Should Hall voters just ignore drugs completely?

Christian Petersen

Like you, I continue to read columns written by baseball writers about the Hall of Fame. Like you, I continue to read columns written by baseball writers about the Hall of Fame and steroids. Perhaps unlike you, I feel a personal responsibility to respond to these articles, and attempt to make sense of them all. I would like to write one column, in this space, that responds to all the other columns and answers all of the outstanding questions that have been posed, in one forum or another, since this lovely issue first reared its ugly and controversial head.

Alas, I find my powers are insufficient for the task. If I did write just one (more) column, it would run 10,000 words ... and the very next day, I would read something else that deserved a response.

Just this week, I've already written a few thousand words on the subject, and yet I could easily have written a few thousand more. Joe Sheehan's been writing brilliantly about the Hall of Fame; so has Joe Posnanski and Jay Jaffe and I don't even want to think how many others. You could publish a really good book, just compiling the intelligent things that have been written about the Hall of Fame in the last five days. Easily.

And yet the subject seems to me inexhaustible, and so today's column won't be my last. The trick is to write something that one of the Joes hasn't just written, or that I didn't write last fall, or last winter, or three years ago. About that last, I can't make any guarantees. Except that I'm reborn every split-second of every moment, and I contain multitudes and all that. Which means I'm constitutionally incapable of writing exactly what I wrote last winter, or having exactly the same thoughts. I just hope everything's different enough to justify, once again, your valuable time.

So ends one of the longest preambles I've ever written. Today I want to give some space to SI.com's Jon Heyman, who (let's be honest) is often maligned as one of the BBWAA's Old Guard, devoted to defending an integrity that Major League Baseball's never actually had. But the truth is that Heyman's views are -- like those of most, but not all, of his colleagues -- a little more complicated than that.

While I do believe Bonds took steroids (whether it was knowingly or not doesn't much matter to me, though if I had to guess, I think he knows everything that goes in his body), I don't believe all steroid users should be excluded from the Hall of Fame. I'm not here to sit in moral judgment of another human being.

--snip--

Unless a voter makes a moral judgment (and I won't judge voters who do that, either), the question voters need to ask, beyond whether a candidate ever used PEDs, is whether those drugs helped transform the player into a Hall of Famer. If there's a reasonable chance that player would have fallen short of the Hall without the extra help, I won't vote yes. I vote no on Mark McGwire, who I like much better than Bonds. While I believe McGwire's achievements are clearly Hall worthy (it's a copout to say they aren't), I have strong reason to suspect the drugs helped him reach those heights.

As for Bonds, I don't think anyone could reasonably make the case that he needed drugs to be a Hall of Famer...

In the narrowest sense, I agree with Heyman about this: Bonds would have posted Hall of Fame numbers if steroids had never been invented, and McGwire probably wouldn't have.

In the larger sense ... Well, let me back away from Heyman's voting stance for a moment. Instead, let's list the various stances that we've seen espoused by actual voters, in general order of popularity:

1. I'm not voting for anyone who's been associated with steroids.

2. I'm not voting for anyone I think might have been associated with steroids.

3. I'm not voting for anyone associated with steroids if they needed drugs to become a Hall of Fame candidate.

4. I'm not going to consider steroids at all when I'm voting.

5. I'm not voting for anybody whose career was mostly during the Steroids Era.

6. I'm not voting for anybody, just because I can.

Apparently there were only five voters who submitted blank ballots, and we might simply consider those voters -- yes, including ESPN's Howard Bryant -- as the lunatic fringe, and write them off; on this issue, there's simply no use appealing to reason, and fortunately there aren't enough of them to make a real difference in the results.

There were apparently a few voters in Category 5, too: We know that Ken Gurnick and Murray Chass both voted for just one candidate: Jack Morris. Although whether those were anti-steroids or anti-sabermetrics votes is hard to say; in the case of Chass, probably both. Anyway, there were few enough Category 5 voters that we might, purely for the purposes of today's discussion, dismiss them as lunatics, too. I will say that if you simply can't bring yourself to vote for anyone from the Steroids Era, then not voting for anyone probably does make the most sense, due to this simple fact: If you vote for only players who haven't been suspected of steroid use, it's inevitable that you will actually vote for players who did, in fact, use steroids. It's just foolish to think otherwise.

Anyway, it's Categories 1 through 4 that most interest me at the moment, because it's clear that the great majority of voters fall within that range. Heyman has now placed himself within Category 3, and the first thing I'm going to say is that there are some real problems with the Category 3 argument.

Mark McGwire last played baseball in 2001. Major League Baseball's drug policy didn't say anything meaningful about steroids until 2005, just as it didn't say anything about amphetamines until 2005. One might reasonably argue that McGwire's crimes were equivalent to those committed by all the future Hall of Famers who were hopped up on greenies in the '70s and '80 ... and were less egregious than those committed by all the ball-scuffers and bat-corkers who broke actual rules designed to ensure that everyone was playing the games fairly.

I continue to wait for one of The Old Guard to explain the substantive difference between amphetamines in the 1970s and steroids in the 1990s. I'm willing to be educated, but I believe the reason I'm still waiting is simple: The Old Guard is unable to explain the difference to themselves, so they're just ignoring the question.

But while Category 3 might have some problems, I'm obviously a lot closer to Category 3 than Categories 1 and 2 ... and I'm not a big fan of Category 4, either. It seems to me that Categories 1 and 4 are all about throwing up your hands and just giving up. While they lead to vastly different outcomes -- nobody gets in, or everybody gets in -- they're both about thinking about the issue, then making a catch-all rule for all situations. And the older I get, the less I believe in rules that cover every situation.

Which is why I can't join most of my friends in Category 4. Not categorically. I believe, as Bill James once wrote about evaluating players, that everything counts. Sure, that doesn't mean everything should count equally; the voters who now behave as if the "integrity clause" counts the same as a player's statistics are misguided (at best).

Heyman says it's a "copout" to suggest McGwire's statistics aren't Hall of Fame-worthy. Looking at McGwire's Wins Above Replacement according to FanGraphs, McGwire ranks just ahead of Darrell Evans and Dick Allen, neither of whom have come close to the Hall of Fame. And he's even with Joe Torre, another non-Hall of Famer. McGwire was a brittle slugger who was, for most of his career, essentially worthless as both a fielder and runner. I'm not saying McGwire doesn't have Hall of Fame numbers; I'm saying that Jon Heyman has not voted for many pre-Steroids Era players who won just as many games as Mark McGwire.

Anyway, my point is this: If we acknowledge that McGwire is a borderline Hall of Fame candidate, better than some Hall of Famers but worse than many others, should we simply ignore the fact that his illegal drug use, at a time when most of his peers were probably not using drugs, might well have given him a statistical boost, without which we wouldn't even be having this conversation? Should we completely ignore the possibility that McGwire's drug use encouraged other players to do the same?

Maybe we should. I don't have a ballot, so my rubber hasn't hit the road. But if everything counts, I believe that scoring drugs and participating in what's an ugly sort of culture does fall under the heading of everything. Just like postseason performance, magazine covers, and how many autographs you gave to little kids.

Categories 2 and 3 are really hard. But I'll go with the hard stuff almost every time.

Alas, Jon Heyman has changed his mind. That quoted material above? That was two years ago. This time around, Heyman's gone from Category 3 to Category 2, or perhaps even Category 1. No distinction between McGwire and Bonds -- he voted for neither of them -- or between steroids and amphetamines. One size fits all. And while two years ago Heyman wrote, "I'm not here to sit in moral judgment of another human being," now he writes, "I didn't want to reward the cheats."

My invitation to Heyman and most of the rest of the Old Guard ... Join me, friends, in Category 3. It's a lot harder, but in the end, it's a lot more interesting, too. With the added benefit of being able to say, with a straight face, that you're not sitting in moral judgment.

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