There are really three issues surrounding the Hall of Fame voting results that will be announced at 2 p.m. ET:
1. What to do with the steroids guys.
2. Whether you (or, I should say, the voters from the Baseball Writers Association of America) believe in a big Hall or a small Hall.
3. The debates over the individual players.
Issue No. 1 has taken center stage, of course; the second and third issues are much more interesting to discuss, since they get at the history of the game, the meaning of the Hall of Fame, and how we view great players in those contexts. I'd much rather discuss Jack Morris and Larry Walker and Edgar Martinez than Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
Anyway, here are some thoughts from some of my favorite baseball writers:
Drug use in baseball is part of the sport's history, just as it is in the NFL and the NBA and the NHL. Drug use is part of the history, just like segregation and the 1919 Black Sox and game-fixing. You cannot have a Hall of Fame without players from the steroid era any more than you can erase the accomplishments of Babe Ruth and Lefty Gomez and others because they didn't play any major league games against African-American players.
If there's specific and relevant information about the past drug use of players voted into the Hall of Fame, well, put it on the plaques.
Baseball's own investigation, ordered by commissioner Bud Selig, concluded that the steroid era was a massive institutional failure.
And yet we have been asked to celebrate it in the Hall of Fame.
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.
Unfortunately, I live in a world where the names of unelected steroid era candidates keep piling up on top of one another, like wrecks in a junk yard, clogging a ballot that has only 10 slots. So there wasn't even room, sadly, to vote for men I'd voted for in the past, let alone men who have long dangled right on my cut line.
And that created the worst ballot nightmare of all: For two decades, I've always studied the names on my ballot and looked for reasons I should vote for a player. Suddenly, this year, I was studying the names of great, deserving players and trying to figure out which of them not to vote for because I only could vote for 10.
I understand how some voters feel that to vote for certain players sends the wrong values message to their children, and while I disagree on the concept of the "eye test," I do so respectfully. My highly respected friend and colleague Pedro Gomez and I argued over Jeff Bagwell last month. Despite my citing his high school and college power and the fact that he couldn't lift a weight anyway during his last five years because of a congenital arthritic condition and that his closest teammate and friend absolutely insisted he was clean, Gomez felt he could not vote for Bagwell.
Fine. We have never fully wrapped our arms around how we deal with steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. We have a very good idea that players hit balls farther, that their eyesight after 35 was sharper and that pitchers threw harder and could recover more easily. But we also cannot quantify any results. We have never defined "cheating." We who vote are not judges, jurors or keepers of the gate, but we vote because baseball's Hall of Fame is so important to the sport.
When I vote for a player I am upholding him for the highest individual honor possible. My vote is an endorsement of a career, not part of it, and how it was achieved. Voting for a known steroid user is endorsing steroid use. Having spent too much of the past two decades or so covering baseball on the subject of steroids -- what they do, how the game was subverted by them, and how those who stayed away from them were disadvantaged -- I cannot endorse it.
The genesis of that article was that during the 2001 season many clean players were complaining to me that steroids had become so prevalent in the game that they felt clearly disadvantaged. That's when I knew the game reached a tipping point: when a few rogue early adopters had grown into hundreds of cheaters. The hundreds who played the game clean were harmed. Many lost jobs, money and opportunity by choosing to play the game clean. I think of them every time I get a Hall of Fame ballot.
But with this history, I think, comes this illusion that time winds backward, that yesterday will always be better than tomorrow, and that no player will ever be quite as exceptional as the ones who crackle on black and white film and in old books. This sort of nostalgia is as much a part of the Baseball Hall of Fame as the city of Cooperstown. It has always been a huge part of the BBWAA vote.
You might already know this: From 1958 to 1964, the Baseball Writers of America cast four Hall of Fame ballots -- in 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964. They used to vote every two years. Do you know how many future Hall of Famers were on those four ballots? Fifty. Yes: Fifty.
Do you know how many of those 50 got 75% of the writers' votes in those four elections?
That's right. Two. None in 1958. None in 1960. Two in 1962. None in 1964.
The two players who got 75%, in case you are wondering, were Bob Feller and Jackie Robinson. Feller breezed in, as you would hope and expect. Jackie Robinson made it by just five votes. That would be Jackie Robinson.
This sort of thing will happen again this year. Craig Biggio with 3,000 hits, and Jeff Bagwell with a higher WAR than any first baseman not named Gehrig, Foxx or Pujols, and Curt Schilling with the best strikeout-to-walk ratio for any pitcher under modern rules, and Mike Piazza who hit better than any catcher before or since, and Tim Raines, who was probably the best pure base stealer in the game's history ... none of them will make it. But Deacon White, Jacob Ruppert and Hank O'Day -- a player, an owner and an umpire who have been dead for 75-plus years -- are going into the Hall of Fame this year through the veteran's committee's velvet ropes.
It's funny when you think of it. Right now, we have the Veterans Committee saying that the Mike LaValliere of the Reconstruction is a Hall of Famer, while the BBWAA is saying that Jeff Bagwell isn't good enough. If you do no timelining at all, it's a little silly; once you start doing any, it's a farce. Deacon White played half his career before pitchers could try and miss bats, and whatever skill he displayed at that game, he's being inducted for being good more at proto-baseball than anything anyone alive has ever seen. The Veterans Committee, a necessary tool at one time, has outlived its usefulness and needs to be eliminated in its current form.
There was a problem, though. Take 1927, just as an example. Per the Play Index, in an eight-team league, there were 52 Hall of Famers playing that year, in a 16-team league. That's more than three per team. (Heck, go back to 1895: there were 22 Hall of Famers in a 12-team league (23, but Clark Griffith isn't really in as a player), just 20 years into the history of organized baseball.) In 1965, a time I think we'd all agree featured a tremendous density of stars as African-American players continued to make inroads and change the game, there were 38 Hall of Famers active in a 20-team league -- about two per team. So despite the addition of a class of stars heretofore separate, two generations of improvement in physical development, playing skill and the scouting and development of baseball talent -- including the first wave of Latin stars -- there were fewer Hall of Famers playing baseball, in an absolute sense and per team, than there had been in 1927. Take it out to 1985 -- a year before Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro made their debuts -- and you have 30 Hall of Famers on 26 teams.
The next thing that must change is the voting process for the Hall of Fame. There are too many unqualified voters — too many voters, period — and too many segments of the baseball world with no say in the process. There has to be a better way to decide the ultimate honor.
I don't really blame the Baseball Writers Association of America. Of course they're going to behave in a self-serving fashion. Of course they're going to protect their turf, even at the expense of their, and the Hall of Fame's, credibility. Of course they're going to resist change, and pretend, as an organization, that the process is essentially perfect, and in fact could be improved only by a) fewer grenades thrown by impudent non-members/non-voters like me, and b) the dissolution of the Veterans Committee, which after all was invented largely to redress any (supposed) errors made by the BBWAA.
But that consternation -- the intense debate over what to do with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and others -- is not a bad thing for the Hall. If anything, it underscores the special place that Cooperstown holds in every fan’s heart.
I’m not saying the BBWAA voters are perfect — we have made mistakes, and we undoubtedly will make more. But for the most part, we’ve gotten it right over the years, and I’m confident we’ll eventually get to the right place on the PED users — whatever that place may be.