Baseball Hall of Fame: Time to Hold our Noses

I have a confession to make.  This will come as a complete shock to those who know me, but I love baseball.  I don’t love it in the way a football fan loves football.  Football fans love the action, the violence, the gambling, etc., and football is definitely the most popular sport in the United States.   I don’t love it the way a basketball fan loves basketball.  Basketball fans love the cult of personality, the star, the amazingly athletic moves, the “Jordan Rules”, and even sometimes the occasional play when all five players on the court work together to play some defense.  I don’t love it the way a soccer fan loves soccer.  Soccer fans love…uh…uh…0-0 ties, fake injuries, and the nuances my brain is just too unsophisticated to comprehend.

No, I love baseball.  I allowed myself the honor of trying to answer why and to what extent I really love this game as I drove to work this morning.  The news was abuzz with the Hall of Fame voting completed this week, in which no one was elected.  There were some great players on the ballot, but the cloud of steroid use hung over the heads of many; and all of them, users or not, were kept out of the Hall.  The radio chatter provided fitting background to my own reflections as I wheeled my way down US-31 and into a fabulous sunrise coming up over LakeCharlevoix.  (It’s January, and normally we don’t get to see fabulous sunrises (or sunsets, or the darn sun at all) in northern Michigan until April.

Like many sessions of personal reflection, ideas were flying around my head ranging from my own opinions on the Hall of Fame, to moments of my limited success playing the game, to high points in my coaching career, to the agonizing and annoying moments in my coaching career, to major league players I loved and hated, to moments in all of my children’s baseball/softball exploits, and to players I coached who make me smile each time I allow them to creep into my thoughts.  I also thought about fantasy baseball and how often that silly hobby uses up some of my analytical brain cells that I may never get back.

The backdrop to all of this, of course, was the game itself; it’s the game that I will always believe epitomizes the perfect combination of individual struggle and team collaboration.  Parents and players who have heard my pre-season talk might recall how I stress the character building nature of this game.  Every play starts with one player facing one other player in a test of skills, will, and concentration.   There’s no place to hide when you’re the pitcher standing on the hill with the ball in your hand and every eye in the place is on you…especially the two eyes of the hitter who is trying to ruin your day.   Every pitch has the potential to build character, or to tear it down.  It’s why I think a lot of parents would prefer their child play soccer where there is far less pressure and scrutiny on individual players.

Watching your child grow as a man before your eyes is a painful process for many parents, but grow he will.   Even now I’m smiling as I recall the number of parents I’ve seen in the stands with their head in their hands, or pacing behind the backstop mumbling “why, why, why?” as their son faced a hitter with a 3-2 count and the bases loaded in a tie game.

As a coach at the high school and little league level, you get to work with players in a very small window.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get to coach the great players for four years in a high school setting, and maybe a couple of more in summer ball.  That’s why it is especially pleasing when players from past teams have fond memories of what we accomplished as a group…and they take the time to share them with me.  Any person who has ever coached any sport knows the ultimate payback for coaching is not the $25 gift card to MC Sports you get at the end of the year, but rather the warm feeling you get when a player you worked with 5 years ago or 10 years ago sees you on the street or online and calls you “coach.”

So I have this special attachment to the game that I doubt will ever be shaken.  My wife, who has learned to tolerate and even support my love of the game, was asking me about the coming baseball season.  It’s especially relevant today because I was planning on being in Mt.Pleasant tomorrow for the annual Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Meeting.  Each year I revel in the weekend of baseball talk and demonstrations presented by the great high school and college coaches in our area.  And yes, I even love walking down the vendor aisles, grabbing every new bat and gripping it, and putting new gloves up to my face to take in one of the great smells ever created.   But I’m not coaching at the high school level this year and it’s made this winter especially long.

While talking about a summer team opportunity, my wife asked about whether all the grief associated with not having a high school job would prevent me from enjoying the summer team.  But I assured her that when the practices start and when I’m between the lines during games, all will be well.  I am truly in another world when my hands are on the game.  I can’t count the number of times my wife would ask after a game whether I had heard so-and-so complaining about this call or that move or that player.   But I never do, unless they yell so loud the umpire’s mask comes off.  Then I hear.   But during the playing of the game, what happens outside the fences goes largely unnoticed.

So it’s with that lengthy explanation of my love for the game that I sat down today to talk about the Hall of Fame.  All the talk about PED’s has certainly caused a lot of people to question the integrity of the game.  It’s somewhat amusing that when football players are caught with PED’s, they get a 4-game suspension and everyone forgets; yet fans all over the country can recite the litany of baseball names who either did, or were alleged to have, used PED’s.  They are scarred for life, while players in football get a fresh start after missing four games.

In the recent vote for the Hall of Fame, several players were on the ballot who either admitted using PED’s, or were named as users in any number of reports and trials. Some players whose names never appeared in any report or trial were also denied entrance to the Hall because of their acne.   Once a reporter claimed he saw Mike Piazza (clearly the most prominent offensive catcher in history) with a towel on his back to hide the acne that comes from certain PEDS’s, it became common “knowledge” that Piazza was a user.  The same flimsy evidence surrounds Jeff Bagwell, a fabulous hitter who also just couldn’t seem to get over his teen-aged skin problems.

Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire are the other players with Hall of Fame credentials who did not get in.   A couple of other names sit outside the Hall who clearly have a claim for a seat there: Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson.   The first five are not going in any time soon because it is widely believed they used PED’s to inflate their stats.  The last two because, either as coach or player, were believed to be involved with gambling or fixing games.

I don’t have the space today to make my case about whether any or all of these players were guilty of the “crimes” of which they have been accused.  Even assuming they are all guilty, I struggle with why they should be kept out of the Hall of Fame.  The Hall of Fame is a museum.  It tells the story of baseball.  You can’t tell the complete story of baseball without its all-time hit leader, it’s all-time home run leader, the players involved in the amazing homer chase of 1998, etc.

At the same time, the baseball lover in me has a hard time honoring players who broke rules to gain their fame.  The Baseball Writers Association of America, who is given the job of selecting Hall of Famers, clearly does not intend to honor those players.  In so doing, they are allowing the story of the game to sit in Cooperstown with missing chapters.   In the same way that football fans write off the transgressions of their heroes, it’s time for baseball to do the same.

It seems to me to be a fine line anyway between what technological advantages are blessed and which are cursed.  Isn’t Tommy John surgery a artificial enhancement of a player?  Enough people think so that high school players are being subjected to the surgery because the evidence it pretty clear that adding an additional tendon to an arm makes the pitcher stronger upon his return to the game.   Big plates of armor on elbows, ankles, knees, etc are also artificial enhancements.  If you have no fear of being hit by a pitch because you’re dressed like King Arthur at the plate, you are gaining a huge advantage over the pitcher.   Hyperbolic chambers, amphetamines, video-enhanced batting cages, eye-black, lasik surgery, etc., are all artificial enhancements that players take advantage of in trying to be better.

The compromise seems to me to be pretty simple. Let’s hold our collective noses and put the PED users, the gamblers, and all the other “cheaters” into the Hall of Fame. But to keep our consciences clear, let’s label their plaques with our proof or suspicions about the level of their misconduct.   I want to see Pete Rose and Barry Bonds in the Hall of Fame, but I also want the world to know how they sold themselves out along the way.

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3 Comments on “Baseball Hall of Fame: Time to Hold our Noses”

  1. Eric January 11, 2013 at 4:41 am #

    Well written, I have to admit I enjoyed the first half the most.

    Maybe it’s the optimist in me that wants to think that the majority of players choose not to cheat the game. Maybe it’s the parent who feels like we let them get away with something.

    Regardless of how they did it, baseball is a game of skill, so the fact that they possessed those skills remain. I’m not sure how I feel about them entering the Hall just yet, but I do know it’s too soon to plug my nose.

    Your point about Tommy Johns was an interesting one, however, would Bonds career have been over if he stayed clean? Maybe, perhaps that’s what led him down that path. Does that make it more acceptable. Is it worse that they cheated, or that they continue to lie about it? I don’t know that it gives them a pass, but honesty is worth a couple votes in my book.

  2. Dan January 14, 2013 at 4:26 pm #

    I had this conversation with Keenan on Sunday. I don’t believe that the line is “fine” at all. The line: You can’t engage in a behavior for the purpose of obtaining a competitive advantage if we know within a reasonable degree of certainty that the behavior materially increases your risk of developing a serious medical condition at some point in the future. Tommy John surgery is a response to an injury. Hyperbaric chambers do not pose a quantifiable risk (that I’m aware of) to the player. Neither does LASIK or body armor.

    You spend the first half of this piece celebrating what makes baseball different and special, but the second half encouraging baseball fans to stop pretending that baseball is different and special. To be more like football by reconciling with this generation’s most notorious, flagrant, and contemptible cheaters.

    I think baseball is a prideful, arrogant, anachronistic institution that has been lapped in the sports marketplace by better products. But if baseball has redeeming qualities, one them them has to be the unique durability and integrity of the games’ various institutions, most notably its rules’ and sportsmanship cultures that are unique in modern professional sports and that serve as a model for every other sports organization on the planet. This culture is built on the game’s insanely elaborate written and unwritten codes of player conduct that, at least since Kenesaw Landis, have been savagely enforced. Cheat in any other sport, and the game and the fans will quickly forgive you. Cheat in baseball, and you are banished—summarily cast out behind the walls of civilization, a fate worse than death, never to be spoken of again.

    The value of this precedent, I think, is difficult to underestimate, and shouldn’t be discarded simply to ensure that Cooperstown tells a “complete” story, or because cheaters in other sports are allowed back in the fold. And isn’t Cooperstown already telling a complete story by excluding these players? Or by having an exhibit in the museum on the steroid era, listing the names of the players that besmirched the game for over a decade?

    In short: These players are the ones that compromised. They compromised their reputations, their teammates, and the game itself. Why should the game compromise for them?

    • Mark Pontoni January 15, 2013 at 3:35 pm #

      Dan,

      As always, your comments are well thought out and eloquently expressed. You and I are never going to agree about the value of the game, but that’s ok. I won’t force you to watch any baseball if I don’t have to watch any Tour de France. (couldn’t resist the cheap shot on the day Lance Armstrong finally fesses up…sort of.)

      I didn’t come to my position easily and I expect most of my friends were surprised to see me take it regarding the HOF. I certainly won’t claim my position is carved in granite. I will always be angry at the guys who cheated because they did damage “my” game.

      Maybe I’ll have to rethink this. Thanks for the insight.

      Mark

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