A Crisis Of Credibility

added 1/13/2011 by Bob Hulsey

I've listened, watched and read all the hand-wringing over the latest Baseball Hall of Fame voting which, oddly, had very little to do with Bert Blyleven getting in on his next-to-last try. For the previous few years, it seemed Blyleven was the big controversy. Now that he's been elected, that debate seems like a spring shower compared to the storm the writers and the internet wags are having over the steroid users and those suspected of using performance enhancing drugs.

It's a controversy that's only going to get uglier.

Many Houston fans, longing to have a guy in Cooperstown proud enough of their Astros career to wear a Houston cap on their official plaque, are livid that this controversy has drawn in Jeff Bagwell, an icon to many who followed the Astros while he played here between 1991 and 2005.

The Bagwell we've all known has been the epitome of class and sometimes self-effacing honesty. If Jeff says he didn't use steroids, we have no trouble accepting that at face value.

But if he did use them, there's no incentive now to admit it.

Mark McGwire was treated like a hero when he was breaking home run records ten years ago. Many thought he'd be a shoo-in for Cooperstown as soon as the five-year waiting period passed. However, McGwire was called before Congress to testify about steroids and gave a non-answer answer, stating he was "not talking about the past". In a town filled to the brim with the best political liars, congressmen didn't appreciate McGwire's amateurish imitation of a politician. There was blood in the water and the sharks circled.

So did baseball writers. When it came time to vote for or against McGwire to get into the Hall, less than a quarter voted for Big Mac. What could change their minds? "Tell us the truth", they bleated. So McGwire, upon returning to baseball as the St. Louis hitting coach, admitted the truth. And his Hall of Fame vote total shrunk still more.

The moral of the tale is that honesty is the best policy except when it comes to election into the Hall of Fame. Maybe McGwire will get the Blyleven treatment but likelier still, he's not getting in at all.

Which brings us back to Bagwell who got 41.7% of the vote in his first try, a higher percentage than McGwire ever got even though Bagwell hit 134 less homers in his career than McGwire did (more than the three best home run seasons by Bagwell combined - which should prove that if Bagwell was indeed a steroid cheat, he was an underachiever).

How many of the 58% who chose not to vote for Bagwell did so because they don't like voting folks in on the first ballot unless they walked on water as they approached the plate? How many did so because they thought his stats simply weren't Hall-of-Fame worthy? How many did so because they thought he, like McGwire, was hiding something? Nobody knows.

We'll get a better idea next January when Bagwell gets his second try and there's nobody on the ballot with an outstanding chance of being chosen, except possibly Barry Larkin. That leaves the field wide open for someone who can capture the consensus of the sportswriters. Probably the less Bagwell talks about steroids between now and then, the better.

But perhaps more bothersome, in the bigger picture, is how the steroid cheating issue is going to discredit, rather than enhance, the Baseball Hall of Fame in coming years. It's almost a no-win situation for them. There are three possibilities, none of them good.

1) They can take the high moral ground and keep all the steroid cheaters out. Then, beyond missing baseball's all-time hit leader (Pete Rose, for betting on baseball while managing the Reds), they'll keep out baseball's all-time home run champion, a seven-time Cy Young Award winner who happens to also be in the top ten all-time in victories and strikeouts, and perhaps as many as seven members of the 500-home run club.

Imagine a U.S. Presidents Hall of Fame that left out George Washington, Abe Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. That's what the Baseball Hall of Fame would look like - a swiss-cheese collection of baseball greatness.

2) They can ignore all the cheaters and vote as if their numbers are completely legit. That's fine for us adults who can separate good baseball from imperfect players but what does it say to the young who look up to baseball players and try to emulate them? Is the message then sent that it's okay to juice, that the ends justify the means? Even if you tell them that steroids can dramatically cut short your life if abused, how many boys do you think will listen, especially ones from poor backgrounds who live in squalor and see a baseball career as their best way out of poverty?

Baseball historians can accept stats in a vacuum but at what human cost in the real world?

3) They can induct the very best of the cheaters and punish the others. This appears to be the Solomonic view which is, to me, the worst of all choices. You already see the argument being made by the apologists for Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and the like. "They were already Hall of Famers before they began cheating," goes the refrain.

It's blatant hypocrisy to keep out some on the mere rumor of steroid use and then say it's okay to vote in the very best who outright admitted being users. The moral then would be "It's okay to cheat but only if you're really, really good at it." Ugh.

Part of the problem, of course, is that "fame" is a word with different meanings. It's not truly about fame, else you'd see folks like Don Larsen and Bill Buckner in it. Some want it to be the "Hall of Great Stats" but not all who are in have truly outstanding statistics and it ignores the circumstances that someone like Jackie Robinson endured in accomplishing what they did. The HOGS approach also tends to reward longevity as much as it does quality.

But there is also those who wish it to become the Hall of Great Guys Who Were Also Great Players. And the morality police, in this case, tend to be the guys who also had writing deadlines of which some players were more cooperative than others. The players who made themselves accessible to the media and spouted good quotes already have an advantage in this popularity contest over the ones who fought with the press or refused interviews.

There are two better ways out, although more complicated and likely never to happen. Either construct a separate plaqueless wing to the Hall to make note of those whose achievements would qualify them for induction (like Rose and Bonds) but whose misdeeds left them short of the full honor of a plaque at Cooperstown.

Or, instead, announce that players found in violation of certain standards could be eligible for a re-vote, but only after their deaths. This would then belatedly induct them with plaques but only after the player has passed on and is unable to benefit, either financially or in glorification, on their induction. This could delay enshrinement some 30 years or more so only the history buffs would likely care by that time.

By nature, baseball players are competitive. The very best often got that way because their competitive nature would not accept anything less than domination. As long as the benefits are obvious, it's impossible to expect highly competitive people to pass up the temptation to bend or outright break rules, whether it is corking a bat, doctoring a pitch, stealing signs, taking drugs or injecting steroids. That's especially true if they see others doing it and escaping punishment.

Personally, I'm not inclined to hold against a man a few missteps when evaluating an entire baseball career. I'd rather debate Hall-worthiness on facts, not speculation. But the writers, and the Hall itself, will soon need to debate what it will do on this issue and perhaps thornier ones that may come in the future as both technology and medicine continue to advance. A piecemeal approach threatens to turn the Baseball Hall of Fame into a Hall of Farce, which would be a terrible stain on the game and the museum.