Commentary

Drawing a blank on a HOF ballot

PEDs left no room for a comfort zone, so one voter returned a blank ballot

Originally Published: January 9, 2013
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

As it turned out, I sent my 2013 Hall of Fame ballot in blank.

This wasn't science. It wasn't a clever attack in the three-front culture war among the players, the SABRs and the BBWAAs. It wasn't a protest either. It was just one voter's inability to reach a comfortable verdict on a colossal mess that for years no one wanted to take responsibility for and that isn't going to get any less complicated as time goes on.

The voters were handed a basket of rotten vegetables called the steroid era by the players, the Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball and told to make a chef's salad.

I happen to disagree with my fellow writers who consider the steroid era just another stop on baseball's timeline, no different than the dead ball era, and dismiss its actual damages. Those people are likely to give Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens a significant number of votes.

I didn't vote for any of the players on this ballot, not Bonds or Clemens, not Mike Piazza or Jeff Bagwell, because the damages to the game were real.

The leadership of Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association was subpoenaed by the federal government. Rafael Palmeiro was investigated for perjury. Miguel Tejada pleaded guilty to lying to the government. Roger Clemens was tried for lying to Congress, and Barry Bonds was convicted for obstruction of justice. Mark McGwire, the icon credited with baseball's revival, embarrassed himself, repeating, "I'm not here to talk about the past," for fear of perjuring himself.

Manny Ramirez, widely considered one of the greatest hitters of his time, was suspended for a total of 150 games for using PEDs -- after the release of the Mitchell report, after increased drug testing and after a reopening of the collective bargaining agreement for a third time to deal with the issue of performance-enhancing drugs.

Baseball's own investigation, ordered by commissioner Bud Selig, concluded that the steroid era was a massive institutional failure.

Yet we have been asked to celebrate it in the Hall of Fame.

I believe in the hierarchy of the ballot, that the first ballot is different than the second or the 10th, that there is a special prestige to a player's being voted in the first time he is eligible. I believe in it because the hierarchy matters to the players. Bonds and Clemens should have been easy decisions as runaway first-ballot inductees -- maybe they will be, but I doubt it -- but PEDs kept me from voting for them.

My position now is the same as it was in 2002 and 2005: If players had been worried back then about how their reputations and the legitimacy of their accomplishments would look when their Cooperstown time arrived, they would have fought harder to protect those things when they had the opportunity. Yet outside of Frank Thomas, who was the only player to volunteer to stand up as clean during the infamous March 2005 congressional hearings -- he wound up sitting in an empty room in Arizona, his testimony unheard because of a satellite linkup failure -- I do not recall a single active player distinguishing himself as a voice for the clean athlete, a voice for this moment. Instead, they bullied and tried to intimidate anyone who questioned them and lied to the faces of people who they held in obvious contempt (journalists) and even to the faces of those they claimed they respected (McGwire to the Maris family on national television). Or they were silent and took the money. They received lots of money, and it likely will cost the best of them enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.

[+] EnlargeMark McGwire
Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty ImagesTo some voters, Mark McGwire and other players sacrificed their Hall of Fame chances when they chose to use PEDs.

I understand that we live in a pharmacological age. There is a pill for everything, whether it is Viagra, Lipitor or Adderall. I understand that we will never get clarity about who used and who didn't or about how much drugs helped the numbers or hurt them. What will always baffle me, however, is that even in an age of intense cynicism, the lying and deceit don't matter to some. Why are people who were offended by these years of dishonesty being cast now as outdated charlatans, soapbox preachers or the "moral police"? I wonder why there is so little outrage toward the liars and cheaters who for years used their clout with the fans, their enormous wealth, their fame and their influence in the game to deceive the public.

I rejected the notion that the decision about a Hall of Fame vote can be reduced to statistics on a balance sheet, numbers without personality, feelings, quotes or deeds. That is too easy and convenient a way to avoid the questions about the dishonesty of the era.

I considered adopting the position of my ESPN colleague T.J. Quinn and simply stop voting altogether, and perhaps that is the proper course. I know that, for the first time, I did not open my ballot with great anticipation and a sense of humility and honor when it arrived in the mail. Instead, the entire process has been joyless and sour. It feels more than a little disingenuous, the same way I felt watching Bonds round the bases that August night he hit home run No. 756.

So I chose to leave my ballot blank this year. I know that by returning it, my ballot will count in the total number of voters participating in the election, which makes it slightly more difficult for players such as Fred McGriff, Tim Raines and Jack Morris to reach the 75 percent level necessary for induction. But choosing to vote for any players, to make any sort of comparative evaluations in this environment, didn't seem particularly appropriate.

Next year might be different. A Hall of Fame without Bonds and Clemens -- or Pete Rose, for that matter -- isn't quite a Hall of Fame. But their absence is proof that at least today, everybody -- the voters, the fans, the players and the Hall itself -- has lost something far more important than the money the players took from the game.

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