- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
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Now that the dreaded moment has finally arrived, and the ballots have been sent and received, the induction portion of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum can commence as a referendum on the steroid era. Judgment day began with a few table setters, Mark McGwire in 2007 being the most prominent. But the heart of the order -- Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa, players who represent the heart of the their times -- is coming up this inning.
The latest Hall controversy -- who deserves entry into Valhalla -- has taken place amid a field of straw men (MacGuffins, to use the Hitchcock phrase), which divert the eye far from the truth, from what all the consternation is really about.
The straw men are everywhere. Ex-players are angry (still angry) that the Baseball Writers' Association of America and it alone has been bequeathed such Supreme Court-style privilege over initial selections and has had it for as long as there has been a Hall of Fame. Those players use this tired, annual charade as a vehicle for transferring decades-old player-writer grudges and grievances into a contemporary talking point. Pretending to be progressive in recent weeks, Mike Schmidt, the Hall of Fame third baseman from the Philadelphia Phillies, expressed his belief that reform was needed, and offered a plan to do just that.
There is also the angry new generation of new media, long without access or sources or voice in the traditional sense, yet convinced it knows what it was watching better than the reporters in the press box and often the players in uniform. This Generation M (yes, for "Moneyball") has been enabled and empowered by changing times, changing emphases on player evaluation, greater democracy (both within the sport and at the keyboard) and the dramatic diminishment of the newspaper as a public force. In many ways, from enumerating the rise of statistical analysis in front offices to spreading the influence of analytics without traditional clubhouse reporting, the Moneyballers have enjoyed the spoils of reader and online attention. Where they haven't gained much ground in the overheated revolution and culture war is in the one area that infuriates them the most: the honor and responsibility of voting for baseball immortality. It remains gallingly in the hands of the BBWAA, a group that does not own their professional respect.
Thus, under the guise of "reform," some want change in Hall voting, reducing the multitude of qualified voters to a select few to resemble football or the baseball Veterans Committee. WAR, it turns out, is hell after all.
The straw men of reform and outrage stand hollow in the field, and only the hot air whistling through their stalks gives them voice to offer solutions where there is no problem.
There are, however, two real truths to face. The first is that, since the Great Depression, the Hall of Fame has asked the writers to choose which players on the active ballot will be enshrined. The Hall can, any time it chooses, revoke this right and give it to Bill James or Bill Lee or Bill Gates. It has chosen not to do that, and for good reason. The system is not broken. The BBWAA is as much a part of the sport's lineage, for better and for worse, as the Hall itself. The awards the players respect and cherish the most -- MVP, Cy Young, etc. -- are the ones historically awarded by the baseball writers. On numerous occasions, both baseball (the Hank Aaron Award, for example) and the players' association (the Players Choice Awards) have attempted to undermine or at least compete with the power of the BBWAA's awards, defeated by the same conclusion: The players, the ones who make up the game, want to win the same awards that DiMaggio and Williams and Mays and Aaron and Koufax won.
Then there's the second truth: Despite the false narrative that voters are slightly less competent than NFL replacement referees, virtually everyone who belongs in the Hall of Fame is there. There are comets (Kirby Puckett, Ralph Kiner) and compilers (Don Sutton) and legends (Henry Aaron, Mickey Mantle). There are cases considered to be borderline by writers, executives, fans and players alike who were finally inducted (Bert Blyleven, Jim Rice), and those who still are not (Jim Kaat, Jack Morris). That's why they are called borderline. There are players who have been denied entry by the Hall and the game (Pete Rose, Joe Jackson and his Black Sox). The idea that the process needs to be reformed is nothing but a mask to resume hostilities or add a few seats at the table for people upset that they've never had one.
The next straw man is that, because of the steroid era, the baseball writers are going to guess who deserves enshrinement based on who had big muscles or who had a suspicious career year. Thus, goes the thinking, the system must change. It is a disdainful mindset that doesn't miss just the bull's-eye but the entire target altogether. It is the great MacGuffin of the game and reveals a complete lack of respect for voters who for years have done the work, covered the games and taken the privilege seriously.
The truth is that the writers are reduced to being a mop, left with cleaning up a colossal mess created by Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association for enormous profit. The fans also must take their share of responsibility simply because professional sports franchises respond only to loss of revenue. To the people watching, steroids were always someone else's problem, not an issue to get in the way of the fun and games -- until their guy was accused or their team wronged. The journalists whose job it was to hold the institution accountable failed, too, for too little reporting allowed a corrupt culture to flourish. The emerging Generation M, influenced by its Godfather, Bill James, and his capo, Billy Beane, is also deeply culpable for allowing their calculations to blissfully ignore steroids and, through that omission, attempting to legitimize the whole dishonest era (and themselves) by attempting to make the game revolve around only numbers. It is no surprise, then, that two of the Gen M standard bearers, power and on-base percentage kings Manny Ramirez and Jason Giambi (directly linked to Beane and James) were both disgraced by steroids.
The biggest culprits, though, remain the people who could have prevented the current mess but were too busy building record numbers of stadiums and collecting record-breaking contracts.
Focusing on whom the writers select and whom they do not is the easy way, the lazy way, the cowards' way to complain about the broken past. It continues to hand the leaders of the game the free pass they have had since Brady Anderson wafted his first home run (on his way to 50) over the fence way back in 1996. Nobody in baseball publicly questioned that feat then, and nobody has publicly admitted he saw anything amiss in a clubhouse since, and yet the entire charade collapsed around them in a heap of subpoenas and diminished record books. It is also an intellectually vapid and historically naive position, for anyone who knows anything about the Veterans Committee knows that no voting body is more insular and petty and crony. It has often operated as a place to settle scores with the dead. How many people in the early years of the Hall who had personally known Col. Jacob Ruppert considered and passed over his candidacy? Ruppert, who died in 1939, was inducted earlier this month.
To assess how the Hall of Fame will look over the next decade is to stay on target, to maintain focus on the institution of baseball and all it did not do. It is to consider the consequences when Reggie Jackson stated the obvious, that Alex Rodriguez used steroids and that affects how people will think about his career. The Yankees silenced the Hall of Famer.
It is to think about Jeff Conine, who last week said he believed the Hall of Fame should be free of the steroid taint, but that same Conine played 17 years in the major leagues during the steroid era and was, like his union brothers, silent. It is to think about Tony La Russa, so loyal to McGwire that he intimidated, bullied and pressured anyone who questioned him or his fallen protégé, questions that now, like then, were completely legitimate. Think for a minute about how McGwire used the Maris family as a prop during his fraudulent 1998.
More than anything else, if there is to be anger that the Hall of Fame may not enshrine perhaps the greatest pitcher of his time (Clemens), perhaps the greatest player of all time (Bonds) and the one of the great, most exciting sluggers of his time (Sosa), it should be directed at them for the choices they made.
It should be directed at Bonds, who in front of a grand jury in 2003 admitted using substances prosecutors and other players identified as performance enhancing, but -- laughably -- said he never knowingly took steroids. Bonds should be the easiest check of a box, and it is his fault and his responsibility that he is not.
It should be directed at Rodriguez, whom Beane once called the "greatest shortstop in history," and that was when Rodriguez was entering only his fifth year. (Yes, he was that good.) It should be directed at Jeff Bagwell, who now if not inducted will be conveniently cast as a "victim" of the steroid "witch hunt" when the truth is that Bagwell never once during his playing days voiced a single bit of concern that he was a clean player being tainted by dirty players. Like everyone else, he rode along and took the money.
What is left isn't a mystery, but the straw men serve their purpose, for a mess without accountability, noise without resolution, is precisely what the baseball leadership created. The sport gave the voters specific instruction on the Rose and the Black Sox candidacies, but neither the Hall of Fame nor the commissioner's office has ever offered any guidelines for eligibility during the steroid era, except one: The voters are on their own.
Baseball washed its hands of today's inevitability, and selective justice will be reflected in the Hall of Fame ballots cast, which is appropriate because of all that was not done when the leaders had a chance to lead. The steroid era is no longer baseball's problem. It now belongs to the voters. The MacGuffin worked.
Don't get upset with writers who don't vote for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens or Sammy Sosa. Put the blame for the steroid era where it belongs: on teams and players who profited.