Every year, as baseball’s steroid era — or, at least, most the obvious one — becomes a little smaller in the rearview mirror, the most blatant of the cheaters inch a little closer to the Hall of Fame.
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens didn’t get in this time, but their percentage of votes on the ballots cast by the Baseball Writers Association of America increased once again. It takes 75 percent to be elected. Bonds and Clemens reached 53.8 and 54.1 percent, respectively, a jump of roughly 10 points over the previous year.
The winners announced Wednesday night were Tim Raines, Jeff Bagwell, and Ivan Rodriguez. Another handful just missed and will have to wait for another year and, oh good, we get another year of impassioned debate concerning whether Trevor Hoffman or Billy Wagner is more Hall-worthy.
Judging by the backs of their trading cards, Raines, Bagwell, and Rodriguez are reasonable selections. Of course, Raines admitted long ago there was a time in his career when he slid headfirst so as not to dislodge the cocaine he kept safely in his back pocket. And Bagwell and Rodriguez are among the players — like Mike Piazza, one of last year’s inductees — about whom there were persistent rumors concerning the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
That’s OK. There aren’t all that many saints in the Hall of Fame anyway, even though the election process instructs voters to take in account a “character” component. There are a lot of great baseball players, though, with a few notables missing. Joe Jackson and Pete Rose aren’t there. Bonds and Clemens and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmiero and whomever else you’d like to lump in with that group still aren’t in, either, although they are getting closer.
The growing support is not so much forgiveness as a change in the institutional memory of the BBWAA itself. Full disclosure: I’ve been a member of the BBWAA for many years, but do not take part in postseason award voting or Hall of Fame voting. My belief is that journalists should not be in the position of attempting to impartially report on a process in which they are involved. We don’t let political reporters serve on candidate nomination committees or the like, and the principle is the same. Many of my friends in the business feel differently, of course. If they didn’t, the current mess would be baseball’s to sort out. Instead, the lords of the game don’t have to sully their hands with it. The BBWAA jealously guards its little bivouac of power, and gladly takes the job, although not without plenty of sighing about what a difficult job it is.
Every year, the BBWAA gets a little younger as new reporters enter the profession and as some segment of the existing membership either retires or moves on to cover something else. It’s fair to say that the incoming generation of writers is not as hidebound when it comes to the game — which is a good thing — and isn’t quite as protective of it, either. In one form or another, the major leagues have been around for 150 years and it’s probable the game would survive the inclusion of Rose or Bonds in the Hall of Fame. Either way, the newer members of the BBWAA aren’t going to get all that fussed about it.
Baseball does not easily get over itself, however, and that goes for the stewards of the game, whether they are club owners, executives in the commissioner’s office, or most of the gatekeepers of the Hall ballot.
If justice were really sought, getting into the Hall would be solely about baseball accomplishments, and when you visited Cooperstown and read the text on Pete Rose’s plaque and studied the display for the game’s all-time hit leader, the description would be an accurate account of the good and the bad. Bonds? Same thing, with every bit of BALCO testimony available for the listening.
The Hall of Fame would form a textbook for the game, a dispassionate history. That is what it should be, not a hall of mirrors in which Stan Musial and Ty Cobb are given the same reflected glow. Baseball would survive being a little less godded up.
Of course, removing the passion, the fandom, the sense that these mortals are being led into an eternal Valhalla, is the trick. People care desperately and get very worked up about it, almost as if this were really an important part of their lives.
What we learned on Wednesday is that Raines, Bagwell, and Rodriguez are in the Hall of Fame and that Bonds and Clemens will be. I can’t say if any of that is good or bad, because it’s impossible to tell any more what is being measured, aside from the length of the voters’ memory.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Bob Ford is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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