Bonds, Media Go 0-For-1
(Photo courtesy of NPR)
A couple of weeks ago the BBWAA was set to announce the 2013 inductees to the Hall of Fame, but a funny thing happened on the way to Cooperstown: none of the players on the ballot received enough votes for enshrinement. Craig Biggio. Jack Morris. Jeff Bagwell. Mike Piazza. Tim Raines. Lee Smith. Curt Schilling. Roger Clemens. Edgar Martinez. Alan Trammell. Larry Walker. The Crime Dog. Dale Murphy. Big Mac. Donnie Baseball. Sammy Sosa. Rafael Palmeiro. None of them received the 75% of the vote necessary for enshrinement. From a list of players that includes a member of the 600 home run club, another 2 members of the 500 home run club, a pitcher with over 350 career wins, and 2 players with over 3,000 hits the BBWAA deemed that nobody was worthy for selection for the first time since 1996.
Oh and a guy named Barry Bonds. He got 36.2% of the vote. Less than Clemens (37.6%). Less than Schilling (38.8%). Less than Lee Smith (47.8%). Less, even, than one of the most controversial names in recent Hall of Fame voting, Jack Morris (67.7%). You may have heard of Bonds. He’s the all-time leader in home runs with 762, and walks with 2,558. His 7 MVP awards are more than double what anyone else in the game’s history have won. On resume alone not only is Bonds the very definition of a first ballot Hall of Famer, he’s without question one of the 5 best players to ever play the game.
But with Bonds it’s never as simple as the numbers would suggest. For one thing his ego is somehow even bigger than his immense talent and it rubbed more than one BBWAA member the wrong way over his 22 years of Major League Baseball. Whereas writers will look for any reason to cast a vote for some players because of the relationship they had with the media, those same writers will also look for any reason not to vote for some players based on the relationship they had with the media. Bonds was always going to fall into that camp, although I sincerely doubt he ever lost any sleep over it. He was good, so good he was impossible to overlook or dismiss. And he knew it.
Bonds was never going to benefit from his cozy relationship with the media the way some players do, and the voters have always used their votes to make some personal statements. Need proof? Although Willie Mays was a first ballot Hall of Famer, he was not a unanimous selection. In fact of the 432 BBWAA members with votes in 1979, 23 of them did not cast a vote for Willie Mays.
In Bonds’ case, the personal relationships he had (or in most cases, didn’t have) with the media are obviously not what kept him out of the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. It was the drugs. Specifically, the performance enhancing drugs. Bonds, along with Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Rafael Palmeiro are the poster children for an entire era of baseball history stained and tarnished by an epidemic of PED’s which cast serious and justified doubt on the many accomplishments of the players between the late 80′s and the early 2000′s.
Baseball is about a lot of things. The eb and flow of 162 games spread out of 6 months. Playing hooky from work or school and sitting out in the sun enjoying a game. But maybe most important is its own history. It’s a game that spans generations in a way that other games don’t, because while other sports have all undergone radical changes, from leagues merging to rules and equipment changes, baseball has stayed basically the same for most of the last century. Sure the color barrier fell, and players started coming from Latin America and Asia, and the athletes are better, but at it’s core the game is still basically the same. The rules are mostly the same. The strategies are largely the same. And that continuity over such an extended period of time means that when comparing players of the past and present and arguing about which players were the best fans could feel like they were comparing apples to apples. For some, the PED era changed all that. The players of the 90′s and 2000′s were so physically different from the players of the past, and blew through so many of baseball sacred accomplishments, that they no longer felt comparable to the greats of yesteryear. There are many who complain that the PED’s were cheating, that they gave some players an unfair advantage over others. There are those who say the drugs are a serious health risk and that they put unfair pressure on kids and young players to sacrifice their health for their baseball dreams. Without diminishing the validity of those very real and very serious issues, it’s hard to ignore the anger about that sudden and violent break from baseball’s past. Of being cheated of those arguments over who is the best LF or 1B of all-time at the Thanksgiving table or at the bar. Can we really compare Ted Williams to Barry Bonds? Is it fair to Lou Gehrig to compare him to Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire?
Everyone in baseball “missed” the PED epidemic, and by “missed” I mean intentionally ignored the growing problem in favor of their own financial interests and job security. As much as the revelations of drug use are a black mark on the careers of so many of the players of the era, they’re also an asterisk that is permanently attached to everyone in and around the game for those two decades. Players. Managers. Executives. Owners. Commissioners. Media. Everyone saw what was happening and everyone chose not to do anything about it because there was too much money to be made by looking the other way and pretending it wasn’t real.
As a general rule I’m not a “blame the media” type of person. It’s not the “gotcha media’s” fault when a candidate for the second highest office in the country can’t name a single solitary news publication. I don’t think the media forced any players to take drugs. I think the players who were clean and wanted to play a clean game, through the MLBPA and in concert with the owners, should have been the first line of defense against this growing problem. Having said that, the media needed to be the last line of defense. We as fans don’t have access to players, coaches, and major decision makers in and around the game, nor do we have the resources to investigate rumors and verify information. We rely on the media to do that for us, and when it comes to writing about what happens on the field they generally do a great job. On this issue though, in this era, they failed miserably. Completely. On basically every level. There may be some baseball writers who have apologized for dropping the ball (no pun intended) on this story, or at least accepted their share of the blame for letting it happen, but the only one I’m aware of that did it was Buster Olney. I may not always agree with Olney but I have the utmost respect for him, in no small part because of the way he accepted responsibility for not doing his job.
So you can understand that when I something like this shows up in my timeline on Twitter I go completely mental:
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) January 10, 2013
For those who are unaware, Jon Heyman graduated from Northwestern and was the Yankees beat writer at Newsday for 16 years before joining Sports Illustrated in 2006 and eventually moving on to CBSSports.com and MLB Network. If Heyman left Newsday in 2006, and was a beat writer for 16 years, that means his career spanned almost the entirety of what we know as the PED era. You were there for it Jon. Almost all of it. And you did nothing. Nada. Zero. Zilch. Nothing. Jon can you say, with a straight face, that you had no idea steroids were in baseball while you were covering the daily beat? That you never saw a player’s body explode and started wondering? Never heard from a scout or a front office executive that they suspected this player or that player’s sudden spike in production was drug aided?
Let’s not pretend that any of us were clueless about the presence of drugs in sports. The Olympics have had stringent drug testing for years, testing which quite famously cost Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson his gold medal in the men’s 100m sprint at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. 1988! 15 years before the US Attorney started investigating BALCO, and 18 years before Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada published Game of Shadows, there had already been a very high profile case of an elite athlete using drugs to cheat. What reason did Heyman or anyone else have for thinking those same drugs couldn’t, wouldn’t, or didn’t make their way into baseball? Anyone who watched the Oakland A’s of the late 80′s and early 90′s with McGwire and Jose Canseco and The Bash Brothers knew something was happening.
I understand why Heyman and others decided to ignore a problem that was literally staring them in the face almost every day of their lives. Baseball’s popularity took a huge hit in the wake of the 1994 strike which cancelled the playoffs and the World Series. A drug scandal, coming on the heels of that strike and the cocaine problem of the 80′s, could very well have eliminated baseball as one of the 4 major professional sports in America. If the game lost its popularity then there’d be no reason for media outlets to spend the resources covering the game on a daily basis, which means a writer like Heyman could have lost his job. And then the great home run chase of 1998 came along and rivatalized the game. At the same time the Yankees, Heyman’s beat, started winning championships and put together a dynasty. Heyman probably started dreaming about book money and becoming a part of the national baseball media, and knew that if he were to investigate and report on PED use in baseball the relationships he had cultivated and would need would disappear. So he put his own career and his own well-being ahead of doing the right thing and doing his job. In other words, he made the same calculated decision that everyone else in the game made.
So now, after all that failure and missed opportunity Jon, you want to mount your high horse and sit in judgement of players who did exactly what you did? Joseph N. Welch, former head counsel for the United States Army, has a question for you:
Heyman’s far from the only journalist who neglected to do his or her job during the PED era, and the attitude that led to the story going unreported for so many years still exists in some form. In his column on CSN Bay Area explaining his stance on the HOF ballot and his selections for 2013, which was a great read, Andrew Baggarly slipped something of a bombshell into the middle that has gone largely unreported (emphasis is mine):
“I just know I cannot feel comfortable voting for one guy and not another because of suspicion, or because one player might have been smarter or luckier about where they sourced their stuff. (I also believe there is at least one current Hall of Famer who used steroids toward the end of his career, by the way, even if I cannot responsibly mention his name.) I believe I have to judge Bagwell and Piazza on their accomplishments and statistics, and those make them slam dunks for the Hall.”
Really Baggs? The old “I’ve got a secret but I had to promise not to tell” move? Why would it be irresponsible for you to mention his name? You’re a bright guy, like Heyman a Northwestern grad, and whatever evidence or source you had must have convinced you, so why not share the name? And if you didn’t have enough confirmation to feel comfortable providing the name why not investigate further and nail the story? Given the outrage many voters seem to have over even a single possible PED user being elected to the Hall surely the news that at least one user is already enshrined would be a big deal and a potential conversation changer.
To be fair to Baggarly, he’s not the only one who has made similar revelations. Per HardBallTalk, there are already steroid users in the Hall of Fame. The post harkens back to a 2010 revelation from Washington Post baseball scribe and Hall of Fame voter Thomas Boswell’s admission that he saw a player mix what the player called a “Jose Canseco milkshake” in 1988. He doesn’t mention the player’s name because why would that be important? It’s just another example of a reporter putting his own access to, and relationship with, the subject ahead of reporting the story.
The failure of the baseball media to report on the PED story as it was unfolding reminds me in many ways of the Watergate scandal. I won’t even pretend that drug use in baseball carries the same weight or importance as the biggest political scandal in American history and I don’t think a president should have resigned a disgrace as a result (just a commissioner). With Watergate the large assembly of White House beat reporters didn’t break the story, instead it came down to a pair of intrepid metro reporters from the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, to dig through court documents and hound sources until they got them on the record. For baseball it wasn’t any of the hundreds of print and broadcast journalists assigned to cover the sport who broke the PED story, it was another pair of outsiders, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, who scoured legal filings and court documents and hounded sources and eventually nailed it. Both the White House and baseball beat writers and were too close to the story and too unwilling to do the digging necessary to find the truth. Maybe it was because they didn’t want to know the truth and maybe it was just plain old laziness. In the end, does it really matter?
The “day late and a dollar short” outrage fans are subjected to includes a lot of former players as well. One Curt Schilling, never shy about opening his mouth, has found PED religion the way so many journalists have. Once Fainaru-Wada and Williams (and to a lesser extent Jose Canseco) exposed the extent of the PED problem Schilling became an outspoken critic of players who had cheated and even went so far as to testify before Congress on the matter. Funny how he had nothing to say when his teammate Luis Gonazlez went from 31 HR in 2000 to 57 HR in 2001 while leading the Arizona Diamondbacks to a playoff berth and eventually a World Series Championship. Gonzalez had never broken 30 HR in his 9 seasons in the majors prior to 2000, and in the 7 full seasons he played after 2001 never again topped 30.*
*To my knowledge there has never been any evidence uncovered which proves Luis Gonzalez used PED’s. Maybe that’s because he didn’t break any HR records and isn’t a likely Hall of Fame candidate so no one investigated him, maybe that’s because he didn’t do it. Either way, his 2001 season was suspect at the time and given all that has been learned about the extent of drug use it remains suspect.
So now that we’re here, what do we do about this whole mess? It’s a complex problem but sometimes complexity breeds simplicity. There’s no way to vote on Hall of Fame induction based on who BBWAA writers think used PED’s because they wil inevitably be wrong. Guys who really were clean won’t make it in and as Andrew Baggarly and HardBallTalk noted they’ve already failed to keep all the users out of the Hall. And then what happens 5 or 10 years down the road when we discover someone who was voted in because the scribes believed they were clean turns out to have been dirty? Does he get removed from the Hall? It’s an impossible task that will eventually lead to more headaches than acceptable results.
Rob Neyer had a great take on the Hall of Fame/PED problem recently in which he outlined 6 approaches to this dilemma. What he settles on is that players shouldn’t get votes if they needed drugs to reach Hall of Fame consideration. This, I think, is where most people ultimately come down because it provides enough cover to recognize the greatest talents of this generation while still allowing for a distinction between those elite talents and the very good who benefitted from pharmaceutical assistance. In a perfect world we’d have a full and complete accounting of who used what and when, combined with a formula for determining the impact of the drugs on player performance. The problem is we don’t have either of those now and likely never will. Even if every player that used came forward tomorrow and detailed what they used and when they used it, could we ever truly trust that the account was complete? Given all the lies and subterfuge I think most fans and writers would always assume there were more players that didn’t come forward. Maybe someday we’ll have a complete understanding of the true extent and impact of performance enhancing drugs in baseball but right now we don’t and we probably won’t have that information before many of these players start to drop off Hall of Fame ballots.
With that in mind there are really only 2 possible solutions to this problem:
1. Send them all to Cooperstown
This particular generation can’t really be compared to previous generations because the numbers have all been skewed and distorted. The numbers that traditionally made a player a sure thing for the Hall (500 HR, 3,000 hits, 300 wins, etc) just don’t have the same meaning that they used to. All current and future voters can do when evaluating this generation of players is compare them to each other and vote for those that were truly the greatest of this era.
2. Don’t send anyone to Cooperstown
Don’t vote for anyone whose career coincided with the PED era and limit consideration to those who finished before steroids began to infiltrate the game (good luck locking down that date) and players whose careers began after the testing program was instituted. But this is just a case of trying to whitewash history, and that always makes me uncomfortable. When you remove anything controversial or negative from history you lose track of who you are and you limit the lessons that can be learned. It would also make it too easy for the writers to absolve themselves of their own sins and I’m not comfortable with that either. Like it or not, PED use is part baseball history just like the race barrier was part of the game for Cobb and Ruth and Gehrig, and amphetamines were part of the game for Mays and Mantle and Aaron. Plus, why should voters who blew it get to keep their votes only to use them against the players they failed to adequately cover? If the players loose their Hall of Fame eligibility then those writers who were there and did nothing should too. PED use is a stain on this era that the players, writers, coaches, and owners should all have to live with. Forever.
The reality is there’s no good way to handle this, and no way to really make ourselves feel better about our collective lack of vigilance. All that’s left is the best of a bunch of bad options, and to me that means we figure out who the best players from this generation are and enshrine them in the Hall of Fame. In other words, we do what we’ve always done. That might not be what the writers want to hear or what they want to do, and it would rob them of TV appearances and radio appearances and columns where they can rail against these evil players who ruined the sanctity of the American pastime.
But you know what guys? You’re just as guilty as they are.
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