With the NFL’s playoff season in full swing, this is the time of the year when baseball should not be making headlines. Oh, the hot stove league can pop a juicy rumor about a big trade or a free agent signing here and there, but for the most part, January is a month when teams are not much heard from and any mention of a baseball story in your local newspaper is likely to be a squib note on page C-7.
But not this year. Last week, in particular was about as bad as it can get for the game’s image.
First the Hall of Fame vote was announced. The Baseball Hall of Fame is as close to a shrine as any American sport has. To visit the Hall and its companion museum in Cooperstown, New York, is like a trip to Mecca for a true fan. All of the game’s greatest players are in the Hall, except for those I’ll mention in a moment, and all of the game’s greatest memories are represented in one form or another in the museum.
Normally, announcements about which players have been voted into the Hall are good news. And this year, with three recent greats (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas) all getting the requisite number of votes, the headlines should have been very positive. And they were for those three. But the bigger story concerned those who weren’t voted in. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens head that list. Also on it are Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa and at least a half dozen other seemingly worthy candidates (worthy, at least, based on their lifetime statistics), but none are getting near the number of votes needed because of their alleged use of performance enhancing drugs at some point in their careers.
Should they be rejected for that reason? That question has been increasingly raised as more sportswriters insist that no player who even dabbled with PEDs should be admitted to the hallowed Hall. In fact, this year, one voter went so far as to declare that he would not vote for any player who played during the PED era, which is loosely defined as starting somewhere around 1990 (give or take a year). Thus that particular writer didn’t even vote for Maddux, who has never been mentioned in connection with drugs of any kind and has a lifetime record that few who are in the Hall can match.
Now whether those who did use PEDs should be admitted to the Hall is a legitimate question. The problem is that the custodians of the Hall are not giving any guidance to the voters. And the voters are limited to members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) who have been members for at least ten years. Some of these 600 or so writers have not covered baseball for that long; others have outdated methods of judging players. (Wins for a pitcher, for example, is now recognized as one of the least important stats.)
Meanwhile many well qualified observers of the game (e.g., play-by-play announcers, blog writers, retired players, managers and general managers) are not given a vote. The result is a seemingly haphazard election process that has been exacerbated by the PED issue.
This year, Craig Biggio, an excellent all-around player who topped 3,000 hits (normally a guarantee to Hall election) fell two votes short of the required 75 percent. And one voter said he didn’t vote for Biggio (who has otherwise never been mentioned as a PED user) because someone told him he’d heard that Biggio experimented with certain PEDs once.
As a result of reports and admissions like that one, cries for reforming the election process to the Hall are now rampant, but whether anything will be done to change the system, or whether MLB will provide definitive guidelines for the voters regarding PEDs, is anyone’s guess.
But even as the frustration with the voting process and the confusion over the guidelines for election to the Hall received far more coverage than the owners and players would have wanted, an even bigger story broke at week’s end. And this one brought the PED issue to the forefront yet again.
The Alex Rodriguez arbitration case was finally decided. That case concerned another potential Hall of Fame candidate who will now almost certainly be denied entry when his time comes (unless the voting methodology discussed above is drastically changed).
Rodriguez is the highest paid player in the game. He is six years through a ten-year contract with the Yankees that pays him an average of $27 million a year. By virtue of the arbiter’s ruling in his case (suspending him for the entire upcoming season), Rodriguez will forfeit a year’s worth of that salary, and, because the Yankees might decide not to take him back when his suspension is over (effectively paying him the balance of the contract not to play), he may well have played his last baseball game.
Some fans will be delighted to have this player banned forever from the game he was so good at (both with and without the benefit of performance enhancing medication). Others, however, will wonder if he isn’t just the most visible offender of the game’s rules. And they will wonder if the game itself, despite the fervent policing efforts the owners and players have put in place (with mandatory random drug testing for all players), merits continued attention.
Most fans would prefer not to think about PEDs at all. They love the game for the beauty of its construction and for the majesty of its history. It’s the only game without a clock, the only game that hasn’t needed to change the distances (between bases and from pitcher to catcher), the only game that has teams that generations of fans follow, the only game that is so enmeshed in our culture that poetry and literature have whole sections of libraries devoted to it.
It’s the best of America’s games, its evergreen and its chestnut, and it will endure, notwithstanding weeks like the one it just had.