SThis is part of an ongoing series in which, with the help of friends and associates, we're reviewing the merits—and relative lack of merits—of the players on this year's Hall of Fame ballot. All entries in the series can be found here.
The Hall of Fame is one thing, a smallish and dullish part of a much bigger and cooler baseball museum in a picturesque upstate New York town in which, to my recollection, the only possible foods are patty melts and spice-free hotel food. The creaky gymnastics and khaki cuddle-puddle of pained justification that defines Hall of Fame voting—all these older white dudes, so weary in their righteousness, explaining why they cannot in good conscience vote to put the best baseball players of the last decade in baseball's Hall of Fame—are something else, related to the Hall of Fame but only barely. And Paul Lo Duca, who we might as well imagine hanging off the bottom of this year's Hall of Fame ballot, pop-eyed and screaming as ever, is another thing. He was a pretty good baseball player over 10 big league seasons, probably a good deal better than you remember and certainly better than I remembered, but he is not a Hall of Famer. That's easy.
That Lo Duca was not quite good enough over not quite enough years is or should be enough, and if he were another of his peers—he's down there with Sean Casey and Jacque Jones and Richie Sexson on the ballot, all players who accomplished some impressive things and made tens of millions of dollars—this would a good time to remember what a fine player he was. This would not be wrong, really, although Lo Duca was always more loud than good. He was often a very good player, and always the sort of maximum overdrive red-ass rage case called an Indispensable Emotional Leader by hot take types who would no sooner actually work around someone like that than you or I would.
Lo Duca was also great copy, happy to pop off about how bullshit various bullshit things were and—less intentionally and just by being his exuberantly dirtbaggy self—happy to give the New York Post opportunities to write some very New York Post sentences, e.g. "'I didn't know he was married. If I knew he was married, I wouldn't have dated him,' insisted the leggy teen, who lives with her parents."
There was some dreary, reality televisionian contemporaneity to Lo Duca's performed persona. Much of what got his apoplexy up during his quote-generating peak in New York had to do with Things Staying In The Clubhouse and other grim, coppish concerns; he feuded through a public divorce with a Playboy model and cruised Leggy Teens in Long Island bars with names like The Coyote (really) and O'Peen's (I don't know for sure, but probably).
But there was also some throwbackery to Lo Duca's macho sketchiness; he is surely one of the few players of his generation to be forced into a denial that he was being pursued by bookies over horse racing debts. Lo Duca was fortunate and charming enough—and, for a while, also good enough—that all this was filed under "colorful" instead of "irresponsible" or "narcissistic" or whatever other dire Puigian adjective might've otherwise wound up attached to it if he hadn't been Paul Lo Duca.
None of that extracurricular entertainment value gets a player into the Hall of Fame, of course, although neither is it the sort of thing that has historically kept anyone out. It depends on who's looking at it—Hall of Fame voters in past generations were certainly less likely to get hung up on the word "character" in clause-the-fifth—and how. Lo Duca made the All-Star team four times in his seven seasons as a regular, and was one of the best all-around catchers in baseball during a brief prime that overlapped almost exactly with George W. Bush's first term in office. What will keep him out of the Hall is mostly that Lo Duca was never quite great—his career-best WAR tally, per FanGraphs, was a very strong 5.1, in 2001; that's about twice as many wins as he was ever worth again, and would be just the seventh-best figure of Mike Piazza's career.
That's the same Mike Piazza that Lo Duca replaced in Flushing. So, one of the greatest offensive players at his position in baseball history, and a player that likely won't get in this year because a bunch of exceptionally unexacting moralists—their Zapruder film is bilious conjecture by rejected Philip Roth protagonist Murray Chass about Piazza's florid bacne—are concerned about Piazza's role in The Steroid Era. There is no proof of any wrongdoing on Piazza's part, but think of grave concerns. Think of the message it would send. Think of various things that these extremely concerned Hall of Fame voters are maybe, but probably not, actually thinking about, where Mike Piazza is concerned and where Paul Lo Duca never was.
Perhaps it's partially about all that. But what will keep Piazza out of the Hall of Fame this year, if indeed he doesn't get in, is not any shortage of on-field brilliance, nor any preponderance of evidence—or, fuck it, evidence—suggesting that Piazza's on-field performance was enhanced by some performance-enhancer or other. That rejection will come, as it came last year and mostly always does, from a certain unseemly urge to say no to supermen on the part of these voters. If Lo Duca gets even a single vote this year, it will be because of that urge's twin—the way this incautiously granted and capriciously exercised authority encourages voters to give the benefit of the doubt to, and check the relevant box for, guys they like, for whatever reasons they like them.
Piazza's story is not really all that different than Lo Duca's. Both were chosen late in the amateur draft by the Dodgers, Piazza in the 62nd round and Lo Duca in the 25th. Both were overlooked until they became impossible to overlook, as amateurs and then in the minors. Lo Duca walked on to his junior college team at Glendale Community College after not being recruited out of high school, hit around .450 in his two years there, then won the Sporting News college baseball player of the year award in his one season at Arizona State after setting a school record with a .446 batting average. Even then, he was overlooked: his bat was not as quick as those of the best prospects, his body not as strong, his measurables not commensurate with the non-measurables that gave him the career he went on to have.
But Lo Duca made it, and kept on making it. He didn't make it as much or as far as Piazza did, which kept him closer to eye level for the people who define the narrative that in turn dictates who deserves what. Lo Duca was a recognizable character, a baseball type; Piazza announced himself as a strange-ish and moderately vain godhead pretty quickly, and then kept on making it clear that he was in fact exactly that.
Piazza's reward for that late and unexpected greatness was a decade of creepo tabloid thigh-rubbing over what a supreme gaylord he probably was; his reward for it now is a passel of furrowed-brow mini-grandees wondering just how he could've hit all those homers while shooting winks and pistoning elbow nudges at each other. The difference with Lo Duca, beyond the qualitative one, is that there is no suspicion on this front. Lo Duca is one of the stars of the Mitchell Report, and definitely, inarguably, admittedly took performance-enhancing drugs.
Everyone who bothers to have an opinion on this will obtain and defend some level of huffiness about that fact. There is no one anywhere, really, who wants to apologize for it. But, of course, this betrayal is not read the same way in every case. For world-historic talents such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens—and also for only slightly less massive talents like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro—the documented use of illegal and performance-enhancing drugs is a special sort of betrayal.
It compounds and accrues into something both towering and accessible enough for even the paunchiest moralist to ascend, and from which low summit to deliver a sermon on the sanctity of various important things. For Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza and others, even the vaguest and least-supported suspicion of such a betrayal is enough to delay the honor they earned over the course of well-witnessed decades of brilliance. For Paul Lo Duca, it's different.
It's not that anyone thinks Lo Duca did right by using steroids during his time with the Dodgers and Marlins—he was, by all accounts, clean during his time with the Mets in the middle of the last decade, and then through the short, steep shoulder of his career—because no one really thinks that. If he had a case for the Hall of Fame, all that would surely figure into it.
But Lo Duca doesn't, really, and so he receives a different sort of consideration. Lo Duca, who very admirably struggled and fought and overachieved for the years he had and the numbers he owns and the millions he made—and who was accessible and quotable and either endearingly unfiltered or only ever precariously in-control, depending on how you want to see it—instead got a sort of mortal-to-mortal discount during his playing days, and gets it still in the memory.
Here are some notes on Lo Duca from a Dodgers front-office meeting in October 2003: "Got off the steroids... Took away a lot of hard line drives... If you do trade him, will get back on the stuff and try to show you he can have a good year. That's his makeup. Comes to play." It's a plain indictment of that whole era's cynicism, and of everyone involved in it—none of whom, at any level, were ever punished, naturally. It's jarringly frank, and more wrong than not in any ethical sense. But read it enough times and the tone and subtext are unmistakable where Lo Duca is concerned: That is praise.
David Roth is a columnist for SBNation.com and a co-founder and editor of The Classical and a person from New Jersey who lives in New York; he is not the David Roth from Van Halen or magic. He grew up as a fan of the New York Mets and New Jersey Nets, but is comparatively well-adjusted, considering.
Art by Sam Woolley