The Hall of Fame:  Counterpoint

Hey Mike, this one's for you ;)

If you haven't read Mike Bates' article on the Hall of Fame, go read it. Its fun. But it is the preface, not the content, that is bringing me to drag out the Big Pencil:

The Hall of Fame doesn't matter to me.

The Hall of Fame is supposed to be an homage to the best players of the game. It is the original criteria that bonds (no pun) its membership together; all of the players in the HoF are there because their performance was excellent, impactful, and memorable for their time.

I don’t think this is how membership is being determined any more. I understand the discussions I’ve listened to where people talk about someone’s career totals for an era or what kind of person they are, and they’re subjective arguments. In fact it’s hard to find an example of a bigger dichotomy of values than the discussion on what does into Hall membership. On the one hand the arguments are mostly based on real numbers, but on the other they are all qualified by conditions and feelings.

First, the big issue: Steroids are a completely useless reason for keeping someone out of the Hall.

Americans tend to have a very short view of history. We tend to apply only current social values and evidence when discussing anything. It is an aspect of American society as a whole, which has forced itself to relevance in the world despite have absolutely no social underpinnings prior to colonization. Washington DC itself was designed to humble foreign dignitaries, to impress with monuments and architecture that tried to convey solidity and antiquity in the absence of these things. People wanted to believe the new image and the modern dreams in each era. We didn’t want to dwell on our past, because we were a rising nation launched from pockets of exiles of other lands. It has become the most common aspect of American culture: Today is more important than yesterday.

So people think that because we are having a current discussion about performance enhancement, we make it entirely in the scope of what is available to athletes now, and how we value their activity now. This doesn’t do any service to the Hall. If we’re going to judge people based on skirting the rules, partaking in substance abuse (both performance-enhancing and not), then at least we should do so with the same measure that previous players were.

PED’s aren’t new. Tom House candidly reflected on his steroid use that stretched back into the 60’s, and this is a guy who played with Hank Aaron, Phil Niekro, Tony LaRussa, Carl Yazstremski, Jim Rice, and other Hall members. House said that several pitchers on each team were experimenting with PEDs, and they didn’t get beat, they got "out-milligrammed, And when you found out what they were taking, you started taking them." Folks, that’s the founder of the National Pitching Association talking. Trust what he’s saying, he;s not a disgruntled player, he’s a PhD.

House isn’t the only guy who’s revealed what most of the coaches and players were already aware of – players were taking supplements when they were available, and they always have been. Unless you have an almost unhealthy amount of faith in the game’s current state, you’ve got to assume they will always take whatever advantage they can.

Once upon a time I heard someone say that based on what happens to a person when they ingest raw sugar, that if it was introduced for the first time today the FDA would have to regulate it as a controlled substance. Some things are already grandfathered in. Baseball had to draw the line somewhere, and on one side of the line are steroids that are "bad," and on the other are steroids that are "good."

For example, take the irony of Kirk Gibson chewing sour grapes over losing a postseason series to Ryan Braun. Gibson was upset that Braun had used steroids (Braun used testosterone lozenges, not legal), yet in his own magical postseason moment for the Dodgers, bragged about having his immobile knee pumped full of cortisone all day until he was finally able to hit his famous pinch-hit dinger.

Testosterone and Cortisone are both steroids, folks. Both are produced in some amount by the human body. Both players used injections of these steroid hormones to overcome injuries and improve their performance to MVP levels. But Kirk Gibson is a hero, and Ryan Braun is a Milwaukee villain, simply because of where and when the line was drawn. What they did was the same, but what Braun did was against the rules, and he knew it.

And really, don’t feel like Gibson robbed anything when he hit that dinger, he took the lead away from known PED users Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire.

Also on that A’s team was Dave Parker, who had his own drug issues. Do you remember the cocaine trials of the 1970’s? Maybe not, if you’re a young fan. A ton of people on those Pirates teams were coked up. John Milner admitted that he used to get drugs from Willie Mays and Willie Stargell. Even the team mascot was implicated.

These are things that are admitted. Things we know. We are aware that Pud Galvin used to ingest dog testicles, and not only were people not alarmed by it, they celebrated it in the newspaper at the time.

And it’s not just the players who do these things on their own, and it’s not isolated and excessive subcultures promoting misdeeds. It has even been part of the Cardinal Way since at least the 1960’s when the team doctor revealed to Sports Illustrated that guys like Bob Gibson and Denny McLain were using a mix of pharmaceuticals including steroids and "barbiturates, Seconal, Tuinal, Nembutal…. We also use some anti-depressants, Triavil, Tofranil, Valium…." And it was not uncharacteristic for teams at the time.

I think it’s important for people to accept that players have always been using unregulated supplements to gain an edge, and there isn’t much difference between someone using them and getting caught and someone using them and not getting caught. You have to assume that everyone has always been using them to some degree (vigilant protesters to this fact line up to the left and grab a form, fill it out in triplicate to be ridiculed later).

I didn’t really intend to write that much about steroids, but there is a giant misconception to be fought that PEDs are a modern invention – again, the nation with no long-term memory assumes they were all invented by Victor Conte. All he did was recently get caught profiting from it. We’ve even forgotten that this whole modern mess got started by Jose Canseco. No, it’s true that players have always used PEDs.

And if it’s about breaking rules… well come on now, be real. How is using a spitball to actively make batters miss a curveball really any different than a guy juicing up to hit a baseball 5% harder when it comes to game play? Not much. And players cheat. They will always cheat when they get a chance. They’ll cork bats. They’ll steal signs. They’ll do whatever they can to win. They always will. We forgive them… until now.

Second, keeping someone out of the Hall because of their off-field behavior is a selective and subjective practice.

I don’t want to go into too much detail, but what a player did off the field in previous generations had nothing to do with how we valued them as a baseball player. We have had some downright nasty human beings be enshrined in the Hall, and knowing things about their behavior did nothing to change the voting.

I wouldn’t let Ty Cobb babysit my kids, but he’s a Hall of Famer. You couldn’t have a credible Hall without him. Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Wade Boggs (among others) were legendary drunks. Players have at times been greedy, abusive, violent, unsociable, and all-around unpleasant members of society, but they did one thing really well and we celebrated that. Not for their benefit, but for ours.

You see, the Hall isn’t about baseball players. It’s about recognizing the relationship that baseball players have had with fans. Think about that. We visit the Hall of Fame to remember. To learn more stories. To share the experiences of the past, to appreciate the history of the game we love. Love doesn’t come from ignorance, it comes from acceptance. It’s time that we accept that ballplayers are imperfect people, and we punish them forgive them, and love them anyway.

So right now, the Hall of Fame does not matter to me.

There are players who I revere for their performance and who have had a lasting and impactful relationship with the game and the fans that are not members of the Hall. I know they broke some rules, and I know that they have exhibited some pretty shoddy behavior, and I know they have been punished or escaped punishment. I accept that. I also accept the system that did its best to keep the game reasonably competitive, and I am fine with the result.

But the Hall is not allowed in my opinion to keep players out who have performed excellently under the rules and supervision of the League. They existed in the system at the time they did, with the methods that were available, and they were no more or less perfect than the players that came before them. The League has changed its rules to try and maintain a socially relevant oversight, and the players try to change with it. But don’t expect them to be angels, they’re ballplayers. And we love them.

So any Hall of Fame that refuses to consider votes for guys like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens and frankly, even Pete Rose, is not a Hall that correctly chronicles my relationship with the game. I grew up with Kirby Puckett and George Brett and Paul Molitor and Robin Yount and Don Mattingly and Rickey Henderson and Jack Morris and Rafael Palmiero and Fernando Valenzuela and Bruce Sutter.

These guys were great at baseball. They were fun to watch. Who they are as people and what rules they broke and skirted isn’t my business, it’s the League’s. It can hurt their ability to sell toothpaste, but it shouldn’t affect how we value their actual performance.

All home runs count equally.

6.09 (d) A fair ball passes over a fence or into the stands at a distance from home base of 250 feet or more. Such hit entitles the batter to a home run when he shall have touched all bases legally.

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