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Hindsight and the Hall of Fame

The Hall of Fame ballot has arrived, and with it comes the great debate: how to deal with the game's dark side?

Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE

We all like to think that we're rational individuals, able to separate our personal feelings from our big decisions. Buying a car, choosing a job, voting for elected officials. But of course, that's rarely completely the case, and the way our emotions affect otherwise rational decision-making is fascinating to me. This is one of the reasons that I pay attention to baseball awards and Hall of Fame voting. The awards are fun, but the elements that drive the voting are what intrigue me. And this last week, we got a truly amazing glimpse at them.

Everyone's been over this piece by Pat Caputo with a fine tooth comb and a flamethrower already, there's not that much I can add to the conversation. The whacking of Craig Biggio with guilt by association, the assorted straw men, it's all been beaten to a pulp. But the end of the piece fascinated me. I've been thinking about it all weekend, actually. After saying that he'd never vote for Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds without hearing an apology from them, Caputo finishes by saying:

If there is an error, it should be on the side of caution, not under the guise of a blind eye, which was a major factor in enabling the "steroids era" initially. To me, that would be akin to making the same mistake twice, and, frankly, I still feel bad enough about the first one.

This is, and I really do mean this, probably the most honest thing I've seen written about a Hall of Fame vote. And even though I still disagree with it completely, I find the revelation refreshing.

We all knew this Hall of Fame season would be particularly rough. The ballot's suddenly packed with guys who should be easy Hall picks (Mike Piazza, Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines), a few borderline choices (Edgar Martinez, Curt Schilling, Kenny Lofton, Sammy Sosa), and that old reliable war-starter Jack Morris. And, of course, looming over everything, we have Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, a pair of players linked by two common threads: each is arguably the greatest to ever play his respective position, and each has been pretty definitively tied to steroid use.

Where does that leave a Hall of Fame voter? From where I sit, it's pretty straightforward. Bonds and Clemens are two of the game's immortals. The Hall of Fame is there to preserve the game's history, warts and all. To leave out those two players is simply absurd. To leave out all of their contemporaries on the mere chance that they might have used PEDs is doubly so. But then my seat's pretty far from the action.

I started thinking back, after reading the piece I quoted earlier, to the summer of 1998. Mark McGwire (another guy on this year's ballot) was in the home stretch of his record-breaking season. Tucked away on the bottom half of the local sports page were two interesting pieces. One was a set of measurements, which while not actually printed in breathless italics, carried the same inflection. "McGwire's Bunyanesque figure: 22-inch forearms, 28-inch biceps, etc., etc." The other was a very brief mention that a few reporters had seen bottles of andro in McGwire's locker, followed by a lengthy disclaimer of how it wasn't a banned, or really even suspicious, substance.

That was how most of that summer went. Reporters would practically swoon as they described McGwire's imposing physique, his moonshot homers. Every question, every suggestion that perhaps we were seeing a steroid-fueled mirage, was swiftly smashed or dismissed. McGwire was everything a writer could dream of in a home-run king; statuesque, friendly, soft-spoken. The phrase "true successor to Babe Ruth" was thrown around a lot, one last slap in the face to Roger Maris. A baseball god had appeared among mortals, and his myth grew by the day.

Then Barry Bonds did the same thing in 2001, and the tone had changed. The breathless description of bodily measurements was still there, but this time with skepticism rather than wonder. Every moonshot was described, but with disbelief rather than joy. Partly this was because we'd started to question where all these 60-homer seasons had come from. Partly it was Bonds himself, a man whose relationship with the press had never been strong. Bonds outdid McGwire, put 73 into the record books, and suddenly everyone was falling over themselves to find steroids everywhere.

Now imagine yourself as one of those reporters, one of the men or women who sang McGwire's praises to the heavens, or shouted down your colleagues when they asked about those bottles of andro. Or perhaps it wasn't McGwire, perhaps you'd seen a suspicious bottle or a discarded needle near Andy Pettitte's locker, or Alex Rodriguez's, or any of the dozens of lesser lights who apparently used. Or maybe you were one of the dogged ones, who asked players point-blank what they were putting in their protein shakes, and had those players lie to your face. Either way, it's easy to think that you've just spent a decade documenting a lie. What would you do, if given a Hall of Fame vote? The names of men who made you a liar sit in front of you, and you now get to decide how history sees them. Could you be dispassionate about it, given your place in the story?

That's why I won't rush to condemn anyone who leaves Bonds or Clemens off their ballot, although I'll disagree with them. I don't have any special respect for the Hall of Fame, I've always understood that it, like every other historical record, is as much a catalog of the biases of the authors as of objective facts and events. If trying to keep those two out of the Hall is the only way you can think of to make up for a decade of ignoring steroids, then that's fine.

That said, the blanket assumption of guilt, arguments like "Jeff Bagwell looked too muscular" or "Craig Biggio had teammates who used"? That's journalistic malpractice, as bad as ignoring steroids in the first place. Worst of all, it would be coming from the same place. In 1998, the easy story was "hey, look at those dingers, just ignore the needles." In 2012, it's "steroids were everywhere, let's accuse everyone." In both cases, the easy story wins out over the hard questions. That's the mistake everyone should be worried about making twice.