By Nathan Petrashek
Over on Twitter, Jim Breen of Bernie’s Crew is terribly impressed with an article by Rob Neyer. It seems Neyer doesn’t take kindly to the Cooperstown voting style of MLB.com’s Terrence Moore, and Neyer just won’t tolerate a baseball writer who won’t vote for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.* Neyer takes Moore to task for his invocation of the so-called “character” clause, asserting that not even the legendary Mickey Mantle, with all his intoxication and womanizing, would have made it in the Hall. To prove his point, Neyer concocts a fictional twenty-year MLB veteran named Joe, whose body begins falling apart in the midst of a wild card race. Joe applies an unknown white substance recommended by a friend for a week to speed his recovery time. Relating “Joe” to Mantle, Neyer asks whether a player who routinely drinks himself into a stupor and shows up for work half-drunk should make the Hall over a player like Joe, who will do whatever he can – steroid use included – to play as well as he can.
As a blogger, I like Jim Breen’s work. He’s normally a very logical, thorough guy. Which is why I’m shocked that he couldn’t see through Neyer’s hatchet job.
The “character” clause states that Hall of Fame voters are to consider a player’s “integrity, sportsmanship, [and] character” in addition to the player’s record, playing ability, and contributions to his teams. It does not assign a weight to any particular factor, though obviously playing ability and records have come to dominate our discussion of what makes a very good player worthy of Cooperstown.
In fact, the character clause is deeply engrained in the Hall of Fame voting process. The battle over the clause was largely settled in its favor way back in 1991, when the Hall of Fame voted to exclude any person on a permanent ineligibility list maintained by the MLB. The rule change was a direct response to the case of Pete Rose, whose Hall of Fame case was otherwise undeniable. As a practical matter, the vote operated as a de facto exclusion on character grounds.
Despite the character clause, the Hall of Fame has its fair share of members with, shall we say, dubious moral records. As Neyer points out, Mickey Mantle was a drunk and a was famous for arriving at the ballpark hung over. Babe Ruth’s infidelity didn’t stop voters from naming him one of the first inductees in 1936. Orlando Cepeda, who was inducted by the Veteran’s Commitee in 1999, has been busted for marijuana possession several times.
But there is an important distinction to be made here. No one has ever argued, to my knowledge, that a player’s career was helped by their excessive intoxication, or infidelity, or recreational drug use. The fact that some members did these things does not speak highly of them, but the fact that they were able to succeed in spite of these failings says something about their abilities.
Unlike these human errors, steroids and other similar substances are taken for one reason: to give a player a competitive edge. They’re designed to make you faster, stronger, durable. And their roots extend so deeply beneath the numbers of some otherwise Hall-worthy players that it is virtually impossible to create a composite of the player had they not used such substances. Because of the veil of secrecy that surrounds steroid use, there is no meaningful “before” and “after;” no way to tell who a player truly would have been absent the drug use (though some may try). This is the most pernicious thing about baseball’s steroid era; even when you know a player was dirty (and figuring even that out is a difficult task), it is impossible to tell how dirty they were.
I, of course, find some sympathy for Neyer’s fictional Joe. Hell, I would vote for Joe for the Hall of Fame, if the numbers were there. Should a man’s legacy be for all time tainted because of one bad decision, made from noble intentions? But the occasional user does not, by and large, personify what we conjure up when discussing steroids in baseball. Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire were not one-time users who suffered an ethical lapse in the midst of a playoff race. Their alleged use was repeated, sustained, and deliberate; their denials amidst the growing evidence utterly unbelievable.
The most compelling argument that the pro-Hall bunch can muster again analogizes PED users to current Hall of Fame members, but this time the focus isn’t on hangovers or weed. It’s about amphetamines, stimulants that according to certain reports were rampant throughout baseball well into the first decade of the 21st century. If baseball writers have voted in known amphetamine users, the argument goes, why draw an arbitrary boundary to exclude steroid users?
But pointing out the failings of other Hall of Famers doesn’t make a case for the inclusion of PED users. As Joe Posnanski has noted, if we’re talking about playing records, the argument that “X player is in the Hall, and so Y player should be too” can be used to justify nearly anyone for inclusion. Pointing out the ethical lapses among current members does nothing more than make the case against inclusion for those members. It does not bolster someone else’s case for getting in. No, the current crop of alleged PED candidates – Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire – will have to make their case on their own, regardless of what Ralph Kiner did with some greenies in 1953.
For most of the upcoming Hall of Fame players who have admitted using PEDs (or for whom there exists a sufficient factual basis to conclude that they used), there’s no good way to separate what they did from what they put in their bodies. There are, to be sure, some players whose use may have been so fleeting that it should not bar them Cooperstown, but of course we have no idea who those players are. In any event, past history with Bonds and McGwire almost assures that a player’s denial will never be believed.
It is a sticky and troubling situation to which there is no good solution. I am thankful that I am not (and probably never will be) a Hall of Fame voter, for they are in the unenviable position of cleaning up the mess the Steroid Era left in baseball’s kitchen. And so my only advice is for voters to use both their head and their conscience when evaluating steroid use on their Hall of Fame ballot. The fact that Jeff Bagwell – a clear-cut, no-doubt Hall of Fame player – received only 56% of the vote based largely on unsubstantiated and baseless suspicions of PED use shows the writers need to use their heads more. But for the Bonds and McGwires of baseball, I certainly won’t fault guys like Moore for voting their conscience and taking full advantage of the “character” clause.
*Alleged steroid users, the both of them. Nothing has, as with most things steroid-related, been proven.