I've had some great arguments with Jim Caple over the years. Well, maybe not that great, because they never ended with fisticuffs or changed minds; seems like a great argument should include one (or both!) of those. We probably just shouldn't argue about baseball, and instead stick to movies. That said, I'm happy to report that Caple's got a refreshingly non-moralistic take on steroids and the Hall of Fame; aside from his continuing infatuation with Jack Morris, there's just nothing for me to argue with here:
Right now my HOF ballot has Biggio Bonds Clemens Glavine Maddux Morris Thomas, Trammell and 13 guys I'm considering for final two spots.— Jim Caple (@jimcaple) December 31, 2013
... and because I agree with Jim about the drugs, I was more than willing to follow his lead with this tweet:
Well, okay. You got me there, buddy. I read Knisley's column. It's non-strident. That's true. Knisley's central point is that Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Rafael Palmeiro might fall off the BBWAA's Hall of Fame ballot after this year, because they fail to receive the support of five percent of the voters. Which will someday seem strange or unfair when Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds get elected.
Now, there's a fundamental problem with Knisley's premise: There's very little reason to believe that Bonds and/or Clemens will ever get elected by the Baseball Writers. Bonds got 36 percent last season, which is a long way from 75 percent. Clemens got 38 percent. A long way, also. Yes, it's possible that one or both will get there. Seems pretty unlikely, though. We've seen other candidates tainted by drugs, and we've seen them improve their support from year to year hardly at all.
Anyway, it's possible. Here's Knisley's big finish:
Yes, I'm among those voters responsible for hurrying us along to this point. I haven't voted for any player -- including McGwire, Sosa and Palmeiro, as well as Bonds and Clemens -- for whom hard evidence of PED use exists. There is no sense wasting much more energy trying to convince anyone it's the right approach; the other hand-wringing Hall of Fame columns written in the past couple of years cover that ground.
I look at it this way: The debate as it pertains to PEDs is a tension between those who want the Hall to celebrate the best in baseball and those who want the best in baseball to be worthy of the Hall's celebration. I side with the second half of that dynamic. No apologies, even if it means that little baseball museum in Cooperstown might have a different feel to it next Thursday morning than it does right now.
I don't know what the loss of Palmeiro or McGwire or Sosa might do to the future of the Hall of Fame. But I do have an idea of what that different feel might be like, if it happens.
It'll feel a little sad.
Read that sentence again: "The debate as it pertains to PEDs is a tension between those who want the Hall to celebrate the best in baseball and those who want the best in baseball to be worthy of the Hall's celebration."
Hall of Fame voters have written, probably hundreds of times now, some variation of that sentence. What's unfortunate is that it's only a sentence. It should be a long essay. It would take a long essay to make a reasonable case for deciding, for the first time in the long history of the Hall of Fame, to consider a player's character as a decisive attribute.
For a number of years, Babe Ruth did his level best to sabotage his career. Mickey Mantle was a great teammate who, by his own admission, had very little respect for his own astronomical talents. Thousands of players and dozens of Hall of Famers broke federal laws in the 1970s and '80s and '90s, in the pursuit of performance-enhancing amphetamines. Even today, it's generally assumed that at least a few players without real medical issues are procuring prescriptions for Aderall as performance-enhancers. Apparently it's easier to catch up with a 95-mile-an-hour fastball if you've got a little boost.
Athletes will always take the edges where they find them. It's got little to do with character. Nobody has recently questioned Bob Gibson's character, and yet he's admitted that if steroids had been around in the 1960s, he and other players might well have used them. Of course they would have used them. The players in Gibson's era had exactly the same character flaws that the players in Mark McGwire's era had, and that today's players have. Because, you know, they're all highly competitive human athletes.
With all due respect to Knisley (and Caple), "reasoned" doesn't mean just saying why you're doing something. "Reasoned" means making a reasonable case for why you're doing the something. Knisley has not done that yet. All we know is that he's not voting for the steroids guys, with a highly nebulous rationale.
So why isn't he? I will not try to divine Knisley's motives. That's too hard. What I will do is offer a general explanation, based on all the columns I've read over the last decade or so.
I believe that the voters wouldn't care about steroids, if not for Mark McGwire and especially Barry Bonds. I believe the voters grew up idolizing Roger Maris and especially Hank Aaron, and so they got emotionally involved when McGwire and Bonds broke those old records. The voters grew idolizing the players of the 1970s and '80s, so they're only too happy to turn a blind eye to the rampant amphetamine use of that era, and today remain unwilling to consider that cheating, too. Unwilling to consider that illegal drug use might not be "worthy of the Hall's celebration."
I believe it was the home runs. Well, the home runs and the cartoon musculature that seemingly turned the sport we loved in the 1970s and '80s into something different.
You know, because here's the thing: I hate the drugs, too. I don't want my heroes gobbling greenies or turning into Incredible Hulks. Even today, my sympathy for all the players vilified by Murray Chass and Michael Knisley and the rest is tempered by the knowledge that the players and their union fought every attempt to clean up the drugs. Should I really feel sorry for someone like Roger Clemens, who made a fortune playing baseball, and didn't need any drugs to finish his career with Hall of Fame numbers? Nah, probably not.
Here's the thing, though ... The rules have always been the same for baseball players. If you can get away with it, do it. There's a long history of illegal sign-stealing and illegal bat-corking and illegal pitch-doctoring and illegal drugs. If you ain't cheating, you ain't trying. The rules have always been the same for the Hall of Fame. If you put up the numbers, your character is irrelevant. If you don't put up the numbers, all the charity work in the world isn't getting you in.
Well, the players haven't changed the rules. But the Hall of Fame voters have. Without any change in their guidelines, a majority of voters has created an entirely new, revolutionary way of evaluating candidates. And we're still waiting for some voter, just one lousy voter for Pete's sake, to make the reasonable case.
Wait, what's that? Nope. Sorry. "I saw Hank Aaron break Babe Ruth's record" is a cute story. It's not reasonable.