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The Baseball Hall of Fame Vote: An ‘Edge of Sports’ Post-Mortem | The Nation

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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

The Baseball Hall of Fame Vote: An ‘Edge of Sports’ Post-Mortem

In this August18, 1999, file photo, the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds tosses his bat after hitting a two-run home run. (AP Photo)

It is shooting extremely comatose fish in a barrel to trash the Baseball Writers Association of America after this week’s Hall of Fame votes were tallied. The BBWAA once again, because of the cloud of performance-enhancing drugs, kept out baseball’s all-time home run leader Barry Bonds and the greatest right-handed pitcher since integration, Roger Clemens. Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Jeff Bagwell, Rafael Palmeiro, Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza were also all Hall of Fame–caliber players of their generation shut out because of admitted, openly suspected or quietly rumored steroid use.

Meanwhile Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine are in, because the voters, who one can only assume have the all-seeing powers of the blinded Cordelia on American Horror Story: Coven, were able to divine that these three were in fact “clean.” The BBWAA, relying on the “integrity” clause in the voting process have decided that “integrity” means not using PEDs during a time when Major League Baseball had no drug-testing policy and many of these same writers spent the 1990s praising people like McGwire for their “Bunyanesque” physiques.

The top baseball writers, the owners, the sports networks and the managers all were enriched by the go-go steroid ’90s and now the weight of the entire post-party hangover has fallen on the shoulders of the players. The greatest farce of all will be seeing manager Tony LaRussa become a Hall of Famer after spending a career shielding his PED-popping players and slandering the few writers, like Howard Bryant, trying to get to the bottom of the story. (The BBWAA does not vote for managers).

This has driven some of these voters to extreme acts, such as ESPN’s Dan LeBatard, who we now know is the secret sportswriter that gave his vote to the rebel sports website Deadspin. As Dan wrote and people should read his entire justification, “I feel like my vote has gotten pretty worthless in the avalanche of sanctimony that has swallowed it. I have no earthly idea if Jeff Bagwell or Frank Thomas did or didn’t use steroids. I think I understand why the steroid guys were the steroid guys in this competition-aholic culture. I hate all the moralizing we do in sports in general, but I especially hate the hypocrisy in this: many of the gatekeeper voters denying Barry Bonds Hall Of Fame entry would have they themselves taken a magical, healing, not-tested-for-in-their-workplace elixir if it made them better at their jobs, especially if lesser talents were getting the glory and money. Lord knows I’d take the elixir for our ESPN2 TV show if I could.”

This led to some “ESPN on ESPN violence,” as Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon of the show Pardon the Interruption took turns pummeling LeBatard and dropping cubic zirconia gems that should be quoted back to them for years like, “There’s nothing more democratic than the Baseball Hall of Fame vote” (Kornheiser), “Don’t tell me that the process is flawed” (Wilbon) and my personal favorite from Kornheiser, “”I know [Dan] believes in anarchy. But this is not the set of the Big Lebowski” (to a Lebowski fan, that previous statement makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. I suppose he meant nihilists, but anarchists have an ethos).

Kornheiser and Wilbon aside, even the BBWAA’s greatest defenders admit there are tremendous flaws in the voting process. There are too many voters who no longer watch games, too many experts who are not allowed to vote, and too many like LeBatard, who—as he fully admits—have no idea what they're doing.

What gets lost, however, in the slings and arrows we gleefully toss at the BBWAA is why so many in the organization have taken this position to leave out the players with even a hint of PED scandal attached to their names. Having interviewed more than a few of these voters, it should be noted that they vote the way they do because they feel like they don’t have a choice. They believe that Major League Baseball and Bud Selig dropped the ball so egregiously in the 1990s, creating a hypocritical moral swamp, that they are the last group of people who can do anything to provide some kind of clarity to the era. I disagree with their reasoning, but it is a rationale that actually is rational. It is certainly more rational than finding a place in Cooperstown for Tony LaRussa, while his own players like McGwire need a ticket to get inside. I wish people taking their potshots at the BBWAA would reserve 99 percent of their ire for Bud Selig. For that matter, I wish members of the BBWAA were more public with their disgust for Selig and everything he has done to create this collateral damage across baseball’s history. That would be a profoundly more principled and more honest take.

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As for the Hall, I personally believe that if we remember the 1990s as the “PED era,” then the best players of that era should be enshrined. The “whites-only era,” the “spitball era,” the “dead-ball era,” the “greenies era,” all are represented at the Hall of Fame. If a player like McGwire came up dirty, put it on his plaque. Don’t whitewash the history, but don’t eradicate it either. Don’t exclude undeniably epic athletes. That takes us to Barry Bonds. Bonds is the greatest player I have ever had the privilege to see, someone for whom I would arrive early to watch take batting practice. A Baseball Hall of Fame without him is, for my money, not worth its name. Someday, without question, Selig himself will be inducted, while Bonds remains with his face pressed up against the glass. At that point, they may as well just padlock the doors to Cooperstown and turn it into what it is slowly becoming: a restricted country club that celebrates the power of the few over the aspirations and memories of the many.

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