Monday, January 10, 2011

Coming to terms with an incomplete Hall of Fame

I haven't commented on the Hall of Fame election results from last week, and I wasn't sure I would. But I've been reading about the vote totals, perusing others' opinions -- both those eligible to vote and those not -- and mulling it over in my head lately.

Today, I first had a thought that I might write something, but not about Roberto Alomar or Bert Blyleven. I'm happy for Alomar, who certainly was one of the best second basemen to ever play the game, and his humility in discussing the accomplishment was nice to see. I didn't see Blyleven in his prime, so I can't say whether he was the kind of pitcher you either wanted to see when he came to your city to see greatness (or the guy you hoped your hitters wouldn't have to face). I didn't have a strong opinion of his career one way or the other (though he certainly did).

After I read Mets Police's comments on steroids and the Hall of Fame, I felt I had found my starting point. I think what struck me with that post and what I had been formulating over the past few days is that we saw what happened. We watched with our own eyes the numbers put up by Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro and Barry Bonds and all the others. But we also watched how their arms and torsos and legs -- and heads -- seemed to balloon to sometimes comical proportions. We may have suspected less-than-natural means for those changes, but we let them slide, because the home runs and strikeouts and feats of strength were so much fun to watch. As fans, we have some level of deniability. As for the writers ... those who covered the players, those who entered the clubhouses every day, they probably should've let us know something was up a bit sooner than they did. They chose to let it slide then, but now they choose the hard line.

In keeping these less-than-perfect players out of the Hall, the writers are doing more than punishing the players -- they're punishing those of us who watched these guys play. At the time, we thought, "We're watching a Hall of Famer in his prime." Now those feelings can't be validated. It's one thing to debate McGwire's stats or compare Palmeiro's numbers to his contemporaries' (for this argument, I'm speaking of all players as if they had the numbers that, otherwise, would represent a Hall of Fame career), but to cut off the discussion before it even begins just because you don't like the way he put up those numbers is cheating the game's history. The players' actions may have been unethical, but with the one exception of Palmeiro, whose one positive test came at the end of his long career, what they did -- or what we presume they did -- wasn't against the rules of the game at the time.

So now we're supposed to forget that managers were so afraid of what Bonds could do that they walked him twice as much as the next guy (Hank Aaron) in history and three times as much as nearly every other player ... ever. We're supposed to believe that pretty much anything that happened from the mid-'90s until 2005 -- no matter who did it -- can't be believed. We're never going to know how many players were unethical, but the writers have taken it upon themselves to make that decision for us.

I'm not completely against the writers. There was a time I wanted to be one of them, to be a beat reporter covering a Major League team, but along the way I chose to deviate from the path that might've made me one. There's still a part of me that would enjoy it, and I will probably take their side more than not, but as the years go by and McGwire's percentage falls and Palmeiro and even Jeff Bagwell -- a guy who was hardly suspected when he played and certainly has never been proven to be dirty -- have to start so far in the back of the pack on their first ballot, I think I'd rather they just cut down on some of the gray areas on the ballot instructions. There are plenty of unsavory characters already in the Hall. Sure, some of them may have managed to keep their indiscretions under wraps, but surely the antics of Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle and others were known by some of the writers went ahead and voted for them anyway. It is here where I think Mets Police's suggestion (and I'm sure others have offered it as well) is the compromise to be made: Evaluate the players on their numbers, and if there is some clarification that needs to be noted -- McGwire's admission, Palmeiro's failed test, Sammy Sosa's corked bat -- then it should be engraved on the plaque. It's the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of the Pristine, the Hall of the Perfect. It's a museum, a place where the good is often presented along with the bad. Contrast -- context -- can help highlight the true greats.

But if there's one thing that bothers me more than anything else -- not just in baseball writers' Hall of Fame voting, but in all walks of life -- it's hypocrisy. In the past week, you've probably read about the ballot submitted by ESPN news editor Barry Stanton. Forget about his checking off the names of Jack Morris, Edgar Martinez, Don Mattingly, Tino Martinez and B.J. Surhoff (and no one else). That's another debate. My problem is with the fact that, in 2002, he resigned from his position as a sports columnist in Westchester, N.Y., after he was charged with plagiarising a Joe Posnanski column.

So the Baseball Writers' Association of America, which takes it upon itself to decide who has the character worthy of election into the Hall of Fame, cannot or will not judge the character of its own membership? What is the difference in Mark McGwire taking androstenedione or steroids to make his job easier and in a sports writer taking another's words to make his own job easier? There's an element of laziness in both acts -- and a character flaw in both of the men who committed the indiscretions.

The writers need to trim the fat on their electorate. This year, a record 581 ballots were cast, meaning a player needed to be named on 436 of them to gain the 75 percent needed for election. I'm not saying it needs to be a hard number, 100 or 200 or whatever. But why should those who no longer cover baseball or work as an editor for an outlet covering the sport -- such as the political cartoonist in Montreal or the college football writer mentioned in Craig Calcaterra's post -- still be asked to judge the merits of baseball players with regard to the Hall of Fame? And if the players are to be judged on their character, shouldn't those doing the judging have to abide by some standards of character? Or are they permitted to live in glass houses without any fear of repercussions?

Nobody's perfect -- not Hall of Famers, not writers, not fans. Yet we may be bearing a disproportionate amount of the burden for their mistakes.

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