Friday, December 28, 2012

My 2013 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot has asterisk

This past summer, with end of the world looming, I took my two teenage sons to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. for the first and, I presumed, possibly last time.

We walked through the regal Hall of Fame wing one plaque at a time, me, as an honorary member of the Baseball Writers Association of America, telling them stories of how these great players arrived in this hallowed spot. From Cap Anson to Carl Yastrzemski.

It is not easy to get to Cooperstown, quite literally and figuratively. There is no direct path or highway. There are no short cuts. It can be as complicated as the country roads that lead there.
 As a complicated as voting for the Hall of Fame Class of 2013.

My Hall of Fame ballot comes each year with the same directions: Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

That’s it. There is no easy step-by-step instruction manual on how to pick Hall of Famers.

Obviously baseball is a numbers game and induction into its Hall of Fame is driven by statistics. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and even Sammy Sosa (who once was caught using a corked bat) have Hall of Fame worthy numbers and trophies to support that. There is no question about that.
The dispute lies with how they achieved them.

Our federal government, relying on two star witnesses (one a silent ally, the other a creepy rat) spent many months and millions of dollars and couldn’t prove much of anything.  If these players used steroids or some other performance-enhancing drugs, they were not banned nor detected under baseball rules that existed when they played unless they were “anonymous.” So therefore where is the irrefutable evidence to suggest that they should not be admitted to the Hall of Fame?

Yet three out of every four baseball fans you talk to wouldn’t vote for them to be in the Hall of Fame if they had a vote.

I have a vote. I have a say. I have a guess. 

My best guess is they cheated. But I don’t like guessing.

We could argue around the horn about this. We could argue that these players were merely caught up in a culture that existed in baseball and everyone – owners, players, management, agents, the Players Association and the media – looked the other way as if it was an accepted practice to compete in that era. It was part of the game. We could argue that so many players – pitchers and hitters – were suspected of steroid/PED use that, statistically, it’s all a wash anyhow because no one gained a clear advantage. Or we could argue that Bonds and Clemens had Hall of Fame numbers before all this mess and confusion.

I don’t know when the Steroid/PED Era began or if it will ever end and I don’t know how much or how little it affected the numbers that help guide voters to determining who gets in or stays out of the Hall of Fame. It is hard enough for me figuring out why I vote for Jeff Bagwell but not for Jack Morris and Tim Raines.

By the way, Bagwell’s name did not appear in the Mitchell Report, which is the most comprehensive investigation into PED use.  In his career, he hit 449 home runs with 1,529 RBI, 1,517 runs scored and an OPS of .948. He hit the same number of home runs at age 26 as he did at 35 and he is the only first baseman in baseball history to record a 30-30 season, and he did it twice.

He, Mike Piazza (a horrible catcher but with Hall of Fame numbers for any position and no connection to Mitchell Report despite rumors) and Craig Biggio (only player in baseball history with at least 3,000 hits, 600 doubles, 400 stolen bases  and 250 home runs) are the only players I am voting for on this ballot and this is why:  I never have done this before in my 15 years voting for the Hall of Fame and I hate to do it but I feel obligated to baseball fans everywhere – and my sons -- to use my vote to make some sort of statement to players on this ballot roundly suspected and criticized for using some sort of performance-enhancing drug to compete in a game I so much love and respect.

In short I would say to them: You brought this upon yourself and you shamed the game so you don’t deserve to be given the honor and privilege of being a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee. Those votes are special, one-of-a-kind, slam-dunk, no-brainer votes and, though your statistics and awards leave no doubt that you belong in the Hall of Fame, there is too much angst about how you achieved them and that troubles me and the people who revere baseball.  Those strong accusations and your arrogance are too great to ignore.
I might change my mind someday. I have before. Time has a way of revealing the truth and shedding light on right and wrong and the reasons between the two.

But ultimately I want to cast my vote with some conviction, not suspicion. This is not easy. Getting to Cooperstown is a coronation, a celebration of a job well done. Bonds is the greatest player I’ve ever seen and Clemens is the best pitcher I’ve watched in my generation.  And perhaps they belong in the Hall of Fame.

Not this year.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The "Waltons" family of basketball

SAN FRANCISC0 –  Memorial Gymnasium on the hilltop campus of the University of San Francisco has been witness to some of the greatest teams and players in basketball  history.

Bill Russell. K.C. Jones. Bill Cartwright. You know them. You know their achievements.

On Tuesday night, Dec. 4, Memorial Gym was host to one of the greatest families in the history of hoops. They are the Walton Family of Basketball and we’re not talking about Bill and Luke et al. You’d considered yourself lucky to know them.

The Lavins come from core values of hard work, team work and generosity, the same depicted in the TV Walton family from the hit CBS show in the 70s.  They came to Memorial Gym to line up behind the St. John’s University bench, behind the youngest Lavin, Steve, now the 48-year-old head coach of the incredibly young Red Storm, on a night that his 82-year-old father, Albert “Cappy” Lavin, was honored at USF.

“I’m pleased that he was honored when all his children were here. It’s been 25 or 30 years since all six children have been in one place at the same time,” Steve said afterward. “I’ve been away at Purdue and UCLA and ESPN. The last time we were all together might have been at a Thanksgiving or Christmas.”

Cap is the patriarch of a family he built to be basketball-sized and Steve, the last of the bunch, was his sixth man off the bench so to speak, a role he played through back-to-back state championship teams at Sir Francis Drake High School.  Cap and Mary had six kids and basketball has connected their 60-year marriage like baskets at both ends of the floor. Cap funded their honeymoon by winning a free throw shooting contest in San Francisco where he was a dribbling legend, a three-time all-city player alongside the likes of his boyfriend buddy, the late George Moscone, former Mayor of San Francisco. The day Moscone was elected in 1975, they passed time by playing pick-up basketball.

Cap was the captain of the first greatest team in USF history, the 1949 National Invitational Tournament championship team, which in that era trumped the NCAA champion in significance. He was so good playing first for Pete Newell and then Phil Woolpert  -- a pair of Naismith Hall of Fame coaches -- that, in 1997, Cap was inducted into the USF Hall of Fame.

That season Steve was in his first full season as a head coach of any kind and it was as a head coach of the most fabled college basketball program of all time – UCLA.  The Bruins came from one win from getting to the Final Four. Imagine that. If his coaching career was baptism by fire, Steve was on planet Mercury.

If was during that time that Cap guided Steve through terrific and tumultuous times, coaching against the legacy of John Wooden. He balanced a sense of purpose with a sense of humor. Yet Cap didn’t advise and comfort his son with the wisdom he learned as a basketball player but with the knowledge he gained as an English teacher, where Cap really made his mark and earned his reputation. He has surrounded himself and his life and his home figuratively and quite literally with literature.

That’s a good thing. There has been more Shakespeare in Steve’s coaching career than unbridled success. Ask them their greatest achievement to date it might be the books they have read or the prostate cancer they have both beaten.

Now Steve has come full circle. His bench coach and consultant at St. John’s is 76-year-old Gene Keady, who gave Steve his first big break in coaching as a graduate assistant at Purdue. Steve may still be young by coaching standards, but he remains forever possessor of an old soul.

So after the halftime ceremony where Mary sat next to Mary II – Steve’s wife/actress Mary Ann Jarou -- Cap, assisted by two of his daughter Rachel’s daughters, was led onto the court to receive a standing ovation, it was only fitting that when Steve returned from his halftime pep talk that, as he hugged his brother John, he passed his dad on a baseline, a metaphor for the foundation of the family and their friendship.

Cap didn’t have a basketball in his hands. He had a book. He was smiling.

“There’s been so much focus on his health that today it probably hit him,” Steve said. “There are so many intersecting lines that he could appreciate in terms of family and basketball.”

 Some place between a Thanksgiving and a Christmas that Cap will never forget.