As a certain ex-Mets manager once put it, I'm gripped with a feeling of deja vu all over again.
Around this time last year, I wrote a post about the hypocrisy of baseball writers who refuse to vote for Hall of Fame candidates they suspect used steroids, even though most of these same writers worked during the "Steroid Era" and could have exposed this evil if they so desired. I will undoubtedly write another column like this next year, and the year after that, and the year after that, ad infinitum. I will roll over and hit the alarm clock every December, hoping against hope this is the one where things finally change.
Perhaps the only way to break the cycle is to not write a post about the Hall of Fame at all (aka the War Games gambit). However, this year's HOF candidates include Mike Piazza, and so as a Met fan I am legally required to pay attention to the tedious arguments the subject inspires. This is why I'm forced to read pieces like this one by Tyler Kepner in Wednesday's New York Times, in which he details the difficulties faced by the new crop of Cooperstown hopefuls.
We all knew this day was coming, when Piazza would be forced to share a ballot with innumerable players suspected of PED use. Even so, this line from Kepner's article truly shocked me.
[A]ssumptions, with varying degrees of evidence, are part of the problem for the hundreds of baseball writers who will cast ballots in this election. Bonds, Clemens, Piazza and Sosa were clearly Hall of Fame-caliber players, yet are widely assumed to have used performance-enhancing drugs.
It's long been suspected that Piazza would be tainted by temporal association. However, this is the first time I've actually seen Piazza lumped into the same category with Barry Bonds et al and represented with the same level of guilt. Kepner even sandwiches Piazza's name in the middle of his roster of ne'er-do-wells, a choice that appears calculated to make the evidence against him appear more substantial than it is. (And the evidence against the others isn't exactly ironclad, as the acquittals of Bonds and Clemens showed.)
What is the solid evidence against Mike Piazza when it comes to PED use? It more or less boils down to a Jeff Pearlman book about Roger Clemens and Murray Chass's one-man war. Piazza has never failed a drug test. He was not named in the Mitchell Report. The evidence against him is purely anecdotal. But all of this, combined with the era in which he played, is enough to damn him in the eyes of many Hall of Fame voters, whose aguments are about as nuanced and rational as the those seen in Reefer Madness.
The Hall of Fame is voted on by the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. In order to qualify as a HOF voter, you must have been an active baseball writer for at least 10 years prior to that year's vote. That means any Hall of Fame voter who wanted to use his bully pulpit to rage against steroids had ample chance to do so when the "abuse" was at its worst.
How many of them did this? Virtually none. If you look at the actual baseball coverage from that era, you have to hunt far and wide to find the tiniest slivers of concern about steroids. For a representative example, take a peek at this brief article by our old friend Chass back in 1998 on the subject of Mark McGwire and his mysterious andro. Note the curious lack of outrage on the part of anyone involved, including the author.
This brings me back to Kepner's article. In it, a pair of writers share their thoughts about who belongs in the Hall of Fame. Both firmly believe anyone suspected of PED use should be kept out of the Hall because of loosely defined reasons of integrity.
Scott Miller of CBSSports.com is particularly virulent in his denunciation. He tells us "the Steroid Era was one of the most shameful chapters in the game’s history." I'd save such descriptions for the Black Sox scandal or the segregation of the pre-Jackie Robinson era myself. It may be that Miller doesn't have a great grasp on baseball history, since he also separates PED users into a separate category of evil doers far worse than Hall of Fame "miscreants" like Ty Cobb. "Miscreant" is a woefully inaccurate descriptor of Ty Cobb, who was so psychotic he once beat up a heckler with no hands. The evidence that Cobb bet on baseball is far more substantial than the PED cases against Piazza or Jeff Bagwell. Also, he was shockingly racist even by the standards of his time. But hey, at least Ty Cobb never did steroids!
Miller ends his testimony to the Times thusly:
To me, just because the commissioner, the owners and the players’ union abdicated their responsibility to the game for so long by looking the other way only increases the obligation for somebody, somewhere, to stand up for what’s right. And if I can do that even from my small corner of the voting world, then I’m grateful to have that chance.
Interesting choice of words, "abdicate their responsibility." Miller was a Twins beat reporter from 1994 to 1999. Before that, he wrote about the Padres and Angels for the Los Angeles Times. I assume his job involved lots of time around players, on team flights, in the clubhouse. One could argue that as a reporter, he had an obligation to stand up for what was right when something wrong was happening right under his nose. Either he didn't notice steroid use or he chose to ignore it. Whether by omission or commission, it is, in his own words, an abdication of responsibility.
Miller's fellow CBSSports.com scribe, Dan Knobler, tells Kepner he once voted for McGwire for the Hall of Fame but changed his mind. "My feeling is that if I’m voting against you, it’s because I believe there’s a reasonable likelihood that you cheated the game. If that’s the case, I don’t want to vote you into the Hall of Fame." Knobler conceded he could change his mind yet again about who belongs in Cooperstown. If he does, it may be because he suddenly remembers he covered the Tigers as a beat writer for 18 years, inclusive of the entire decade of the 1990s. During that time, he had considerable opportunity to rail against people who "cheated the game."
Not every Hall of Fame voter is hypocrite, regardless of who they do or don't pick for the Hall. For instance, Pete Abraham wrote a blog post recently about his struggles with the issue that conceded the media's culpability for what is now called the Steroid Era. But the tunnel vision and track covering displayed by many of his peers is what makes me fearful we may never see Mike Piazza get the plaque he so deserves.
Case in point: A few hours after Kepner's story was published, Philip Hersh wrote a tweet that demonstrated this dichotomy in a 140-character nutshell:
Yes, Hersh is so outraged by steroids in baseball he'll hang onto his HOF voting privileges just to keep out the "druggies." He wasn't so outraged by steroids he bothered to investigate the druggies during his 20 YEARS COVERING THE GAME.
To be fair, sports writers' failure to expose steroids in the 1990s/2000s may be more indicative of cultural differences between sports writers and other journalists. Most sports writers don't model themselves after Woodward and Bernstein. Magazines like Sports Illustrated will run investigative pieces, but the daily beat guys are more transcribers of quotes, describers of in-game action, and the passers of the occasional trade rumor. Dirt digging is not understood to be part of the job.
Sports are frivolous enough endeavors that this approach to reporting is perfectly fine. However, if you're not going to denounce something like steroids while you lie in its midst, judgment applied years after the fact holds no weight whatsoever. There is no value in acting like a tough guy once the history books have already declared who the losers are.
I will hit the snooze on Hall of Fame outrage now. Wake me up same time next year, when I'm sure exactly nothing will have changed by the names of the guilty and the datelines of their denunciations.