Friday, January 6, 2017

Baseball Hall of Fame voting experiencing climate change

There is a climate change controversy going on in this country right now and it has nothing to do with extreme weather, atmospheric changes, environmental impact or whatever scientists say and Donald Trump tweets.
It has to do with the Baseball Hall of Fame and its voters and how more of them are warming each year to dismiss the taint of Performance Enhancing Drugs in the so-called Steroid Era, and the elite players who purportedly used them. There is a noticeable, albeit slight, shift in the voting electorate to forgive Hall of Fame candidates and forget circumstantial, visual, and hard evidence that their feats were boosted by PEDs. Maybe this is a craze that will come and go – like Pokemon Go – but more voters are gradually and grudgingly willing to give them a pass and provide them with a golden ticket to baseball’s Wonka Bar in Cooperstown.
I am not comfortable being one of those voters. I am having a difficult time accepting the movement that is afoot. I may be stubborn, though I admit I am tempted. I may be wrong, and I may change my mind. Not yet.
This is why. Before I became an Honorary Member of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), I was an active one.  From 1981 to 1986, I regularly covered the Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox and Milwaukee Brewers before becoming a beat writer and sports columnist covering the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics. For more than 25 years I covered ball and not a year went by when I did not hear a manager or a player at least once utter these words: “You have to respect the game.”
Respect the game. Expletives deleted.
That’s what causes me to balk when considering whether Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and others who are accused/suspected of obtaining (illegally!) and using (secretly!) PEDs should be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Yes, it’s just a museum, but it is the most hallowed and sacred resting spot in the game. Their incredible and amazing achievements already are recorded in the Hall, but the controversy is about whether they deserve a bronze plaque and baseball immortality.
I’m not naïve to think that there are people in the Hall of Fame already who cheated or bent the rules. I’m in no space to ride high on the horse of morality into the church of baseball. I’m just trying to pick the very best from a very select group of outstanding players that I actually have seen play and not simply judge them from a WAR/JAWS/WHIP/OPS spread sheet. I study and research their accomplishments at their position, their regular-season, mid-season and post-season awards and compare them to players in their era, not somebody else’s.
Finally I ask myself, “Did they respect the game?” This, of course, falls in line with the so-called “character” clause in HOF fame voting election criteria. Yielding to pressure – mostly from HOF critics who do not have a HOF vote -- the Hall of Fame Committee has made a series of changes recently to phase out “old timers” like myself, implementing new rules such as requiring more attendance at MLB games and limiting voting terms to 10 years for BBWAA Honorary members (I have two more years). This is building a wall, not a bridge, between the fraternity of sportswriters.
Yet, in this effort to create a younger voting base that theoretically would be more receptive to alleged users who are listed on the HOF ballot, the Hall of Fame Committee has yet to strike down the so-called “character” clause and eliminate it and the word “integrity” and “sportsmanship” from voting guidelines. As long as that clause is there, I will recognize it.
The new HOF voting rules already have indicated a shift in the electorate in favor of Bonds, Clemens et al. Now comes news that Bud Selig, baseball’s commissioner who oversaw the Steroid Era, is going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. The thinking is if the Commissioner of Baseball, who “enabled” the Steroid Era, is elected into the Hall of Fame then the best of the best alleged steroid users should be elected, too.
Forgive and forget. Get over it.
Sorry. Selig may take credit for “solving the problem” by instituting rule changes to vastly improve PED testing and weed out users, but lest we forget that it took a friggin’ Congressional hearing to force Bud and baseball to act and address the Steroid Era and the public humiliation, disgust and shame it brought to the game.  
Selig was voted into the Hall of Fame by a new veterans committee – “Today’s Game Era 1988 and On” – that consisted mostly of current Hall of Famers. Of note is that same committee failed to elect Mark McGwire, another Popeye poster boy for the Steroid Era. It’s telling to me that people already in the Hall of Fame don’t deem McGwire worthy of joining them, though he hit 583 career home runs, 11th on the all-time list
McGwire’s name no longer appears on the HOF ballot because HOF voters, BBWAA members past and present, didn’t give him enough votes to remain on the ballot for 10 years. Yet now some of those voters are either continuing to vote for or flipping to vote for Bonds and Clemens, who obviously benefitted from the Steroid Era. Maybe McGwire ought to ask for a recount or be readmitted to the HOF ballot. At least he was honest and came clean.
Maybe the message is you are better off as a HOF candidate to not admit you did something wrong. Or misremember. Manny Ramirez, on the HOF ballot for the first time, got caught twice under the new drug testing policy, yet Bonds and Clemens escaped that web, though they remain under that dark cloud of suspicion. I understand that PED use was a means of staying healthy and competitive – perhaps a necessity in that era -- but it was driven by greed and ego and not by respect for the game.
So it’s time again for the Big Dread  -- filling out my Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. Let’s hope the Russians don’t hack into this.  They didn’t rig the Cubs from winning the World Series.
The easy thing to do is to vote for the maximum 10 players who statistically and historically – throwing out well chronicled PED allegations and dismissing words such as character, integrity, and sportsmanship – who qualify for Hall of Fame induction. That’s easier: Bonds, Clemens, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, Tim Raines, Jeff Bagwell, Trevor Hoffman, Jeff Kent, Edgar Martinez, and Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez.
Yet, to get inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, one needs 75 percent of the vote, which is really the only thing truly fair in this process. To get three out of four sportswriters, much less anybody these days, to agree on the same thing is remarkable in itself.
Now comes the hard part: Evaluation, separation, trust, and respect. How will these players be best remembered by fans if their plaques are hung in the Hall of Fame?  Case in point: Will Ryan Lochte be best remembered for winning gold medals and setting swimming records or lieing?
I voted again for Raines, whom I first saw play as a second baseman for the Denver Zephyrs in Mile High Stadium. I also voted again for Bagwell, Hoffman, and Kent, one of the greatest offensive second baseman ever. I voted for the first time for Edgar Martinez because if we are going to reward specialty pitchers with HOF induction now it’s time to reward specialty hitters. And I sheepishly voted for Pudge Rodriguez  -- a  14-time All Star and 13-time Gold Glove winner whom Joe Torre called the greatest catcher he ever saw  -- because, though Pudge’s name appeared in Jose Canseco’s book it did not appear in the more credible Mitchell Report. Plus I have great admiration for catchers and the physical demands and team responsibilities that come with that territory.
Of course I assume that three of out of every four people might disagree with that. Sometimes voting comes down to a gut feeling.
For what it is worth, I did not vote for Donald Trump for the same reason.


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