December 31, 2010
Bagging on Bagwell
I doubt you've missed it, but the Hall of Fame announcement is coming next week. I should stress that I don't vote on the Hall of Fame because as of yet I cannot, and won't be eligible to for another eight years, if ever. As a result, I tend not to get as wrapped up in the annual frustrations with the process as some, having already long since despaired over the shabby treatment of the late Ron Santo for not getting voted in, not to mention the flabby gymnastics presented by way of explanation from that shrinking segment of voters determined to ignore Bert Blyleven. But I get asked about it often enough casually by people assuming that I must already be in the electorate; optimist that I am, I stick with the hope that, come the day, Tim Raines will never need my vote, and that justice will be done to the players who deserve election in the meantime, however fractiously, and with however many unhappy exceptions.
Yet, after the recent elections of Andre Dawson and Jim Rice, we're obviously dealing with an electorate given to its own foibles and excuses and special pleading, perhaps no different than you or I are, but they're the ones tasked with the vote, and we ain't. I can complain about Lou Whitaker's lot, you might choose Bobby Grich's equally hopeless cause, and we can complain and wring our hands, get another round, and we both go home unhappy. It's not an especially rewarding exercise, but I figure that, if and when the time comes that I can help set some things aright, I will.
The need for that sense of responsibility, to the process and to the players, to the institution and the industry, seems in particularly short supply this time around. Every year brings another ream of recriminations, because the process involves risking another exercise in hubris that leaves great, Hall-worthy careers unrecognized. What has been especially noxious this time around is the treatment of Jeff Bagwell from some quarters as he arrives on the ballot. What he has been subjected to is little better than character assassination, where even the lack of any actual evidence, any scintilla of contemporary complaint from the writers themselves, or the especially self-serving “he didn't rat on teammates to me” tack is being held against him.* This approach will be on the landscape for years to come, so you may as well gear up for the witch hunts to come, against Mike Piazza or Jim Thome and so many others, no doubt using criteria every bit as tenuous or fantastic.
The problem of sportswriters investing themselves with too much significance in the process and belated paragons of probity is just another manifestation of the Chinese water torture that trails every “new” revelation about who tested positive seven or eight years ago, before a comprehensive testing regime was part of MLB's operations and practice. After missing history instead of recording it, only to see the industry itself tardily address the problem of PED use, it's as if the sportswriting community can't spend enough time wailing about what happened then to make up for lost time. Having so thoroughly, absolutely, and completely failed to produce history's first draft, it seems as if any number of writers are investing in a narcissistic thrill-kill, avenging themselves on the game's history by assuming a moral responsibility they already shirked. Steroids stopped being a relevant or timely issue years ago, having long since been reduced to self-absorbed media navel-gazing: What didn't we know, and how long didn't we know it, and now I'm belatedly mad as hell now that I no longer need to dig a quote out of this guy.
It isn't even an obsession shared by baseball itself, no more than it is in other sports.** There will be no self-destructive acts of vengeance from Bud Selig and his picked crew of franchise operators made at the expense of Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa or Barry Bonds for sins real or imagined. As investors in the game's financial blossoming during and since the summer of '98, suffice to say that, for them, there is no financial incentive to treat the matter as anything more than a topic of negotiation with the union, having previously left it in the realm of “not my problem.” The game we got in the meantime is a matter of historical record, and PEDs were part of the competitive ecology of the game. In no small part because of the way the industry handled the matter and the media responded to it, we will never know how much of an impact it had, leaving us with this mess.
So revenge has been left to the noisy cheerleaders of '98: the Fourth Estate, and a vengeful lot they can be. In the spring of 2009 I participated in a public discussion and debate of steroids and baseball at Northwestern. A senior writer from the BBWAA and I were two members of the panel, charged with speaking out in condemnation of the use of PEDs in the game. An easy enough tack, of course, and one I'll admit to having to finesse, given my own convictions on the subject. However, at one point, my teammate made what I still consider the cringe-worthy comment, that a player needs to keep a writer happy, and if he doesn't, the writer can always avenge himself come time to vote for the Hall of Fame.
Give me what I want, or I get even. Really? That's the process? In my naieveté, I see voting by the BBWAA like possession of the card itself as a privilege and a duty to be taken seriously, not reduced to a patronage scam or an exercise in petty revenge. What is at stake is the game's historic legacy, and what is owed by the electors charged with the responsibility to vote is to put down the names of the men who earned it on the basis of what they achieved on the field, the only standard that is observable, knowable, tangible, and debatable. You are not the point of the exercise. They are.
Where steroids are concerned, I suppose there's always the “assault on the record book” complaint, which has always struck me as quixotic at best. What hallows the record book are the people referring to it, not the data within, and to do so is to ignore the fact that the record book is a shabby compromise already, a legacy generated from any number of shameful periods, acts, or exclusions, starting with the lily-white mini-leagues from before the wars, to the increasingly frightening amount of game-rigging that might have been going on during the Deadball Era, the potemkinization of the A's franchise to help generate the Yankees dynasty of the '50s, on into the age of greenies or the competitive balance-perverting atrocity of collusion. Look long enough, and there's plenty of ugly to go around. For myself, I'm a bit fond of the actual baseball part of baseball, while necessarily knowing more than enough about how the sausage was made. It is a compromise we all have to make, to one extent or another.
Which means taking on the unavoidable. Steroids were a part of the game for roughly 20 years, despite being illegal, albeit not something being policed in the game. I'll make no apologies, not that I have any to make—their use is a sad fact, and forever will be, and getting them out of the game is an obvious good. On the other hand, amphetamines were part of the game for 50 years or more, and were even more obviously tolerated as part of the game, and were just as obviously studiously ignored by writers who had a story staring them in the face every single day for five or six decades, and reported not a bit of it. Instead, you'll find many of those same men pretending that the game was “clean” in the '50s or '60s, which is nothing more than generational conceit. Like any dose of salmonella, the Boomers will inevitably pass, but not before they have allowed their run of make-believe to run its full course, up to and including their choices for enshrinement.
In the meantime, the 'character clause' in voting instructions is always there for some voters to stumble over, and invest with personal significance: "Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played."
Now, perhaps obviously, the player's record and playing ability are straightforward matters of fact, and to take a reductionist, data-driven point of view, so are the contributions. Which leaves us with the other three things. People will inevitably invest meaning into their own opinions about a man's integrity, sportsmanship, or character, but in the end, they are just opinions. The presence of these six qualities, strung together with an 'and,' does not mean all six are required to be taken equally seriously, or ever have been. If they were, any number of heroes ensconced in the Hall for decades would not have been voted in. The Hall, like the electorate and like the game, is a human institution, so it is inevitably stuck with a certain number of failures and failings, as well as virtues.
Unfortunately, the character and integrity argument has been used and abused to suit some voters' individual agendas, and perhaps even their individual moralities. Some players lose “character” votes for perceived transgressions, but only for some things (like pretending to know Bagwell used steroids), but not others that are a matter of noisome fact, like paternity suits, squalid personal lives, or run-ins with John Law. Some of Dave Parker's boosters have argued he's not in the Hall of Fame where Rice and Dawson are because of the accusations attached to his presence in the cocaine scandals in the early '80s; with a voting process this capricious, they may have a point. Pete Rose might have invited his own set of major concerns for the squeamish, had he not already brought down the penalty for gambling upon his head. Many of the writers who helped invent Steve Garvey's “Mr. Clean” image are still working, having understandably decided not to die of embarrassment.
None of this has a lot to do with baseball, and it doesn't make Parker or Garvey or Bagwell or Dawson or Rice or even Rose better or worse ballplayers, any more than whether or not a player is nice to a particular reporter should have anything to do with a vote for the Hall of Fame. The game is played by human beings, which leaves plenty of room for sin and virtue, admirable qualities and those less so. I'm not inclined to throw any first stones, but I am inclined to chuck the speculation and the character judgments into one big dumpster, because that's about all they're good for.
Playing make-believe over whether or not one player did or did not do something is a travesty, especially when we know very certainly that steroids happened. We are unavoidably stuck with their legacy as a matter of record, as well as the record book. However, we do not know how much of an impact they had on any individual player, or on all players. We don't know if more pitchers used them, or hitters, or who got the most benefit, and what was the nature of that benefit; speaking from experience, body-altering drugs affect different people differently.
So, what to do? When the time comes I know that, if I wind up with the privilege, I'll be voting for a few flawed heroes from a flawed period. To me, that absence of perfection just makes the recent past that much more like the rest of the game's greater history, or any like any period from human history. This need to punish is not unlike the repeated calls to forgive Joe Jackson or Pete Rose, for they have less to do with the objects of their hate or affection than with how doing so makes the authors feel—avenged or merciful—when such is not really the responsibility of the voter. We can no more overlook an entire generation of ballplayers than, 60 years earlier, we could have chucked the responsibility to vote for players from before integration, because the game was not the way we would have wished it, then, or recently. Whatever its flaws, the game remains great; however flawed its heroes may or may not be, the responsibility is to reward its greatest.
*: It's worth noting that the players who did usually stayed off the record, getting the benefit of being a “good guy” to those on the beat at no cost or risk to themselves, and with even less responsibility.
**: You mean they're not going to kick all those Steelers from the '70s out of the Hall of Fame? How about Jerry Rice, for not ratting on his juiced (and caught juicing) teammates on the Super Bowl-losing Raiders of 2002? Wait, nobody cares about all that?