What is the purpose of the Baseball Hall of Fame (or any Hall of Fame, for that matter)?
Is the Hall of Fame meant to enshrine the best players to ever play the sport of baseball? Or is it really more of a museum, constructed to tell the history of the game?
Ideally, Cooperstown would serve both purposes. But if steroid users—admitted and perceived—aren't a part of the Hall of Fame, is the institution really serving its purpose as a time capsule, a document of baseball through the decades and centuries?
In a recent column, ESPN's Buster Olney charged that baseball writers are on the verge of preventing the Hall of Fame from properly sharing the history of the game by withholding votes for alleged PED users like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza and other players who made a significant impact during their careers.
First of all, kudos to Olney for taking a bold stand on this issue. Some might think it's not particularly courageous, given that Olney has one of baseball's tallest soapboxes, working for ESPN.
But one can imagine that he's had this argument with many of his colleagues, several of whom surely disagree with him based on the Hall of Fame voting we've seen. The bitterness of the debate bubbles to the surface in this paragraph of Olney's column:
"So the baseball writers ought to get out of the way rather than acting like overzealous crossing guards empowered by their ballots," Olney writes. "The writers' work should always reflect history, not determine legacies; that's the work of the players, the good and the bad."
But are baseball writers simply meant to be documentarians of the sport, or are they also supposed to be critics? Are the two mutually exclusive? Can a writer actually tell the story of baseball without including some scrutiny as to how certain accomplishments may have been achieved?
It seems Olney is saying that one can't really be a storyteller without depicting what happened on the field, along with explaining why those events did or didn't take place.
It's the job of the baseball writers—and, in turn, the Hall of Fame—to record achievements like Bonds hitting 762 home runs while also explaining that he may have done so with help from performance-enhancing substances. In addition, the feat took place during an era in which steroid use was likely rampant throughout the sport.
Will the writers who feel that admitted and alleged PED users shouldn't be allowed into Cooperstown simply ignore an entire era and keep some of the game's greatest players out of the institution meant to celebrate the pinnacle of baseball excellence?
That brings us back to Olney's original question: Is the Hall of Fame meant to be a documentation of baseball's history or a shrine to the best of the best, the greatest of the greatest? And if it's the latter, writers who consider themselves the gatekeepers to Cooperstown are going to say steroid users weren't the best because they cheated.
Personally, I fall on Olney's side of the debate, and I've written as much in several articles, the most recent being on Nov. 12. In my view, a handful of players can't be singled out and penalized for PED use when so many of their peers were likely to have used steroids as well.
Oh, but those players weren't proved to have used PEDs, you might say.
Well—technically—neither were Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza. But their Hall of Fame candidacy for the Class of 2013 is believed to be in jeopardy because of such allegations. Bonds claims to have unknowingly taken steroids. Regardless of whether he's to be believed, does he have plausible deniability?
What about Jeff Bagwell? He was never rumored to have used steroids during his playing career. But once Bagwell became eligible for the Hall of Fame, he became guilty by association. Oh, he must have used steroids because he had muscles and was buddies with admitted steroid user Ken Caminiti! That's the kind of logic being applied here.
Bonds hit more home runs than any player in MLB history. Clemens and his 354 wins rank ninth on baseball's all-time list. Piazza has the most career homers for a catcher with 396. (He hit 427 altogether.)
Can those players really be kept from induction into the Hall of Fame?
Many would point to Pete Rose not being in Cooperstown despite his 4,256 hits, the most in the history of baseball. But Rose was actually banned from MLB by ex-commissioner Bart Giamatti. Neither Bonds, Clemens, Piazza, Bagwell nor any of the other players associated with steroid use were banned or even suspended.
That's one of the main points Olney makes in his column. If MLB didn't penalize these players, how can the baseball writers? Their numbers don't have any asterisks next to them. There are no footnotes explaining why their careers are linked to controversy. Perhaps the Baseball Hall of Fame can decide to include those asterisks and footnotes eventually.
But should the writers hold these players out of Cooperstown on what amounts to principle more than hard evidence?
Perhaps I'm being idealistic, but I believe the majority of baseball writers will eventually come around to this view. They can still be punitive by keeping these players from induction in their first year of eligibility, preventing them from the contrived honor of being "first-ballot" Hall of Famers.
That's what the writers did to Roberto Alomar in 2010 for spitting on umpire John Hirschbeck, even though Alomar was suspended by MLB and Hirschbeck eventually made peace over the incident.
So, OK, the writers can enact their one year of punishment. But can they really stop the history of baseball from being properly acknowledged? Eventually, the game's greatest achievements and the players responsible for them will demand entrance into the institution that tells their story.
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