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Don’t blame the BBWAA or the Hall for the steroid era

I haven’t written much about the Hall of Fame this year. To be honest, at this point, the subject fatigues me.

Very little, if anything new has been said. The same arguments regarding the steroid generation we had first explored ad nauseum when Mark McGwire became eligible have been played and replayed. Amplification has done nothing more than increase the distortion level of the noise. Positions taken long ago haven’t changed. Instead, trenches are dug deeper.

As is seemingly always the case when problems arise, the masses look for someone to blame.

The current and former baseball writers making up the voting bloc of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America serve as a convenient punching bag. Historically entrusted with the Hall of Fame voting, the writers actually do a pretty good job overall.

Some of the BBWAA writers with votes voluntarily share their ballots. Unfortunately, it is a small segment of the overall voting population. The better ones also explain the thought process that went into their votes. While no disclosure is required, it can help focus discussion.

The BBWAA could spruce up their participation by limiting the voting population to recent baseball writers. That could reduce some of the outlier votes that can make the majority, who seem to take their responsibilities very seriously, look bad.

In an ideal world, some of the historical oddities would be clarified and perhaps altered. They include first-ballot consideration and non-unanimous voting for obvious superstar candidates.

Still, in the big picture, those are just tuning items.

I have seen others suggest adding broadcasters and others to the voting eligible group, but that would do nothing to clarify the steroid question.

The misinformed blame the BBWAA for the current Hall of Fame gridlock over the steroid era, as if any 500 different individuals would have a hope of interpreting the voting guidelines in a consistent manner.

The current rules state that “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.”

Among themselves, the writers have been unable and/or unwilling to clarify these rules. In my opinion, that should not be their role. Their job is to execute the mission given them.

Let’s move up the management chain to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the group that charges the BBWAA with this purpose.

What is the Hall, really?

It is a business that operates a lucrative museum, library and research facility. The Hall not only directs the current vote, but also the controversial veterans committees which evaluate players no longer on the ballot as well as owners, coaches and executives.

This private entity is not owned by Major League Baseball, but certainly takes direction from the lords of the game as the ultimate provider of their meal ticket.

In the specific context of Hall of Fame eligibility, there is some clarity. Players on MLB’s permanent suspension list are ineligible for the Hall. That is why Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson are not enshrined.

That does not help with the steroid era, however. Even confirmed users are not on any long-term suspension list. In fact, MLB has welcomed at least one of them back with open arms and heaps of praise. A confessed user is now a major league coach recently employed by the Cardinals, the aforementioned McGwire.

In a number of cases, these players’ transgressions came to light after the fact and/or may not technically have been against the rules at the time. In the stickiest cases, there is no proof at all, just suspicion that can never be resolved.

No, this is not the Hall’s issue, either. It is clearly Major League Baseball’s.

Bud Selig’s legacy will not be fully solidified until many years into the future, but the steroid era will almost certainly be a key element. He was the unquestioned leader during the glory days as well as the belated and accelerated attempts to clean up the game.

It is my belief that Selig owes the game the responsibility to take the lead in putting the steroid era players into proper context. Just as with the suspended list players, make it black or white. Declare whether steroid-tainted players should be considered for the Hall of Fame or should not.

If not, then a list of proven offenders would have to be developed. It would spawn a process that would likely make the Salem witch trials appear fair.

That leaves us with the only viable solution. MLB needs to publicly declare that steroid era players should be eligible for Hall consideration. Further, they need to facilitate the development of clearer voting guidelines with the support and involvement of the Hall and the BBWAA.

Though certainly having the appearance of being controversial and perhaps even endorsing the past sins, what’s done is done. MLB looked the other way for years while this was going on. To come back later and act as if nothing happened seems hypocritical. MLB needs to lead a clear, viable path forward that is lacking today.

Others might argue that such action would change nothing. After all, McGwire, Bonds and the rest are already on the ballot. Yet the only reason they are there is that no one took specific action to remove them. The tainted candidates remain in an odd limbo.

Here is why I think direction from MLB would help. By those entrusting them with the vote clearly stating it is ok to consider these players, the BBWAA can better do its job. Voters can assess candidates based on their results without having to struggle with the impossible question of morality. Of course, the voters would never be told how to vote. Each individual would still have to make his or her own decisions.

If – or more likely, when – the first steroid-suspected players enter the Hall, the door will be opened for others, as well. There can be no middle ground.

Would that be fair to the players who were non-users? No, it would not be, but we have no idea who these clean individuals are. All we know are those who were caught and those who were not.

Let’s face reality. The results happened on the field and there is no way to selectively exclude them.

While there is no solution to this problem to which every one would agree, I believe the buck ultimately stops with MLB specifically and Selig personally.

Sadly, I doubt any change will occur. Another core element of Selig’s legacy is inaction/late action on key issues affecting the game.

MLB’s path of least resistance will continue to be to ignore the issue while letting the writers and the Hall struggle with and take the heat for a problem that they did not create and cannot solve.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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15 Responses to “Don’t blame the BBWAA or the Hall for the steroid era”

  1. blingboy says:

    Winter Warm Up heads up. Monday at 1:30 at the WWU: A History of the St. Louis Giants Negro Leagues baseball team with Dwayne Isgrig.

    Mr. Isgrig knows more about the Giants’ stadium than I do, and that’s a lot.

    One of these days I’ll finish up the rest of my article on old time ballparks in St. Louis which will feature the forgotten place where stars like Oscar Charleston and Cool Papa Bell played.

    • Brian Walton says:

      Isgrig is also presenting on Saturday, but has a tough draw, up against John Vuch. I will be at the latter’s but may check out the Negro League presentation on Monday. It is the last session before WWU closes.

      • blingboy says:

        Since I’ll be working all weekend, I only looked at the Monday schedule.

        Mr. Isgrig has in the past included a couple photos of the Giants stadium in on line articles, which I, of course, have lifted. Although rather nondescript as photos of old time ball fields go, they are some of my favorites.

  2. blingboy says:

    Brian, the article leaves me wondering what exactly you think the commissioner should say. Could you give an example of what you think his statement should be?

    • Brian Walton says:

      A statement alone would not be enough. It would acknowledge the tainted nature of the era, but also that the good and bad can never be separated. Rather than ignore the players from that era, they should be considered in Hall voting based on their on-field results.

      More important than a statement would be the action that follows – for MLB to lead an effort with the BBWAA and the Hall to either clarify the character clause in the context of the steroid era or remove it entirely. Expecting the writers to apply a morals filter to the voting is a major contributor to the problem, IMO.

      • blingboy says:

        Even eliminating the character clause entirly would not change anything. The reason is that its not the integrity of the players but the integrity of the stats that matters, and applying or not applying a morals based filter to the player’s conduct does not affect that discussion.

        As I see it, the only thing the Commissioner could do would be to declare that any effect PED use might have had in generating the on-field results is to be ignored by HOF voters. Surely, you are not suggesting that?

        The voters are entitled to decide if on-field results were fairly obtained. They have collectively factored in things like spitballs and corked bats, they can factor in PEDs too.

        • Brian Walton says:

          Perhaps it is a fine shading to some, but I am looking at what is behind the voter casting his vote. If he/she votes no because he/she feels the player is not worthy of being in the Hall or others are more worthy, ok.

          I am suggesting addressing the alternative situation in which the voter feels restricted from voting for who they believe are the most worthy players because of the character clause or worse, suspicion of it. Players never caught doing anything are being penalized by some simply because of speculation they broke the character clause.

          I agree with you that the bottom line voting results may not change substantially, at least initially. But at least the voters can stand behind their votes as representing their true views, not potentially restricted or altered by the vague rules defined by others.

  3. blingboy says:

    “Players never caught doing anything are being penalized by some simply because of speculation they broke the character clause.”

    You are better positioned than I to have a feel for how much of a factor that may be. Not much, IMO. My take is if they didn’t have a character problem with Gaylord Perry, they aren’t having one now.

    Rather, I think some players are and will be penalized because the integrity of their on-field results are uncertain. Unfairly in the case of non-users, but a perfectly legitimate factor for voters to weigh.

  4. CariocaCardinal says:

    Something that gives the recommendation/guidance of players being judged against their contemporaries and relative to their era should suffice. I think a strong statement that appears as an order would be rejected by the BBWA. I think they are very firm (and proud) in their resolve that they control the HOF not MLB.

    • Brian Walton says:

      I agree that is a good kind of statement. I see where you are coming from about resistance, but the BBWAA serves at the behest of the Hall. The Hall sets or at least has to approve the voting rules. If MLB wanted, they could exert influence on the Hall, or in my words, help them help the voters though clarification. In this unique instance, I think they should get involved.

      I have read about voters with concern over the rules. That is one of the few areas that could be tweaked but they would all need to work together on it. Given the strong opinions/positions you note, even that may not be possible.

    • blingboy says:

      I suspect that voters, in general, are already judging candidates against their contemporaries and relative to their era.

      I would be interested in an example of a statement/policy/rule change that would have any positive effect on the situation. In fact, I challenge anyone to come up with anything concrete.

      I do not think it is possible because, whether judging players against their contemporaries relative to thier era, or judging their careers in some other way, the crux of the problem is whether on-field results of PED users should be considered equal to/on a par with results of non users.

      That in turn involves questions of how much effect on results did PED use have, and should that effect be overlooked because a lot of players were presumably using PEDS.

      I can’t imagine MLB presuming to make any pronoucements in those areas.

      • Brian Walton says:

        Regarding your last line, that is the same conclusion I drew. MLB would rather avoid the issue, letting the Hall and the BBWAA take the heat.

        Regarding your “challenge”, in my original post, I linked to an article in which a current Hall voter explains why he is going to push to get the character rule clarified. Further, he noted it had come up at some point in the past but was voted down. That certainly indicates that some subset of the voting population has been struggling with how to best interpret the rules and want a change.

        • blingboy says:

          I can accept that there is a subset of voters who are unsure whether to vote for, or not vote for, some candidates because of uncertaintly about if PED use runs afoul of the character clause.

          We can assume that they have already decided that either PED use did not have much effect on on field results, or that results enhanced by PED use should be on par with non enhanced results. Otherwise, the character question would be irrelevant.

          My opinion is that most voters have not decided those questions the same way, so the character question hasn’t even come to the fore yet for them. Nor will it unless they change their minds, and I don’t think it would be acceptable for the commissioner to try to change their minds for them.

  5. JumboShrimp says:

    Brian, I very much like your essay today, because from the heart and mind, in unison. I am commenting before reading it carefully, if I ever do. My intuition is you have considered and vented some useful thoughts that you have been working through, over a period of years. Life is a journey for each and everyone of us. You care about baseball in historical perspective and have given thought to the Hall and are trying to reconcile a lot of stuff in your mind and that is worthy and honorable.

    I would agree that the Hall is a for profit private institution (though likely of unknown profitability), as for that matter is MLB. (Back later.)

  6. JumboShrimp says:

    I think baseball writers can shoulder some blame for not better disclosing to the public the unfair attention to steroids within baseball. In reality, muscle helping chemicals were adopted by athletes across many sports. Lance Armstrong is finally going to concede that he got sophisticated help. Arnold Schwartznegger rode steroids to money and fame in film. Steroids obviously have been prevalent in football in building the bodies of athletes.
    It has been especially in baseball that there has been an over-reaction and backlash, encouraged by baseball writers, to widespread use of helpful molecules among ballplayers.

    MLB has already indirectly excused past use of helpful molecules. This forgiveness can be seen for example in hiring McGwire, who was helped by a public relations expert, to make an obligatory apology. Loads of folks have offered statements and then continue to occupy jobs, within the game. Its too bad McGwire is singled out and scapegoated by Hall voters for actions of so many others.

    Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens would have been great even without a little extra help. They played against others who had gotten a little extra help too.

    Baseball writers who are Hall voters are not obliged to wait for Selig or his successor to give them guidance. If the situation does not make sense, Hall voters should endeavor to use their powers of reason in the pursuance of their jobs.

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