Major League Baseball Hall of Fame voters need black and white criteria with which to cast their ballots.
My passionate take on this subject admittedly comes from being wrongly accused throughout my career of taking steroids. There was one reason and one reason alone for these misguided recriminations; I played the game with a muscular physique in a time period where fingers were being recklessly pointed in every direction. It certainly wasn’t about a spike in performance as I hit 18 home runs in my rookie season and never again matched that figure.
When Seattle Mariners right-hander Ryan Franklin was suspended after testing positive for steroid use in August of 2005, the perception that only large, muscular sluggers could be guilty of PED use changed momentarily. His punishment came on the heels of superstar first baseman, and my teammate in Texas in the early 2000s, Rafael Palmeiro’s failed test and short ban.
Franklin is 6-3 and played at a wiry 190 pounds. From the batter’s box, he appeared lanky and lacking mass. Raffy’s body was soft and that of an average man in his 30s. Out of uniform, he would have been unidentifiable as a professional athlete. During the time before his plummet from grace, I recall hearing zero whispers of his PED use. He simply didn’t look the part.
The baseball community allowed this information — that PED users come in all shapes and sizes — to land for a moment in time. However, everyone quickly reverted back to the comfortable bias that big, powerful guys were the only players that doped.
In recent years, HOF voters have refused to elect a player associated with PED use. This is a slippery slope because, in most cases, deciding whether a player actually took PEDs is a game of speculation. In fact, the biggest misconception of all, and not based on fact generally speaking, is that there was indeed a “steroid era” in baseball.
Sports Illustrated reported that “In the 1950s US weightlifting doctor John Ziegler began work on creating a refined synthesis technique that would produce a compound with the muscle-building benefits of testosterone without androgenic side effects, such as prostate enlargement.”
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, bodybuilders gained notoriety for strength, size and, of course, steroid use.
Are we that naive that we subscribe to athletes from Olympic and lesser-publicized sports experimenting with PEDs, but not our beloved professional athletes? Do we believe that our baseball players were not drawn to the idea that they could take a shortcut to become fleeter of foot and stronger in years prior to the late ‘80s? In a world where a certain portion of the population will scour the earth for ways to cheat to get an edge, why would we assume that it would only take place over a specific number of years?
I submit that while we may have witnessed the “steroid era” in baseball, we likely experienced the weight-lifting era. That is a fairer conclusion to reach than the former. It’s been openly discussed without need to disguise details and there has been consensus on the ultimate acceptance of weight training in our sport arriving in the 1980s.
In addition to what our eyes have told us, we rely on a subjectively warped stats game to give us the answers we seek. “How could a guy go from this many to that many? He’s gotta be on the juice.”
If this is the way to start the process of deciding who the users are, we should take a trip into earlier eras. Davey Johnson, who went from five home runs in 1972 to 43 in ’73 to 15 in ’74 and never sniffed 20 in any other season, should consequently raise concern. I don’t think Johnson used steroids, I simply believe it’s a case worth illuminating in an effort to poke fun at our current accusatory system.
This year’s HOF ballot is littered with all sorts of body types from the unassuming Greg Maddux to the enormous Frank Thomas. Jeff Bagwell who received 59.6 percent of the necessary 75 percent last year represents the beefy, muscle dude of the bunch.
Is it fair to assume that guys like Bagwell and Craig Biggio took steroids and lankier, more average body types like Maddux and Glavine did not? After all, the whispers were likely started based on nothing but body-type profiling.
The proof will be in the non-anabolic pudding when Thomas is elected to the Hall in his first year on the ballot and Bagwell, whose numbers are definitely not as good as Frank’s but eerily similar in most categories gets a stiff arm to the well-developed chest.
You see, the baseball world thinks Bagwell took PEDs and Thomas did not despite the fact that Bagwell has never tested positive and Thomas has never proven his innocence.
It’s time to give the writers a break and snatch the speculation game from their clutches, making the selection ritual clearer cut. We live, theoretically, in an innocent until proven guilty society. We can do the same with the HOF.
If a player has been officially in a report, failed a test, had a suspension upheld after an appeal, etc., he loses his HOF eligibility and can’t be on the ballot. Every other MLB athlete is innocent and should be evaluated strictly on his merit. The character thing is so variable, so subjective, that it needs to be removed from the equation to avoid the inevitable popularity contest that has ensued and will continue to play itself out.
Implementing a comprehensible system like this might aid in the effort of cleaning up our game in addition to ending the ridiculously frustrating question “How do we handle the Steroid Era?”
I reckon HOF ineligibility will serve as a small deterrent to future superstars balancing carefully on the fence of a tough decision. Perhaps if Raffy Palmeiro and others had had this threat, they’d be in the HOF today. As it stands, those with positive tests should be kept out, and it shouldn’t be a subject up for a vote.