Records, Ability, Integrity, Character, Sportsmanship: Voting for the Hall of Fame in the Steroids Era.

The results from Hall of Fame voting is announced on Wednesday.  I’ve announced my choices.  I’ll share right now that I am in favor of a Big Hall versus a small hall. I believe the new statistics in baseball make choosing deserving players much more complex and there are far fewer bright lines pointing to a plaque than there once was, and lots more lines that are gray, dashed, dotted and semi-visible that make choices much less easy.

That said, I believe the use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs should be a disqualifier.  There are lots of reasons for holding this view, but lets just start with the requirements for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame established by the Baseball Writers Association of America for their voting members.

Voting — 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.

Let’s  take a look at some key words in that sentence.  Integrity, sportsmanship and character all imply the ability to comply with rules handed down by baseball that teams and players are obligated to observe. In 1991, the year after Congress passed the Anabolic Steroids Act classifying steroids as an illegal drug, Commissioner Faye Vincent sent a memo to teams announcing steroids were added to the banned substances list.  It seems a simple step to suggest that players who knowingly used anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, or their precursors were likely guilty of violating league rules, calling into question their adherence to BBWAA’s rules for admission to the hall.  This is my argument, plain and simple.

Does this rule apply to all users of anabolic steroids and other performance enhancing drugs?  Absolutely.  Does it apply to Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Rafael Palmeiro? Yes, unequivocally, according to rules established by the writers themselves. By this criteria, I don’t believe these players should be voted into the Hall of Fame.

There are many arguments employed by a variety of sports media folks to justify admitting these folks to the Hall, and I will try to answer them.  But fundamentally, this is a question of ethics.  It is a question of rule-breaking.  I confess, as a school teacher, I am a creature of rules. My district, my school, my classroom have rules my students are obligated to follow.  There are rules that govern my profession, more of them all the time and especially those relating to ethical behavior, just as rules govern the behavior of politicians (sorry, bad example,) lawyers, doctors, engineers and many other professions.  Violate the rules and sanctions follow. In 1991 the Commissioner’s office laid down the rule. Players, teams, the Commissioner’s office and everybody else in the game should have expected to follow them and they didn’t-from the top down. Sanctions should follow. If those include exclusion from the sport’s greatest career honor, so be it.

The rules and the sanctions are clouded by recent arguments that steroid use shouldn’t matter.  One argument, shared by statistical analyst Eric Walker in 2009 is that steroids really didn’t matter. They didn’t affect the game that much.  They’re not really a health problem.  Fundamentally Walker doesn’t like the rule and seeks to justify it through the use of statistical obfuscation to diminish the impact of performance enhancing drugs on baseball.  Here are some simple facts:

1.  The rate of home runs as a percentage of hits were the highest in major league history between 1994-2009.  The top 13 years for this statistic includes the steroid era plus 1987, when MLB switched baseball manufacturers.

2. Many of the highest rates of doubles as a percentage of hits occurred during the steroids era, with nine of the years 1991-2004 in the top twenty for this statistic.

3.  Major league batting averages climbed significantly during the steroid era from .254 in 1988, climbing to .265 in 1993, remaining well above .260 throughout this time, peaking at .271 in 2000.  Current batting averages are at .255 for 2012.

These are just raw numbers and they don’t require any interpretation to tell the reader there was something going on during this time.

The argument is made that particularly Bonds and Clemens were likely Hall of Fame eligible before they began using PED’s. They are clearly the best of their generation  It’s not a Hall of Fame without them.  There are already plenty of nogoodniks in the Hall,  why not include them?  There are even other cheaters in the Hall.  What about spitballers like Gaylord Perry? I remember Perry being tossed out of at least one game for doctoring, and I suspect there were others.  If there is a hue and cry about Gaylord Perry, why did the writers vote him in?  It’s 2013.  This argument is just so much moral relativism.  They’re your rules, change them if you don’t like them, but end your hypocrisy.

There’s also the “everybody was doing it argument.”  The number of players using PED’s during the steroid era likely runs into the hundreds.  Others on the ballot such as Piazza and Bagwell are suspected of using too (though there is no evidence, it’s all rumor and anecdotes.) It would be nice and easy if the we knew who all the users were.  We do know the 90+ players named in the Mitchell Report.  That doesn’t damn all the users. Plenty of other players remain unnamed and unknown.  However, we do know Sosa, Clemens, and Bonds have all been charged with PED use.  McGwire has admitted it.  Palmeiro failed a drug test.  This does not meet the integrity, character, sportsmanship test.  They shouldn’t be voted in to the Hall.

Last, but not least, there is the hypocrisy of the Commissioner’s office argument. Bud Selig, by refusing to demand a testing regime, allowed Major League Baseball to rake in the big bucks on the popularity of the home runs produced by the steroids era.  Because the Selig turned a blind eye to PED use, together with the players union, Major League Baseball and the players union were complicit in a conspiracy to allow steroid use by players.  In clubhouses, general managers and managers that should have known what was happening didn’t.  If allowing PED use wasn’t officially sanctioned, it wasn’t discouraged.  I actually find a certain amount of sympathy with this argument.  Selig and union president Donald Fehr were complicit.  But what does that change?  Everyone is ultimately accountable.  And when Selig is ultimately considered for admission to the executive wing of the Hall for his accomplishments-presiding over unprecedented profits and decades of labor peace-voters must remember his complacency while the game was being changed from one of strategy and tactics to one of home run derby. It doesn’t excuse the behavior of the drug users.

And what of the writers themselves.  Who cheered on the long balls that flew out of the ballparks with increasing frequency as the 1990’s turned into the 2000’s?  If the players are guilty, if the Commissioner and management were willing accomplices, where was the media during the McGwire and Sosa home run chase?  Where were the writers when Brady Anderson hit 50 home runs?  In the stands cheering it all on instead of calling for an investigation, instead of demanding drug testing.  If the Hall of Fame voters claim hypocrisy in this process they need only look in the mirror.

In the end, what does the vote all mean.  Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds remain wealthy men.  They’ve amassed fortunes well beyond the dreams of most Americans.  When President Obama talked about raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, a sign with their pictures reading “see them” would not have been inaccurate. Their records are still on the books.  They have not been ruled ineligible as Joe Jackson and Pete Rose have been.  Yet they are guilty of breaking the rules of baseball.  They do not meet the test of integrity, character and sportsmanship.  Their actions, and those of other PED users changed the game for most of a generation, and I would argue not for the better. It is ridiculous that baseball writers would extend them the sport’s greatest honor by sending them on to Cooperstown.

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