Thursday, January 6, 2011
Change will roll into the Hall, someday
Yesterday, Jim Caple wrote a perfectly cogent, clear-eyed look at the Hall of Fame electorate's tortured take on drugs.
In the wake of yesterday's BBWAA Hall of Fame voting results, a number of other cogent and clear-eyed pieces have been written by Joe Posnanski and Bill at The Platoon Advantage and (I'm sure) many other reasonable fellows.
But for the moment I want to stick with Caple, and specifically with the single word that everyone voting against Bagwell and McGwire and Palmeiro and (eventually) Bonds and Clemens simply refuse to grapple with ... Amphetamines.
First, how can you reasonably justify withholding a vote for steroid use but not amphetamine use? Amphetamines became illegal two decades before steroids did. That was also about when we learned amphetamine use was rampant in baseball, thanks to "Ball Four." In other words, a whole lot more players used amphetamines and for a whole lot longer than ever took steroids. And you probably voted for them without hesitation.
Don't tell me amphetamines are a performance-enabler, not a performance-enhancer. That's simply a convenient rationalization to excuse amphetamine use by your favorite players. If a substance helps a player perform in any way, it is a performance enhancer.
But what I finally realized last night, after thinking about this for the last few years, is that the argument for using amphetamines is actually worse than the argument for using steroids (et cetera).
When Mark McGwire pleaded that he used steroids merely to recover from an injury, and his drug use wasn't performance enhancing but instead performance enabling, he was generally mocked and deserved to be. Because Jim is right: That's a distinction without a real difference. Not to mention the fact that it's reasonable to assume that McGwire continued to use steroids well after he'd recovered from his injuries.
Still, it's probably true that some players, perhaps including McGwire, were able to return to the lineup (or the rotation, or the bullpen) sooner than otherwise because they used drugs illegally. In those cases, the drugs really were performance enablers; the players literally wouldn't have been able to perform, at all, without the drugs.
Amphetamines, though? Those were, for a number of decades, purely performance enhancers. Can any of the hundreds of players who used amphetamines in the 1960s and '70s and '80s and '90s really argue that without greenies, they would have been forced to go to their managers and say, "Sorry, Skip. Just don't have enough energy today. You'd better take me out of the lineup."
I don't think so. Players didn't use amphetamines so they could play. Players used amphetamines so they could play better. And to be completely frank, anybody who tells you different is either lying or foolish.
Where does that leave us? It leaves us where we've been for a few years now: Waiting for someone, anyone, to reasonably explain why all the sluggers of the '70s and '80s belong in the Hall of Fame, but those of the '90s and '00s do not.
Nobody's going to explain, because there is no explanation. There are only prejudices and self-righteousness and feelings that can't withstand even the beginnings of a logical argument.
What does all this mean for the Hall of Fame?
Consider ... By my count, next year's Hall of Fame ballot will include eight players with Hall of Fame-worth statistics: Jeff Bagwell, Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Edgar Martinez, Alan Trammell, Rafael Palmeiro, Tim Raines, and Mark McGwire. You might disagree with one or two of those choices, but I'll bet you've got replacements in mind. So let's say eight.
I believe Barry Larkin gets in next year. That leaves seven holdovers in 2013 ... who will be joined by Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Craig Biggio, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, and the terribly underrated Kenny Lofton.
That's 13 or 14 candidates with Hall of Fame-worthy statistics. The way things are going, Bonds and Clemens and Sosa and Piazza (the catching version of Jeff Bagwell) will be left out. Schilling should do well because of the bloody sock, and Biggio should do well because of the 3,060 hits ... but will either of them reach 75 percent? Maybe not; the ballot will be so crowded, some voters just won't find room for either player.
Let's be optimistic, though, and assume one of them makes it. We've still got a baker's dozen of deserving candidates on the ballot ... in 2014 they'll be joinhed by Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina, and Tom Glavine.
That's 17 candidates. Maddux will make it, even then. Glavine, maybe.
The next year: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Gary Sheffield ... 21 outstanding Hall of Fame candidates.
Has anyone even begun to consider the implications? Has the Hall of Fame's board of directors considered the implications? Have the BBWAA's Hall of Fame voters considered the implications of having more than 20 strong Hall of Fame candidates on the ballot?
The only way to break through this logjam is to start electing more than one or two candidates every year. And the only way to elect more than one or two per year is to reconsider this infantile, ahistorical, asinine version of morality that seems to have quite suddenly afflicted a huge percentage of the voters.
A good friend of mine is exceptionally pessimistic about this situation. He believes that while the Hall of Fame electorate is obviously getting younger and (somewhat) smarter, this process won't happen nearly fast enough, and that in 20 years the Hall of Fame might still be without Clemens and Bonds and all the rest of them.
I consider myself neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but rather a cynic informed by a fair touch of realism. It's certainly true that the vocal self-righteous moralists aren't going to undergo conversion overnight, and perhaps not ever. But they're actually in the minority. We know that many, many voters lack real convictions about much of anything, and are perfectly malleable -- Bert Blyleven received just 14 percent support in one Hall of Fame election; Luis Aparicio just 12 percent -- which means it's just a matter of turning them in the right direction.
I believe that something will turn them in the right direction. Perhaps Bonds or Clemens will come close in 2013. Once you get close, you usually make it ... and once Bonds or Clemens makes it, how can you justify keeping everyone else out? Perhaps someone already in the Hall of Fame will be exposed as a steroids user. Perhaps a group of impeccable Hall of Famers -- Bob Gibson, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, and Hank Aaron would be a nice start -- will announce that they might well have used steroids if they'd had the chance (Gibson's already said as much).
I just don't believe this can stand, forever. Drawing a line between amphetamines and steroids is intellectually indefensible. A Hall of Fame that doesn't include Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens -- not to mention Jeff Bagwell, Rafael Palmeiro, etc. -- is, in the long run, both irrelevant and untenable.
Eventually, someone who matters will figure all of this out. We can help, though. As someone once said about something far more important, "Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle."
Maybe this struggle will require five years, or 10, or 20. But change will roll in.