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Cooperstown Cop-Out: Does the BBWAA Deserve Credit for Hall of Fame Shutout?

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Cooperstown Cop-Out: Does the BBWAA Deserve Credit for Hall of Fame Shutout?
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

It's now a couple of days since the Baseball Writers Association of America decided that not a single player on the Hall of Fame ballot was worthy of enshrinement, and my obvious reaction was—wait for this unique wisdom—this stinks!

There, I feel much better now. Other than this, and even with a couple of days to think about Ballotgate, I am still searching for clarity on this issue, and perhaps I'm not the only one.

To anyone reading this, I don't have to report what happened a couple days ago, but here are the highlights. The following statistically-dominant players were deemed, for one reason or another, unworthy of enshrinement:

  • Barry Bonds, in his prime a true five-tool player, who launched a record 762 homers and also was awarded a record seven MVPs.
  • Roger Clemens, who won a record seven Cy Young Awards and ranks third all-time in strikeouts and ninth in wins.
  • Sammy Sosa, a former league MVP, who topped the once unreachable 60-homer plateau a record three times and clubbed a total of 609 home runs—eighth on the career list.

Needless to say, not too many baseball fans are shedding tears about these players' first-year rejections; such was the disgrace that they allegedly, apparently and symbolically visited upon the game and the records and milestones that we cherish. But is their exclusion something to celebrate, or is it profoundly sad? Can it be both?

Of course, the BBWAA also did not see fit to vote in a few others.

  • Mike Piazza, arguably the greatest hitting catcher of all-time and almost unarguably the best of his era.
  • Craig Biggio, who earnestly scrapped his way to 3,060 hits and seven all-star appearances.
  • Jeff Bagwell, Biggio's longtime teammate, a former MVP who clubbed 449 homers and raked to the tune of a career .948 OPS.
  • Curt Schilling, a six-time all-star, three-time Cy Young runner-up and as good a modern postseason pitcher as we've seen (11-2, 2.23).

 

 

 

 

What exactly did these guys do wrong again?

This doesn't even include holdovers who didn't make the grade, such as Jack Morris, Lee Smith, Alan Trammell and Tim Raines. To my analysis, none of this group of terrific players are slam dunks, but were they even considered when so much of the attention was given to the ethically-flawed candidacies of Bonds, Clemens and Sosa?

Wasn't it just yesterday that it was so much fun, if a challenge, to simply debate who deserves a plaque in Cooperstown based on numbers? Which numbers exactly? Well, that was a lot of the fun, at least in some measure.

Jayson Stark, a well-respected baseball writer for ESPN, wrote the following on Wednesday:

It boggles the mind. Doesn't it? We were just presented the most star-studded Hall of Fame ballot in maybe 75 years. And NOBODY got elected?

It's enough to make you wonder: What kind of Hall of Fame are we building here?

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Stark, by the way, voted for the maximum 10 players on his own ballot, including Bonds, Clemens and Sosa, and regretted that he couldn't help to induct other fine players such as that hitting machine named Edgar Martinez.

 

Whether one agrees or disagrees with his ballot and reasoning process, he backs up his points with a great measure of clarity. There's that word again, which has been somewhat elusive for me to find.

 

 

 

Stark also challenges us to have a national (and rational) conversation as to what type of Hall of Fame Cooperstown is supposed to be. Is it a "cathedral" just for those who have no taint attached to their career or a "museum" that celebrates the dominant performers, warts and all? It's a great question, and one that I (and, I suspect, many of you) have wrestled with on our own mythical ballots.

For what it's worth, I wrestled with the whole issue of performance-enhancing drugs and who should be in the Hall of Fame on my first-ever piece for Bleacher Report. Two-and-a-half years later, I'm not sure that my own opinion is not still parked on a slippery slope. At that time I tried to take a middle ground between the "cathedral" approach—or "Don't let any of these jerks in"—and the "museum" method—"So, just consider their stats. They all cheated, anyway."

I'm still searching for clarity and still, essentially, asking the same questions:

  • How are we to consider...the power tallies posted by current sluggers against the backdrop of ridiculous numbers achieved by Bonds, McGwire, Sosa and others?

  • Is there any single source...that accurately reveals and punishes the cheaters, yet rewards those that have played by the rules?

 

We may know a little more now, but it is still difficult to know who exactly did what. With each passing day, scandal and revelation, I'm leaning more toward the approach that if a player's name is on the ballot, then his candidacy should be considered solely based on his play on the field. But in truth, that still doesn't feel right.

 

There are other strong, rational, weighty voices on this issue, including SportsIllustrated.com's Tom Verducci whose January 8 piece was titled "Why I'll never vote for a known steroids user for the Hall of Fame."

 

Verducci does a great job in explaining the origin and preferred applicability of the so-called "character clause" that voters are charged with considering. I agree with him that this clause is to be applied only to crimes against baseball (my term).

Forget the racists and scoundrels comparison. Here's my issue with steroid users as it relates to the "character clause:" it's about how they played the game between the lines, not how they conducted themselves outside of it. It's an issue of competitive integrity, not personal integrity. They bastardized baseball, eroded the implicit fairness of it and disadvantaged those who chose to play fairly to extents never seen before.

In brief, I am not saying that someone who knowingly takes a banned substance, throws a game, scuffs a ball or corks a bat is morally worse than a racist or a murderer. I'm agreeing with Verducci that only the crimes against baseball are relevant for the BBWAA to factor into their selection process.

 

 

I am still searching for that elusive clarity in deciding who is a known steroids user. I don't want cheaters to prosper in any walk (or home run trot) of life, but who are we to trust here? Unfortunately, I think that this determination is highly subjective, and in our quest to be fair, we need to somehow factor it into the various numbers and intangibles we consider for each player.

 

Consider this: Cooperstown is not the LPGA Hall of Fame, where there are objective benchmarks for induction. Yes, it should be a matter of fact that Willie Mays, Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson deserve enshrinement, but this is still a subjective process.

 

Also consider this: After reading Verducci's otherwise eloquent piece, I am still trying to decipher exactly how and why he changed his mind on Jeff Bagwell's candidacy.

The BBWAA, in its Hall of Fame vote:

Submit Vote vote to see results

I agree with him when it comes to the "everybody was doing it" defense.

When I wrote the 2002 SI investigation on steroids in baseball in which Ken Caminiti said about half the players in the game were juicing, people criticized him for exaggerating the problem. Many of those same people now are using the "everybody was doing it" excuse. It's a lazy, terrible insult to everybody who played the game clean.

Yes, it is terribly insulting to all the players who were clean. Here is the problem that I see: When the BBWAA denied all of this year's candidates a spot in the Hall, its voters were collectively guilty of this same canard. Why else were guys like Mike Piazza voted out, unless enough of these writers assumed that he was doing it? Was he, or was that also a specious assumption by the writers? That is why I see the 2013 Cooperstown Shutout as a cop-out.

 

 

Whatever the case and ultimate truth, it is profoundly sad that we can't celebrate some of the greatest performers in baseball history because of all of the uncertainty—and sleaze—that accompanied many of their achievements. One can debate that ultra-arrogant players such as Bonds, Clemens and Sosa deserve none of our sympathy, but can't we be sad for the game itself and for the fans?

 

Bleacher Report's own Featured Columnist and Deputy Editor Adam Hirshfield also offered a thought-provoking take on the Cooperstown Cop-Out yesterday.

...the players brought it on themselves. The writers are left to pick up the pieces. And the fans are left to feel bewitched, bothered and bewildered about the history of their game, the one the players disrespected. The one at which the writers (and fans, to be fair) conveniently turned their backs when steroid questions arose.

We are all to blame for this. And we all deserve whatever happens to our game.

I may be a little more forgiving of the fans than Hirshfield is, but in the end, I am still shaking my head in bewilderment and hanging it in disgust at the whole steroids issue and what it has done to our game. How many fans has it turned off or made more cynical in the process?

 

Through it all, I love the game and suspect that I always will; I'm in way too deep by now. I will also continue to debate who deserves a plaque in Cooperstown and who doesn't. I've been making these lists—privately and publicly—for far too long to stop doing so now.

 

But I am still searching for more clarity on what happened with the Cooperstown Cop-Out earlier this week, and yes, it stinks!

***

Matt Goldberg is a diehard baseball fan and Philly sports fan, and co-author of the brand new book, A Snowball's Chance: Philly Fires Back Against the National Media.

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