For only the third time in over 50 years, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America chose not to elect a single candidate to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
This year was even more unique than when it happened in 1971 or 1996: this year, both the Home Run King and the Major League leader in career Cy Young Awards were up for the Hall – and both were denied.
In hindsight, it seems obvious: this year’s vote was going to be memorable whether Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were elected to the Hall of Fame, or not. Suddenly, almost without warning, all of Baseball was caught with its pants down. The writers — somehow divinely entitled as the auditors of Baseball’s precious history – were suddenly tasked with taking an official stance, making a stand, and setting a precedent. Either the steroid era was part of baseball history, or it wasn’t.
With McGwire, Palmiero, and Sosa, the HOF snub wasn’t necessarily 100% related to their connection with performance enhancing drugs. Voters could hide behind a combination of weak points in their resumes, then throw in the PEDs and the towel without a second thought.
Voting on Bonds and Clemens was a different story. Voting on Bonds and Clemens was taking a position that altered Baseball’s fabled history, went into Baseball’s storied history books, and will affect how Baseball views an entire generation of players.
Suddenly, writers don’t seem entirely up to the task.
Who thought this was a good idea anyway?
Of the four major American professional sports, only Hockey has it right. Inductees to the Hockey Hall of Fame are voted on by a committee made up of former players, executives, and coaches, that have all proven themselves to be supremely knowledgeable in the game and its history. The American Baseball, Football, and Basketball Hall of Fames are like the three stooges, each with its own quirky system that depends on writers to determine the highest honor in a player’s career.
They wouldn’t let a civilian hand out the Medal of Honor, would they? Well… they do – but, it’s the President. Which, I think, actually helps prove my point. Let the history of the game be decided by those who played it and shaped it. I have no issue with writers – for obvious, selfish reasons – having a voice and a vote, but wouldn’t we all feel a bit more comfortable if Baseball guys were answering the sticky, tough Baseball questions? It’s a slippery slope when you start deciding what did and didn’t happen, and what does and doesn’t count.
The Baseball Hall of Fame mails out ballots to over 600 baseball writers across the country. The writers designate which players on the ballot they feel should be included in the Hall of Fame, and send it back. That’s the process. In their first year of eligibility, Barry Bonds received 36.2% of the vote, and Roger Clemens 37.6%. Far bellow the 75% necessary for induction.
Let’s compare the careers of Bonds and Clemens to two of their fellow nominees: Jeff Bagwell (59.6%) and Curt Schilling (38.8%). Bagwell compiled 2314 hits, 449 home runs, and 1529 RBI over his 14-year career. Granted, Bonds’ career lasted six years longer, but his 2935 hits, 762 HRs and 1996 RBI outpace all of Bagwell’s averages.
Schilling ended his 19 year career with 216 wins, 3116 strikeouts, and an ERA of 3.46. Over 23 seasons, Clemens accumulated 354 wins, a whopping 4672 strikeouts, with a slim 3.12 ERA. Bonds and Clemens dominate their contemporaries in every statistical category, yet are looking up at them in Hall of Fame votes: are Schilling and Bagwell without a shadow of a doubt, 100% clean?
Even though several Hall-of-Famers, like Andre Dawson, Goose Gossage, and Al Kaline, have come out in support of the final vote. A baseball legend perhaps more equipped to grasp the magnitude of the vote – Pete Rose – remarked that the decision to omit great players from the Hall was sad.
And it really does create an interesting dilemma: what kind of shrine of the game’s greats doesn’t include arguably the game’s greatest slugger and single-season home-run king (Bonds); the only man with 7 Cy Young Awards (Clemens); the man who broke one of baseball’s most illustrious record, Roger Marris’ 37-year reign as the single-season home-run king (McGwire); and the League’s all-time leader in career hits (Rose)?
And how do we distinguish between players like Bonds and Clemens, and players like Willie Stargell, a Hall-of-Famer who was accused of distributing illegal amphetamines to players in the ’70’s? Ed Walsh is in the Hall of Fame, and holds the record for lowest career ERA at 1.82, and he is actually CREDITED with popularizing the illegal spit ball. Once we start drawing a line, who chooses where that line ends?
Certainly the players, according to an anonymous survey of 100 current MLB players, believe that some PED users at least deserve to be in the conversation. In the survey, 67% of the players agreed that Bonds should be inducted. Interestingly, the fans, on the other hand, agree with the baseball writers, according to the Washington Post. In their survey, over two-thirds of Americans say PED users should not be eligible for induction.
The vaunted trio of Buster Olney, Keith Law, and Tim Kurkjian, on ESPN – speaking of the writers – all believe fervently that the numbers should, and will eventually, reign supreme. The Hall is a hall of records, after all. And suddenly, sanity prevails…
What we all forget, in the desperate immediacy of the present, is that next year brings another vote, and then another the year after that. Exclusion today sends a message, but doesn’t guarantee permanency. What the Hall of Fame voters did, and maybe we should praise them for doing so, is what Bud Selig, and the whole network of the MLB failed to do for twenty years: stand up to Bonds and Clemens, and the stars of the Steroid Era, and made them accountable for their actions.
Candidates can remain on the ballot for 15 years. As the years go on, attitudes will change, and stances will soften. As always, the Old Guard will give way to a new generation of voters, who will be less aware of the Steroid Era, and less emotionally tied to the moral implications. The writers can’t take away the money, the awards, or the records, and they can’t keep them out of the Hall forever; but if the price for a career built on cheating and lying is not being a first ballot hall-of-famer, having to endure the wait and uncertainty for a few years, and eventually being swept in under the rug, instead of being welcomed with open arms, and parades; then, at least there’s a price. The score is settled and the record is set straight; the writers refused to condone and reward lying and cheating, so they didn’t. But, that doesn’t mean that Bonds and Clemens won’t eventually be inducted into the Hall of Fame, as their careers merit.
The moral of the story is that sports and life are organic: nothing is set in stone, and nothing is black and white. I guess the Hall is in good hands, after all.