Bagwell, Piazza, and the Hall: The irony of an ethical stand

Bob Levey

Evidence? Who needs evidence?

Last year, I had an email exchange with Bob Brookover, of the Philadelphia Inquirer, in which we argued about his refusal to vote for Jeff Bagwell to make the Hall of Fame. In light of yesterday's voting deadline for BBWAA members and Bob's column on his Hall of Fame vote and his decision to only vote for Dale Murphy, I thought it was appropriate to present my half of that conversation. While it won't do any good in 2012, maybe this piece will help us get a jump on the 2013 balloting.

For the third straight year, BBWAA voters have voiced "suspicions" about Jeff Bagwell. Now they have extended them to cover Mike Piazza, two players who never tested positive for PED use, never were accused of using PEDs in any formal way, and who have vehemently denied using them. The only evidence that we've seen presented against them is at best circumstantial. They played during an era where PED use was widespread, they had big muscles and hit baseballs really far, they have displayed a relatively laissez-faire attitude toward the PED use of others, and in Piazza's case, former-New York Times ghoul and current blogger Murray Chass once saw him with back acne. It's hard to take any of these arguments seriously given that they're not arguments but inferences and innuendo.

Given that many of the PED users that we know of have been pitchers, speedsters, marginal big-leaguers, and older players trying to recover from injury, it's unrealistic to look at a player who happened to be well-muscled and suspect him of steroid use. Alex Sanchez wasn't built like an ox, nor was Marvin Benard or Andy Pettitte. Meanwhile, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Kluszewski, and Brian Downing were beasts and they weren't using. Body type is not evidence of use or non-use. It's evidence of weightlifting.

If you want to make the case, as many voters do, that, because Bagwell played with noted steroid users Ken Caminiti and Jason Grimsley (and Clemens, Pettitte, Ron Villone, Chris Donnels, and Gregg Zaun) he should be under suspicion, then you also have to contend with the facts that a) every single player on the Hall of Fame ballot played with accused or admitted PED users, many of them with those same seven Bagwell played with, and that Bagwell actually ranks pretty low on that leader list, tied with Dale Murphy in terms of which candidates played with the most alleged PED users; b) the fact that fewer than 10 percent of major league clubs between 1992-2006 had no PED-implicated players on them (and who knows how many we don't know about); and c) that 30 players in the Hall of Fame played with PED-implicated players, 12 of whom played with as many or more than Bagwell.

How, then, are Bagwell or Piazza more deserving of suspicion than Nolan Ryan, who played until he was 46 with 11 accused PEDs users, including Caminiti, Canseco, Palmeiro, and Juan Gonzalez; and whose pitching coach in Texas, Tom House, admitted he used steroids in the 1970s, or Rickey Henderson, a guy who knew his way around a gym and who played with 28 different alleged users, including McGwire, Canseco, and Caminiti? I'm not accusing Ryan and Henderson, but if you think we should suspect Bagwell, based on nothing but his forearms and his teammates, we should suspect them.

Having said all of that, I would never deny that it's possible, and perhaps even probable, that Bagwell and/or Piazza used some kind of performance enhancer, and I understand that there's a difference between escaping detection and not doing anything wrong. But we don't arrest a guy who lives next door to a house that got burgled just because he was home that night; we need evidence to punish a person for a crime. The continued buzz around Bagwell and Piazza is that there are suspicions, but nobody is willing to say why in any substantive way. That's not enough. Hall of Fame voters have presented nothing on which we can judge a claim that "Bagwell is suspicious" as either true or false. Everyone played with PEDs users, everybody got bigger, used tinier bats, enjoyed diluted pitching, got to hit in Coors, and almost certainly got to hit rabbit balls. Again, there's literally nothing in the public record that separates suspicion of Bagwell from, say, suspicion of Tony Gwynn. Every time someone publically suspects Bagwell while not mentioning how his case is different from other candidates and current Hall of Famers, it damages the BBWAA's credibility.

Pulling at the threads of PED use makes the whole sweater of MLB from the 1990s through today come apart. Voters can legitimately choose not to vote for admitted PED users or those for whom we have evidence of use. I disagree vehemently with this stance, as I think a Hall of Fame without the greatest players of the modern (or really any) era -- Bonds, Clemens, Pudge, A-Rod Piazza, etc -- wouldn't be legitimate. The Hall of Fame has never been about honoring "integrity, sportsmanship, and character" anyway, but at least this is a stance that you can respect. However, I cannot respect using suspicions for which we have no evidence against players as a basis, because if we start down that road, it really does become a witch hunt in which everyone is a suspect and no one can defend themselves. It becomes "baseball McCarthyism," (in the words of Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk). That is a prospect should offend everyone who loves the game and, at the risk of sounding hokey, this country.

ThePED problem was caused, or at least propagated by, groups of players, writers, and baseball officials who were happy enough with the status quo not to make waves over the cheating that was happening in the game. Fans, too, bear some responsibility, given how much we enthusiasm we had for the offense of the late '90s and early '00s. There is significant disagreement as to how to remedy that. A Hall of Fame that contains a few players who used PEDs is a price that we all have to pay for our negligence in the past. We turned a collective blind eye to the problem for a decade or more. Shouldn't we have to reap some of what we sow? Perhaps accepting the fact that a few PED users get in (And, by the way, we know that amphetamine users are in the Hall of Fame, and amphetamines have been illegal for non-medical use since 1970 and the motives of players taking them are exactly the same as those who use steroids, HGH, and synthetic testosterone) is a medicine we all have to swallow for the era we helped foster.

It's ok if we let in a few bad apples, because while the Hall of Fame is a wonderful place, it is not a holy place. Hall of Famers are not saints. We know that drug users, cheaters, wife-beaters, racists, and, in the case of Tom Yawkey someone who potentially knowingly harbored and empowered a child molestor, have been allowed in. It's likely that, in addition to amphetamine users, we already have at least one or more steroid or HGH user in the Hall. If the goal of the BBWAA has been to keep out degenerates, it's done a terrible job of it so far. The horse is already out of the barn and keeping out the best players who played from the late 1980s to the mid-2000s is going to do nothing to improve the credibility of the Hall as more and more fans realize just how flawed Hall of Famers are. They weren't paragons of virtue. They were 20- to 40-year-old men. If we want a Hall of Fame full of only gentlemen and scholars, we'll be down to just Christy Mathewson, Lou Gehrig, and Harmon Killebrew before too long.

Writers like Bob Brookover, are clamoring for additional guidance from the Hall itself to resolve this issue. In a kind of brain-dead, misguided protest, Brookover is taking the character clause to its extreme and only voting for Dale Murphy, since he's convinced Murphy was "a terrific player who showed great integrity, sportsmanship and character" (and ignoring the fact that he's simply guessing that the integrity, character, and sportsmanship of Bagwell, Piazza, Trammell, Raines, and company falls short). Personally, I don't know what the Hall of Fame can say to make the BBWAA's job easier. If they say, "No one who has been suspended for PED use is eligible," you still have the same problem in that no one was suspended for PED use until 2005. Bagwell is clear then, and so is Piazza, Clemens, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, A-Rod, and Ivan Rodriguez. If it's, "Anyone who tested positive," again, you have to deal with the fact that Piazza and Bagwell never tested positive. (Someone leaked news that Sammy Sosa tested positive, but to the best of my knowledge that's never been confirmed either by Sosa or the league). The Mitchell Report isn't a court of law, especially given the unsavory reputations of Brian McNamee (who couldn't convince a jury that Roger Clemens used PEDs) and Clint Radomski. So again, what changes?

BBWAA members often talk a good game about the importance of leadership in baseball. It would be nice to see more BBWAA members take responsibility and be leaders on this issue, rather than wait to be told what to do. I maintain that the only decent and moral thing to do, based on our shared values as a society, is to look only at the evidence that's available. That to speculate beyond that is inherently unfair, which is ironic, given that the anger over PED cheating is entirely over how unfair it is.

I don't have a lot of sympathy for writers who feel like the HOF voting process is an agony. What a privilege! What an amazing public trust! But, to crib from Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility. Part of that responsibility is to read and accept criticism from the public. If you don't want to deal with that responsibility, don't exercise that power. Simply pocket your ballot. Calling writers out for their unfair, illogical, and nonsensical arguments on Bagwell, Piazza, and other HOF candidates isn't abusive. It's pointing out a logical failing in those arguments. If holding a mirror up to someone's words and pointing out their inherent unfairness is abusive, then everyone has a lot to apologize for. If one of us is deemed suspicious, despite there being no evidence against him, then all of us are suspicious. Any one of us can be considered, without evidence, guilty or probably guilty of something.

The Hall of Fame matters culturally, historically, and politically in the game that we love. Induction is an honor that we reserve for baseball's best (and Jim Rice). As such, the Hall of Fame deserves the best from its voters. That means not allowing whisper campaigns and rumor-mongering to punish players who have never even been accused of a crime. As we ring in 2013, resolve to support Bagwell and Piazza when the time comes next December, lest you be subject to the irony of destroying your own ethics in pretending to take an ethical stand.


Michael Bates is one of SBN's
Designated Columnists and one of the minds behind The Platoon Advantage. Follow him at @commnman.

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