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Put ‘em all in the Hall

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

 

Baseball writers aren’t doctors or dieticians, but that doesn’t stop them from playing them on TV, in print, or anywhere else they’re asked to discuss Hall of Fame voting.

Since the Mitchell Report came out six years ago, fingering dozens of past and present All-Stars as steroid cheats, it’s become common practice for members of the Hall of Fame committee to play God with players’ legacies, with or without substantial evidence. If you were on the list, don’t bother making reservations in Cooperstown anytime soon, even if you never actually tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Even if you weren’t on the list, but just happened to excel during the Steroid Era, you’re still going to face the wrath of jaded, pretentious voters who can’t help but lump every successful player of the past 25 years into the same ambiguous category.

I get it. Honestly, I do. I understand baseball records are treasured more than records in any other sport, so I understand why some writers refuse to vote for Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire, even if I disagree with their logic. What irks me is how players such as Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell remain on the outside looking in simply because certain members of the voting committee think something’s fishy. Neither Bagwell or Piazza failed a drug test during their playing career or were named in the Mitchell Report, yet rumors of steroid use pop up every now and then – mostly from unnamed, anonymous sources – and those allegations have been enough to keep two of the game’s most prolific hitters from the well-deserved honor of being inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Piazza, without question, is the game’s greatest offensive catcher with 427 career home runs, more than any catcher in the history of baseball. He reached the All-Star team 12 times in 16 seasons and finished his career with a .308 lifetime batting average, a remarkable feat considering he played more than 1,600 games at catcher, a demanding position infamous for shortening players’ shelf lives through the years.

While not quite up to Cal Ripken standards in terms of durability (then again, who is?), Bagwell was arguably the most reliable player of the 1990s before continuing his dominant run well into the next decade. He spent 15 years in Houston, reaching double figures in home runs in all but one season (his final season, 2005, when he played in only 39 games due to injury). From 1993 to 2004, Bagwell hit 20 or more each year, including an impressive, eight-year stretch of 30 or home runs between ’96 and ’03. One of the game’s most patient hitters, Bagwell also finished his career with a .408 lifetime on-base percentage, which ranks 40th on baseball’s all-time list. And while it might not count for much in the voting process – though it probably should considering the voters break out the moral compass in regard to steroid cheats – Bagwell spent his entire career in one city without ever bemoaning his fate or demanding more from the franchise that gave him so much in return.

In order to reach the Hall of Fame, a player must appear on 75 percent of the ballots. Piazza received only 57.8 percent of the vote last year in his first year of eligibility while Bagwell has yet to receive more than 59 percent of the vote despite being eligible for three years. Voters have become so paranoid of enshrining a possible steroid user to the point where only one player has gotten the call in the last two years (Barry Larkin in 2012). No one made it last year, not even Jack Morris, who’s been on the ballot for the past 14 years, or Craig Biggio, Bagwell’s longtime teammate in Houston who finished his career with 3,060 hits and was Top 10 all-time in plate appearances.

They’ll probably all make it someday, even Morris, a postseason legend in Minnesota, but the fact it’s taking this long for Piazza and Bagwell to get the call highlights a problem with the voting committee that doesn’t figure to change anytime soon. As long as there are casual whispers, there will be speculation, and as long as there’s speculation, there will be paranoia and arrogance from baseball writers who wouldn’t know a barbell from a barstool.

Until we know exactly which players used performance-enhancing drugs, which drugs they used, when they used them, how long they used them for, and what actual affect they had on their performance, the voting committee has no business being so dismissive regarding players who excelled during the Steroid Era. The problem for Bagwell, Piazza and others is they can no longer prove they didn’t use, but voters can still assume they did based on the era in which they played. Players are essentially being punished for something they can’t control.

I’m part of the small minority (perhaps a party of one) that thinks Clemens, Bonds and McGwire are getting screwed, too. They were great players, with or without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs. Every time a voter plays the McGwire or Bonds card in reference to the effects of steroid use, I’ll gladly raise you a Mike Bell or Larry Bigbie, both admitted drug users. Remember them? No one does, because great players aren’t created in labs. They’re built by taking extra batting practice two hours after everyone else leaves the field, or studying film of your own swing on a Friday night while all your friends are at the movies.

The same committee smart enough to vote Tony Gwynn into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility should also be smart enough to recognize greatness amidst of a cloud of speculation and dirty needles. Maybe Clemens, Bonds, McGwire and perhaps even Rafael Palmeiro will get their due one day. For now, we should focus on those who’ve been denied the benefit of the doubt and deemed guilty by association through a flawed, hypocritical voting process.
 

Follow Michael on Twitter: @michaelparente

 

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