It struck me over the past couple of years that I was down to one reason I should continue voting for baseball's Hall of Fame: It's cool.
I loved receiving the stuffed brown envelope every December. I loved having my kids check off players they liked (and I planned to vote for anyway, of course). And I enjoyed telling people that, yes, I vote for the Hall of Fame.
But two years ago, I decided to stop voting. I haven't returned the past two ballots. "It's cool" just wasn't enough to overcome the myriad arguments that were persuading me I should give up that sacred right. I just couldn't do it anymore.
This year, with the release of a ballot filled with players who are either confirmed or suspected dopers, a number of my fellow Baseball Writers of Association of America members find themselves in the awkward position of judging a group of men who cannot be judged by the old standards.
I have come to the conclusion that it isn't my mess to solve, and I wouldn't be qualified to solve it even if it were.
Even before the issue of performance-enhancing drugs overwhelmed the annual conversation, I questioned my capacity to evaluate a player's fitness for immortality. My only qualification, like all voters, was 10 years' service as a BBWAA member. But nothing in my years as a beat writer covering the Chicago White Sox and New York Mets, and nothing in my years covering doping as an investigative reporter since has prepared me to evaluate the effect PED use should have on a player's legacy.
"Ban them all" makes no sense to me, unless you're going to retroactively apply that standard to generations of amphetamine users who had the benefit of being able to dope before the public mood shifted. What's the threshold? One positive test for Ritalin in the last season of a 20-year career? Years of heavy-duty steroid use that would put pro wrestlers to shame? And what exactly would we be banning them for? Artificially enhancing their numbers? Showing poor character?
If you are going to eliminate dopers from Hall of Fame consideration by any of those standards, do you limit it to players who have been caught? And if a player did use, how do you determine the effect the drugs had on his numbers? How many extra home runs or strikeouts came from a needle or a pill?
Barry Bonds admitted he used "the cream" and "the clear," which were identified as steroids by prosecutors, but his use isn't believed to have begun until after he won three MVP awards and was robbed of a fourth (in 1991, when the Braves' Terry Pendleton took the award). How about Alex Rodriguez, who is years away from consideration? He admitted using for a period of time, but there is no way to be certain whether he used before or after, or whether the drugs played a role in either his MVP numbers then or his mounting injuries now.
Considerable evidence was presented that Roger Clemens used, although a jury didn't think it was strong enough to convict him of perjury before Congress. Clemens wasn't tried for using; he was tried for lying about it. So BBWAA members are left to their own devices.
And what about Mike Piazza? He never failed a test (which means nothing) and his name was never linked to federal investigations the way other players' were. But numerous writers have long suspected that drugs aided his career.
An issue as serious as this deserves answers to those questions. If the BBWAA continues to serve as the Hall's electoral body, the organization must develop guidelines with the Hall of Fame about how to handle it. Noting that character is a criterion simply isn't enough, especially for any club that includes Ty Cobb as a member.
I do see a distinction between doping and other character issues. We seem to have decided we will tolerate thugs, racists, domestic abusers and thieves in the Hall of Fame; there is a consensus that off-the-field ugliness doesn't change what a player accomplished on the field. But PEDs did change what we saw on the field. A player who used banned drugs did not simply disgrace himself, he altered himself.
The argument hits a serious roadblock, however, when it is applied retroactively. Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and countless others have admitted they used amphetamines during their careers. If they used today and were caught, they would be suspended under baseball's rules. I don't know anyone who wants to think about pulling those beloved players out of the Hall, even though one of the few studies ever done on PED use showed that amphetamines clearly enhance athletic performance.
When Mark McGwire appeared on the ballot, I did not vote for him. Even before he admitted using, I was part of a team at the New York Daily News that reported his extensive use in the late 1980s and '90s, down to the drugs one dealer had given him. That made it easy for me: I knew what he had used. And whether his home run totals were inflated or not, he had been a one-dimensional player for most of his career. That was my standard.
The problem is that my vote isn't one among 120 million; it's one among about 575. If MLB and the Hall of Fame won't provide guidelines about performance-enhancing drugs, it makes no sense to me to let 575 writers apply 575 different standards. I can speak for no one but myself, so myself says adieu.
It isn't just the doping issue that led me to this decision, although that's what pushed me over the top. I'm giving up my vote for a number of more pedestrian reasons too.
To start with, I haven't covered games on a regular basis since 2002. Too many eligible voters like me have been away from the game for too long, and I think we undermine the integrity of the process. When I had spent seven seasons covering the White Sox and then the Mets as a full-time beat, followed by three seasons as an investigative reporter who spent a lot of time at the ballpark, I believe I was as qualified as anyone. But that was a long time ago. These days, my sons see more games in a year than I do.
As a journalist, I was also never completely comfortable with the idea of being a participant in a process I'm supposed to cover. I enjoyed it immensely, just as I enjoyed voting for MVP, Cy Young and everything else when I was a beat writer. I spent two seasons as chairman of the New York chapter of the BBWAA, which meant I was the master of ceremonies for the annual awards dinner. That made it possible for my parents, both raised as Brooklyn Dodgers fans, to see and hear Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson thank me by name before a crowd of 1,500 people. The role comes with a sense of power and belonging that is intoxicating. And from a simple point of ego, having a Hall of Fame vote is a great tiebreaker in arguments around a Little League field or a bar.
But too often, I've seen writers use their votes as a way to punish or reward players, and I don't think journalists should be in that position. I don't see voting for the Hall of Fame as the equivalent of a political reporter voting for a candidate; it's more like a political reporter serving in the Electoral College. I liked having that power, but I just can't justify it.
Most of the writers I know take their votes seriously and cast their ballots with neither fear nor favor. The fact is, as a group, the writers have proved capable gatekeepers to the Hall. You can quibble with some picks (Don Sutton in, Jack Morris out?), and you may wonder how no player has ever been inducted unanimously -- not Babe Ruth, not Willie Mays, not Jackie Robinson. But our record holds up pretty well compared to other arbiters of the game. It wasn't the writers who awarded Rafael Palmeiro a Gold Glove after he played only 28 games at first base in 1999; it was MLB's managers and coaches. The HOF veterans' committee, not the writers, let Marvin Miller go to his grave without having been inducted, and that's disgraceful.
I've heard other writers say they couldn't wait for certain players to make the ballot so they could leave their names unchecked. Eddie Murray's name came up that way more than once. I voted for Albert Belle because I thought he was one of the most dominant players of his era. He didn't get enough votes to stay on the ballot, in large part because of the way he treated reporters. He cursed me out a handful of times, but he also asked me how my grandmother was years after she had a stroke. I tried hard not to let either element influence the way I evaluated his career; and to me, he belonged. Robin Ventura might have been my favorite player to cover, both with the White Sox and the Mets, but that wasn't reason enough to vote for him.
But at the end of the day, the game, the Hall and journalism would be better served if voting was limited to a select group of veterans, historians and even journalists -- if they're the right journalists. Columnists and national writers who have devoted their careers to the game, not dabblers. That wouldn't solve the problem of how to evaluate players in the age of modern chemistry, but at least the right group would be making the call.
I'll still have my opinions about who should be in and who should be out, and I'll share them with anyone who makes the mistake of asking me. But those opinions will be coming from where they belong: the outside.