Bert Blyleven appeared on 14 Hall of Fame ballots before the Baseball Writers Association of America elected the righty to Cooperstown. After receiving 17.5% of the vote in 1998, the percentage of writers supporting the wandering hurler declined in 1999, and it took Blyleven seven ballots before he reached 30% of the vote. In the midst of what seemed like heated debates about Blyleven’s credentials and the role of baseball statistics in Hall of Fame elections, Blyleven’s position among writers skyrocketed in the middle of the 00’s. By 2008 and 2009, more than 60% of the writers favored Blyleven’s enshrinement, and the righty cracked 70% of ballots in 2010. This leap proved the final step to Blyleven’s enshrinement in 2011.
The Blyleven case exhibits a perfectly reasonable progression of arguments within the Hall of Fame voting process. Although one might argue that a 14 ballot wait for a Hall of Famer seems extreme, those 14 ballots were accompanied by lively debate and consistent discussion, allowing a formidable base of supporters to strengthen their case for the curveballer. The debates centered around aspects of the game that were easily perceptible, and although Blyleven hardly had the “big game” that counterpart Jack Morris boasts, the character credentials associated with the many hats Blyleven wore took a back seat to his overall pitching performance. After 14 years, Blyleven received a nod for the Hall of Fame based on the aggregate of his career’s work — revealing a reasonable progression through the balloting.
The Steroids Ballot
In many ways, the Blyleven ballot was everything that the current Hall of Fame ballot is not. As soon as the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot opened, talk of the steroids era exploded. Surveying articles from many sources — MLB.com, ESPN.com, USAToday, CBSSports, the list doesn’t stop — the talk of steroids is equal to or even prior to the debate about these players’ credentials. Of course, the first-time players on the ballot include Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling, Craig Biggio, Sammy Sosa, and numerous others. These players are connected to baseball’s steroids era, of course, and perhaps that is such hot discussion because otherwise, it’s rather boring to continually praise these players for being the very best of their generation (or, in some cases, all time).
Next to the steroids talk emerges debate about the role of the BBWAA voters for this Hall of Fame ballot. This is perhaps the strangest phenomenon of the entire process. After all, this group of players were good enough to earn approximately 15 Cy Young and MVP awards, along with a few ROY awards (adding Sandy Alomar to that aforementioned list of first ballot candidates). There is no question that the Baseball Writers felt that several players in this class were among the very best of their era. In that regard, there is no better argument in favor of the candidacy of these players — they put together exceptional seasons, even judged against the inflations of the small-park, live ball, low mound, steroids era, the writers embraced the elite members with more awards than many previous greats received, and the fans LOVED these players. (You might mention that fans hated Bonds at some point, and yet who was tripping all over themselves at ballparks to catch one of his storied home runs?)
The Writers as Moral Police
Yet, the idea persists that the BBWAA serves as some brand of moral police. Jack Morris told MLB.com:
“It’s going to be a very interesting ballot and I know the writers are going to have some tough decisions to make. […]Unfortunately, they are going to have to be the moral police and I don’t think a lot of them want to be. Hopefully it will work out the right way and it will be the right thing when it’s all said and done.”
ESPN.com provided quotes from several writers that convey different perspectives. Some writers plan not to vote for players such as Bonds and Clemens because they believe their production was artificially enhanced; other plan to vote for players regardless of steroids allegations; still others plan to wait the voting process out and learn more. If the BBWAA serve as moral police, their electorate is divided at best, and may serve more as an obstructionist force to Hall of Fame enshrinement than a uniform moral position.
Morality and Baseball.
The trouble with the moral position about steroids is that it lacks clear information that counters the production of these players. First and foremost, if we honestly engage with statistical debates and analysis about the perceived benefits of steroids, we'll end up with answers that are inconclusive at best. There remains debate about what types of physical benefits players receive from PEDs for actual baseball activities. Secondly, if we work with individual cases, the amount of information tied to players’ use of PEDs is scattered at best, sometimes as good as information released in legal proceedings or as bad as hearsay. Third, and perhaps most importantly, there is little or no evidence of writers questioning players’ use of PEDs during the steroids era, or opposing their candidacy for awards.
I argue that the third condition is most important because morality is not simply looking back and learning how you could have acted. Morality is building good habits in order to build character that allows us to act well on a consistent basis; morality is striving toward what is right or good. Even when it is difficult to be a moral person, or there are poor conditions for morality, the standards of morality still exist; if the conditions are poor, then we can argue that perhaps acting well is impossible. This doesn't make acting poorly the correct decision, but it also is not an exoneration; when we move from poor moral conditions to better moral conditions, we should not look back on those conditions with the hubris of knowing we improved or knowing what is right (or simply knowing that the conditions changed). Moral improvements are inherently praiseworthy and great opportunities to learn about our character, habits, and actions; not opportunities for post hoc judgment.
This final condition appears to be the position to which Baseball Writers are currently privileged. The BBWAA was just as complicit in the steroids era as the MLB, MLBPA, fans, and players themselves. We can all debate about why we were in that boat together — frankly, I think it's because baseball is an entertainment industry, and it's fun to watch players dominate — but the fact remains that hardly any of us boast any moral standing over another when it comes to the steroids era.
Judging the Baseball Writers
Let's even assume, for a moment, that the rumblings about steroids in 2004 were beginning to impact everyone's outlook about the MLB. Barry Bonds received 91% of all possible points in MVP voting; Roger Clemens’s Cy Young award featured 88% of all possible points. Some writers cite the late career progress of Clemens and Bonds as artificial; if we even consider Clemens’s first arguable “artificial” performances in 1997 or 1998, well, he received 96% and 100% of possible Cy Young points for those seasons. Bonds can boast almost exactly the same percentage of points with his 2002 and 2003 MVP awards. I gather that if we piece through these awards, we can build a good argument that the BBWAA had little-to-no problem with the implications of PEDs in baseball; this, of course, says nothing about the morality of using PEDs, but it certainly raises questions about the writers’ abilities to wear post hoc moral police badges.
Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe features perhaps the best argument about not considering the merit of PEDs while voting for the Hall of Fame:
“Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and the rest of the scoundrels will get my vote. I’ll look at the players based on their statistical merit, how they compared to other players of their era and to other players in the Hall of Fame. I won’t sit at my desk and do Google searches to decide who is clean and who was cheating.
If you think that is a cowardly way out, I can’t argue with you. But it beats stabbing around in the dark and hoping to be right.”
Abraham’s theory for his ballot shifted over the last few years, and his sentiment seems to capture the perfect lack of morality for everyone involved with the steroids era. Unfortunately, other writers won’t share his vision about his role in voting, which ultimately serves the following goal:
“Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”
If the current voters are stumbling over the sportsmanship and character of the current Hall of Famers, perhaps they should look to Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, the strongest Hall of Fame class ever. Cobb himself faced allegations of conspiring to fix a game in 1919, and he turned out to be a fine, worthy Hall of Famer; Ruth, of course, is almost the perfect argument in favor of sportsman as entertainer, boasting a character so large or bombastic that those flaws turn into lovable gaffes. One wonders how Ruth and Cobb would have looked in front of our current class of Baseball Writers, a professional media with a constant news cycle that feeds on the mishaps and character flaws of others. Undoubtedly, there are some baseball allegations related to Cobb and Ruth that should give voters comfort about allowing Bonds and Clemens (and anyone else) into the Hall of Fame; chances are, Bonds or Clemens might not even be the biggest cheater or biggest jerk in Cooperstown.
As for the Baseball Writers, our moral police, what fate do they deserve? How many writers hold ballots that voted unanimously (or almost so) for Clemens and Bonds in 1997, 1998, 2002, 2003, and 2004? Why should those writers be allowed to hold ballots for the Hall of Fame when they voted for awards in ways that legitimized the steroids era? I gather that if the standard for ballplayers that used (or may have used) PEDs is a stern No-Cooperstown policy, the policy for Baseball Writers complicit with the Steroids Era deserve the same fate with their ability to vote. And yet, this very argument captures the absurdity of holding this era to some moral standard.
The baseball writers felt that some first-time players on this Hall of Fame ballot were worth the highest awards in their professions for many, many years. I hope I am not the only person that urges them to follow the logic of their previous votes and give these players their deserved places among their flawed-but-talented brethren.
News sources: MLB.com, ESPN.com, USAToday.com, Boston.com. (Linked in story where cited).
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC. 2000-2012.
James, Bill. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract New York: Free Press, 2001.
Steroids-and-baseball. http://steroids-and-baseball.com/. Owlcroft, 2007.
2012 Ballot Articles by BBWAA: http://bbwaa.com/2012-hof-voting-link/