Hall of Fame. Pete Rose has also been barred from the Hall for gambling (you probably know that).

But gambling is a much worse offense than taking steroids. Taking steroids is cheating; purposefully losing a game for financial gain is deeply wrong. One offense takes the competitive spirit too far; the other undermines it altogether. Even if Rose only bet on his team to win, it raises the question of how he performed when he didn’t put money on his team at all. I’m not an expert on the Dowd Report, but I have no problem with Rose being kept out of the Hall.

What’s more, the Black Sox scandal was a concentrated case of corruption, relatively easy to identify and treat. Amphetamine and steroid use have been widespread throughout baseball for many years. It will be nearly impossible to retroactively and fairly identify the worst abusers and punish them appropriately. Drug use is a symptom of much that went organizationally wrong with baseball in those years, on all levels.

So I don’t see any fair way of managing the BBWAA’s chore (and maybe it does feel like a chore to them right now), because I think it’s too complex to accurately assign blame for the past and I’d rather see Major League Baseball focusing on fixing the problem.

Yet these are the qualifications the Hall of Fame expects its voters to consider: Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played. (I took that from their website). The key words are character and sportsmanship. And anyone who votes for Hall of Fame membership, whether a BBWAA member or not, will interpret the character and sportsmanship of steroids users according to their unique perspective.

Some BBWAA members have already said that there is no way they will vote for Bonds or Clemens because those stars cheated. Others have said they will, because these two guys would have been Hall of Famers anyway. Still others have said that there is no way of knowing who did what, and they can’t be expected to sort it out. For every juiced batter hitting a home run, there was a juiced pitcher throwing the ball.

This year’s voting will contain another chance for BBWAA members to flex their moral muscles. Tim Raines, who should be a cinch Hall of Famer but who admitted to cocaine use early in his career, is on the ballot for the first time. Even Scott Long and Will Carroll got caught up in this controversy, though Scott was using the Raines example as a way to focus more clearly on the steroids scandal. Did it take? Will BBWAA members vote for Raines despite their heightened awareness of “character?”

Tough question. Personally, I’m in the “if they would have qualified for the Hall anyway, I’m voting them in” camp, same as Rob Neyer. But I’m not in the BBWAA, and neither is Rob. Which reminds me of another recent scandal.

Recently, the BBWAA decided to open its doors to “websites that are credentialed by MLB for post-season coverage,” such as ESPN and CBS Sportline. The BBWAA accepted 16 of the 18 nominations they received from these websites, except for two sabermetric darlings, Rob Neyer and Keith Law of ESPN. You can read some of the outrage in Rich’s post and comments.

How did this happen? Well, in an interview with Joe Posnanski, BBWAA president Bob Dutton noted that the primary role of the BBWAA is “to assist the coverage of baseball print reporters at big-league parks. I believe most members see the association’s primary job as ensuring adequate access at ballparks for them to do their jobs.”

Turns out, Hall of Fame voting isn’t even listed among the four reasons that the BBWAA exists. It’s just an extra perk to go with the job, sort of like health benefits and a cafeteria discount. I read a lot of baseball stuff, and I can tell you unequivocally that Rob Neyer and Keith Law are more qualified to vote for Hall of Fame candidates than many members of the BBWAA. But they can’t join, because that’s not what the BBWAA is about.

There’s a simple way out of this quandry. The Hall should change the way players are elected, and they should do it now. Both of these controversies require a change in the way the Hall works. You know, they keep trying to find new and better ways of handling the Veteran’s choices—why not do the same thing with the regular choices?

There are so many different ways to handle the Hall of Fame voting, such as getting more players involved, or fans, or “expert” organizations like the Society for American Baseball Research. In fact, we here at the Hardball Times volunteer our time to the cause. But, please, get together, discuss the situation, admit that the current system is wrong and investigate ways to improve it.

Allow the BBWAA to return to its original charter. Take the steroids monkey off their back. And make the Hall elections a more legitimate affair in everyone’s eyes.

References & Resources
J.C. Bradbury, author of The Baseball Economist and a friend of THT, has been on a roll lately. His blog has consistently delivered some of the most interesting takes on the steroids scandal and has influenced my own thoughts.

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