Congratulations to Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, and Craig Biggio on their election to the Baseball Hall of Fame earlier this month. All four are well-deserving of the honor, but Martinez deserves special mention in my mind. The Pedro Martinez of 1999 was like nothing else I’d ever seen. Twenty-three wins against only 4 losses, an ERA of 2.07, 313 strike outs against 37 walks, 5 complete games, and an opponents’ batting average of .205.
I was living in Cleveland that summer and I paid way more than I should have just to see Pedro pitch for the Red Sox against the Indians in the middle of the famous Jacobs Field sell-out streak. Pedro had the best fastball in the game, the best curveball in the game, and maybe the best change up of any pitcher ever – all at the same time. Amazing.
Smoltz stands out as well. His ability to transition from dominant starter to dominant closer was incredible and maybe only rivaled in the history of baseball by Dennis Eckersley.
Now for the bad news.
The Baseball Hall of Fame (HOF) has a real problem. In a sport driven by historical stats and records, there are a few notable absences at Cooperstown. The all-time hits leader, Pete Rose (4,256), is not there because of gambling. Baseball’s all-time home run leader also holds the single season home-run record. That’s Barry Bonds with 762 career home runs and 73 in 2001 alone. Roger Clemens is another name missing from the HOF despite 354 career wins, 11 all-star appearances, and an astounding seven Cy Young Awards. Of course, Bonds and Clemens are tainted by the PED era, as are other notable players who would probably be in the HOF if not for those suspicions. Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa are at the top of that list.
Rose is a special case in that his absence from the HOF is not PED related and I think it’s long past the point where Rose should be in the HOF. Whatever his gambling issues were, his hits were legitimate and he should be in. If there is a lesson to be learned from Rose, Bonds and Clemens, it’s probably that if you go out of your way to be difficult to people your entire life, it’s going to be hard to find friends during hard times. With that said, McGuire isn’t in the HOF either despite the fact that he has been honest and contrite about his mistakes.
Before getting into what I think the HOF should do, let me be absolutely clear about something. Using steroids (at least after 1991) is cheating. I have no tolerance for people who argue, “Well, steroids don’t help you make contact” and so on. Give me a break. First of all, steroids do help you “make contact.” One of the main benefits of PEDs is that they allow players to overcome the nagging injuries and exhaustion that is an otherwise normal part of the 162 game grind. PEDs also help a quick bat, which is the primary driver of making contact in the first place. Most importantly, “making contact” is not as important as what happens to the ball once contact is made. A harder-hit ball not only clears the fence more often, but it also finds the gap more often. How many times do you see a ball glance off a diving fielder’s glove? How often do you see that line drive sail just over the jumping fielder? There are probably dozens and dozens of AA level ballplayers who could “make contact” at the Major League level who will still never make it because even though the bat would hit the ball, they would still hit .150 because the ball wouldn’t go anywhere.
With that in mind, it’s easy to look at the players tainted by the “Steroid Era” and say that they should all be banned from the HOF as cheaters. There are a few problems with that. First and foremost, absent some exceptions, we really don’t know who was cheating and who wasn’t. I admit that it is hard to look at Barry Bonds as he appeared for the Pirates and compare it to how he looked in San Francisco and not think something was up, but the same can be said for many of the players of that era. What do you do about players where suspicions remain, but the connections are not obvious? It seems to me that players are being kept out based on the suspicions or gut-feelings of the voters when there is no proof one way or the other.
At this point, the HOF vote implicitly carries with it a finding by the voters about whether the player was or was not on PEDs. Did you get in? The voters must think you were clean. Didn’t get in? The voters must think you were dirty. As the years go by, the HOF voting will be one of the historical records that people rely on to determine who was and who was not implicated by PED cheating. So what should the HOF do?
I suggest that the HOF should confront the issue head on, rather than dancing around it like they are doing now. As a first step, any voter who is keeping a player off the ballot because of steroid suspicions should be forced to say so. Maybe not publically, but at least to the HOF itself. This would give us three categories of players: Those who are in, those who are out, and those who would be in but for PED suspicions. Next, I suggest forming a panel of former players, coaches, writers, and other well-respected members of the public to evaluate the players who are in the PED-suspicion category. The players in this group should be given every opportunity to present any evidence they wish in favor of their candidacy. They should also be given the option of withdrawing their name from consideration. The committee would evaluate the evidence and come to a conclusion about what should be done: The committee could find that there is insufficient evidence to suspect that the player was substantially aided by PEDs, in which case the player would come into the HOF as would any other player. The committee could find that the player’s career was so tainted by PEDs that they would not otherwise qualify for the HOF and deny admission. I would reserve a third category for players who deserve to get in despite PED use. These players would come into the HOF with a qualification on their admission, some notation on the player’s plaque about the “Steroid Era” and its effect on baseball. To me, honesty and contrition would play a big part in this. Mark McGuire should not be excused for what he did, but his honesty would go a long way for me in welcoming him to the HOF, with qualifications, just as he has been welcomed back into baseball itself.
This process would serve those who feel that the story of baseball cannot be told without some recognition of what happened in baseball during the Steroid Era. It would also serve those who contend that the single-season home run record still rightfully belongs to Roger Maris and that Hank Aaron is still the Home Run King.
Like it or not, PEDs were a part of baseball for a long time. Players used them. Managers, staff and baseball itself largely looked the other way. Fans are just as easy to blame. I cheered right along with everybody else in the summer of 1998 as Sosa and McGuire launched homer after homer. Anything was better than the strike of 1994-1995. It’s time that players, baseball and fans come to terms with that era. The HOF is as good a place to start as any other.
By the way, lost to history is the fact that when the 1994 strike went into effect, the Montreal Expos were in first place by six games, featuring players on the roster like John Wetteland, Wil Cordero, Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom and Larry Walker. More than 1.2 million of the much-maligned Montreal baseball fans packed Stade Olympique for the games. Part of Montreal’s success that year was attributable to a young pitcher from the Dominican named Pedro Martinez, who finished the shortened season with a record of 11-5.