The way baseball’s Hall of Fame and the veteran sportswriters who vote in its elections have responded to the presence of drug users on the ballot over the last several years has been terrible for the institution, turning what should be an annual celebration of the game’s great players and rich history into an annual exercise in insulting those players and denying them their place in that history. This is less than ideal. On the other hand, during this period veteran sportswriters have, as a class, reached new heights in the use of pretzel logic, tortured rationalizations, and sanctimony in explaining their votes, which is pretty damn close to ideal for those of us who enjoy, or are at least entertained by, such things.
This brings us to this ballot, published yesterday by Fancred’s Jon Heyman. It’s not the worst ballot that will come in—that will definitely be some guy from the Ashtabula Spectator-Defenestrator voting for Omar Vizquel and no one else for reasons he will explain at punishing length—and for that matter, it’s not even bad; Heyman voted for the maximum 10 players out of a pool that includes 15 or so who are decent candidates, including some deserving ones who haven’t gotten much support. It is, though, flatly weird, which makes it fun. Take your enjoyment where you can find it.
The main thing here would seem to be Heyman not voting for Roger Clemens, the greatest pitcher of all time, because he is believed to have used drugs, while voting for Barry Bonds, the greatest player of all time, despite the fact that he is believed to have used drugs. The reasons here defy easy summary but amount to him believing that Bonds only started using drugs after he had already done enough in his career to merit induction, something which makes his drug use understandable and obviates any concerns about any lies or dissembling about them, while being unsure that Clemens only started using drugs after he had already done enough in his career to merit induction because, Heyman believes, Clemens lied and dissembled about his drug use. That’s as I understand it; perhaps I’m misreading:
The main reason I vote for Bonds is that I believe the narrative that Bonds didn’t take steroids until he saw two great but lesser players (Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa) start to surpass him via their own use of illegal chemicals and I don’t know what to believe with Clemens, whose lying far outstripped that of Bonds. Clemens went to the point of volunteering to lie on “60 Minutes,” and lying before Congress, which is of course a crime. Ultimately Clemens was found not guilty of perjury, but the standards aren’t the same here as there. He did lie. Many times.
What makes this an item for the connoisseur, though, is something tucked away down toward the bottom of the column, where Heyman gives his thoughts on players he thinks are worthy of induction in the abstract but won’t vote for because they used drugs (or because he thinks they did ):
34) Andy Pettitte — We appreciated the (occasional) honesty. From here, he’d have made it without the HGH. Blame Roj.
Here one sees just how baroque the logic covering drug use, a player (possibly) lying and dissembling about it, and the relevance of these things to his Hall of Fame candidacy can get: Dishonesty is bad and disqualifying (unless it isn’t), but so too is honesty, and whether a great player lied or told the truth is immaterial, unless they are believed to have told lies adjacent to vaguely-defined mitigating circumstances, in which case, something, but otherwise not.
As confusing and odd as all this is, it’s possibly less confusing than the straight baseball calls on the ballot, where, again, there is a call so strange that Heyman is aware it deserves explication, which his explication does little to clarify: It is his contention that because he is voting for Edgar Martínez—who spent more than a decade as one of the most dominant hitters in baseball, annually ranked among the league leaders in all sorts of important hitting categories, and was, in retrospect, the central presence in Seattle baseball through a period when Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, and Ichiro Suzuki were all at the height of their powers—he should also vote for Lance Berkman.
But if I vote for Martinez, after a close review of their careers, I conclude that I must also vote for Berkman, whose career was so similar it’s hard to decide who is better. Some might even say Berkman’s career is slightly better due to the fact he did much better in MVP voting, which suggests greater impact (six times in the top seven, for Berkman to only two for Martinez, and no, it’s not because as some would have you believe, that the voters messed up), he played the field except for his brief time with the Yankees (and even played center field), and while he wasn’t a great defensive player, there’s a value taking a position and doing it adequately, he is a World Champion by virtue of his vital single that kept the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals alive.
Berkman, to be sure, was a far better player than he’s likely to be remembered as, and if you wanted to stack his best seasons up against Martínez’s, there really wouldn’t be much to say for one of them one way or the other; the difference, which makes their careers not all that similar, is basically that Martínez had 10 or so years where he would have been a reasonable candidate for a high spot on an MVP ballot and Berkman had about half that many, so that even if they ended up with vaguely similar career batting lines they aren’t all that much alike. (Add four more Cy Young candidate-caliber seasons to Dave Stieb’s résumé and he’d be, I don’t know, Steve Carlton.) The argument gets all the weirder when you consider that Heyman writes off Larry Walker—basically the same hitter as Martínez or Berkman in a career of about the same length, but one who peaked higher and was also a great defender and baserunner—as ... someone he might consider if the ballot was bigger.
What is to be made of these sorts of arguments, and what to make of them when they sit alongside ones that put Fred McGriff on the ballot while leaving off any number of better players—directly comparable players, like Todd Helton—I have no idea, and would have no idea of in any circumstances. When they sit alongside righteous votes and arguments for Scott Rolen (one of the 10 or best so third basemen of all time, if one who has no chance of being elected), Andruw Jones (perhaps or perhaps not, depending on how you read things, the best center fielder of all time, but a player who was a slightly more gentle decline phase away from being waved in), and Curt Schilling (as awful a person as baseball has produced in the last while, and someone who should have been voted in years ago), things just get all the harder to make anything of. What is clear is that this stuff makes absolutely no sense and that even thoughtful voters like Heyman are being forced down inscrutable if not byzantine tracks because they’ve accepted as a prior that drug use is so bad as to override any other evaluation you can make of how good a player was, how much they mattered, or what any of that meant to the history of the sport.
What is there to say but that that’s fine? Up until the Hall of Fame and veteran sportswriters get to the point where they admit that turning the vote over to the people is the way forward and the way out of the morass in which they’ve stuck themselves, the best thing to do is to stand back, observe the knots into which people will tie themselves navigating conundrums as an alternative to proclaiming that it’s okay to use drugs, and offer a hearty “What the fuck, man?” The Hall of Fame may be done, but the entertainment it has to offer the public won’t be for years.