by Michael Liss
What moves the American soul?
We love arguments, contests, and elections. Love the drama, the passion, the polarizing candidates, the fake piety, the rank partisanship, the heart-felt and often appallingly disingenuous editorials, and the heavy dose of moral relativism.
It's that time again. Baseball Hall of Fame ballots for the class of 2018 had to be postmarked as of Sunday, December 31, 2017. The final results will be announced January 24, but the angst is well underway. This year, in particular, the garden-variety question of who, on performance, merits induction, has been largely dominated by the public evaluation of a generation of original sinners, the steroid boys.
It's been more than a decade since the first retired PED's user came on the ballot, but this year's discussion was juiced (sorry about that) by Hall of Famer Joe Morgan's November letter to every member of the Baseball Writers Association of America (the voters) essentially begging them not to admit tainted candidates.
Morgan is right to be concerned. In a manner that mirrors the chaos and distrust in our political system, the fans and the writers are gradually turning towards acceptance of behavior that was once considered disqualifying. They aren't alone—institutions and people in positions of authority are doing it as well. The Commissioner's Office itself has a bifurcated approach—significant punishment for present users, but a queasy truce with the past. Retired offenders are no longer persona non grata. Fox Sports hired former litigant/third baseman Alex Rodriguez as a color commentator last season, and, if there was resistance from the league, it was very hard to hear. Other ex-players have begun to drift back into the game, and their presence no longer is seen as controversial. That couldn't have happened without at least a wink and a nod from the Commissioner's Office.
That wink and nod may also be acknowledging an additional reality. Baseball tolerated PED use for a long time, and may even have tacitly encouraged it, until public outcry, and Congressional attention, made it anathema. If Mark McGwire was sticking a needle in his butt in 1990, he wasn't breaking any MLB rules. And if he was doing it in 2000, after his epic battle with Sammy Sosa, and the year before Bonds' 73 shattered his record, while there were wrist-slapping penalties, he still wasn't being tested for it. Both he and the owners and every other artificially enhanced slugger of the time knew that all those dingers put fannies in seats. The big man with the bulging biceps became part of pop culture; he was even on a Wheaties Box, and there's a very funny (and somewhat ironic) 1999 ad with the string-bean pitchers Greg Maddox and Tom Glavine bemoaning "Chicks Dig The Longball." Manly owners with cigars clenched in their jaws dug it as well–and so did much of the press.
So why aren't Bonds and Clemens already in? On their statistics alone they are the very definition of elite. Because the process of normalization takes time. And because Morgan is right. Bonds, Clemens and all the other juicers cheated. They diminished the accomplishments of their contemporaries who played clean. They distorted the game. They vandalized the statistical benchmarks of the past—and baseball is a game that venerates, even fetishizes, the past.
Therein lies a frustrating conundrum—particularly for the league. Former Commissioner Bud Selig was probably thrilled when the earlier class of PEDs retirees were shunned by the voters. He liked the old narrative…yes, there was an issue, but once MLB understood the scope, it moved forcefully to resolve it. Problem solved.
Except, not. A system that encouraged rule-breaking bad-boy candidates who set hearts aflutter and rang cash registers can't just reset itself and pretend nothing happened beyond a cautionary tale. PED use isn't like the offenses of Pete Rose, or Shoeless Joe Jackson, where you leave the stats, and expel the person. You can't quarantine a significant percentage of an entire baseball generation, do a reverse Zelig, and pretend they don't exist. There's no real remedy here for the damage PEDs did—banning Bonds doesn't eliminate his 762 home runs or Clemens' seven Cy Young Awards.
What we have is a classic political problem that needs a political solution. We need voters to make a choice, formulating and applying a moral standard consistently. If this sounds just like the way we play at politics, whether it's in Alabama, Washington, or even Minnesota, it's because it is exactly the same intellectual and emotional process. We hear that something wrong was done. We want a framework for evaluating it that is defensible and consistent, because we want to feel good about our choices. But, at the end of the day, we also want "our guys" to win.
I happen to be a bit geeky about both baseball and politics, and I'm fascinated by the decision-making process; how people vote and why they do. For more than two years, I participated in a 124-round reevaluation of Hall of Fame voting, along with the similarly obsessed. Go visit my friends at Highheatstats.com and click "Circle of Greats," and you can indulge yourself in rather long posts laden with advanced baseball metrics as well as debates about how much juice was too much. And we were civil to each other (so much for the Politics and Baseball analogy, I suppose).
Baseball is all about numbers, and, for this election, I found some terrific ones in the tabulations provided by the ballot tracker Ryan Thibodaux. What he's done is essentially what amounts to a very good exit poll, hand-assembling all the publicly announced votes (about 40% of the projected final total as of this writing) into a constantly updated spreadsheet at http://bit.ly/hof18
Thibodaux also has a twitter feed where he links to articles by those writers who publicly explain their votes. Thibodaux's work is a treasure-trove. He has raw totals and what he calls ballot twins (different writers with identical ballots). On a hunch, I decided to re-sort some of it manually to take into account potential regional differences in voting. I did not expect the writer/voters to be completely objective—they are, after all, both fans themselves and people who need continued employment. Hometown baseball fans most resemble majority party voters in highly gerrymandered Congressional Districts, so treading carefully with the local heroes is the most prudent approach.
What I found was fascinating. First of all, there is a conventional and competitive "non-PEDs" Hall of Fame debate going on—specifically in the candidacies of holdovers Vlad Guerrero, Trevor Hoffman, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, Edgar Martinez, and Larry Walker, and with new candidates Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, and Scott Rolen. The overall results in this group of nine is largely substantively based with a just a touch of regional favoritism. There is also a bit of actual politics: Schilling claims his totals are depressed by his political potty-mouth, but, if there is a "Reverse-Kaepernick Effect," the data doesn't really demonstrate that it's a major factor.
Then I moved to the PEDs candidates, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, and Gary Sheffield. In analyzing the results, as well as reading opinion pieces by the voters, you find that just these five players give you the basic spectrum of the PEDs debate.
Everyone assumes that Bonds and Clemens would have been Hall of Fame players even if they had never gotten within the same zip code as a syringe, and a significant, although not yet decisive, group of fans and voters think shunning them is unfair. Thibodaux shows their level of support static over the last year among previous voters, but a perfect nine for nine (so far) from the new ones. Overall, their percentages continue to grow, and it's not unreasonable to expect that, when all the votes (public and private) are tabulated, both will reach 60%. That's incredibly important, because Bonds and Clemens are the bottleneck for the entire PEDs Era—Thibodaux shows not a single ballot with Manny, Sosa or Sheffield, without either Bonds or Clemens also on it.
Manny was a complete flake, a terrible fielder and baserunner, but an extraordinary hitter. He was already great with the bat at 22 and sustained an extremely high level of production through his age-36 season—but he failed two separate tests in different seasons, well after MLB "got serious" about them. His support is in the mid-twenties, without a surge in new voters. Probably more than anyone else, if Bonds and Clemens are the bottleneck, Manny is the proxy for the era. Manny's use is indisputable, and those who vote for him are indicating (whether they admit it or not) that PED use is irrelevant.
Sosa represents something that goes to the heart of the steroid debate—the good but not great player who, into an established career, uses and then raises his game to produce extraordinary numbers. Sheffield is in this category as well, as was the past candidacy of Rafael Palmeiro, whose support levels they seem to be tracking. All three would have been strong, even likely candidates if their PED usage had not been discovered, but few voters now seem to take them seriously. The fact that their voting totals are roughly half the level of Manny's tells you the perception is that their sin is less about the crime of using PEDs, as it is that they weren't Hall of Fame talents without it.
Is there an Occam's Razor solution to this? I suspect that, if you asked MLB (not Joe Morgan) what it really wanted (besides making the whole thing disappear), it would admit Bonds, Clemens, and, when eligible, Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz (suspected, denies it, and important for marketing) and slam the door on the rest. But what it's really worried about is losing the underlying argument. Once you rationalize PED use after it was banned, you are just opening the door to massive reconsideration, either by the BBWAA now, or the Modern Era Committee (which reviews the qualifications of players previously passed over) later. In a few years, a dozen PEDs-tainted players would be in the door. Imagine the face of Commissioner Rob Manfred at those Induction Ceremonies.
Alarmist? Can't we just be surgical in our moral judgements? Perhaps, but in the real world, it almost never works that way. Excuses for moral failings lead inevitably to more excuses, and the complicit find that forgetting is much harder than it may first appear, especially when they are not in complete control of the conversation. Dive down into Thibodaux's work, and you see that in action, and find other, overtly political trends that might be a harbinger of the future.
When I started looking at the smaller numbers, I came across what amounted to the beginnings of a mini-revolution in New England when it comes to PEDs. Clemens was a yes on all but four ballots, Bonds a yes on all but three. That's kinder than the national results. I went back a year to look for missing voters and added them in, and the net was the same. So, in Boston, among announced voters, Bonds and Clemens would be in. Manny had twice his national support. And when you looked a little closer at this year's totals, you found something even more interesting. Manny was a "yes" on five "no" ballots for Jim Thome, and Thome had only six other "no" votes everywhere else. 96% of the rest of the country likes the "clean" and clean-cut, aw-shucks big fella with the 612 Home Runs. At Fenway, they apparently crave a little more danger.
Is there something in the water in New England? I wish I could say yes (I'm a Yankees fan), but the answer is probably a negative. Every tribe is going to support its favorites, and, as standards erode, it becomes easier and easier to back your flawed candidates over others. If they do it in Boston, they can in Miami, L.A., New York, Chicago and Alabama. It's like that in baseball, and like that in politics.
In the end, we love the fight. And drama, passion, polarizing candidates, fake piety, rank partisanship, heart-felt and often appallingly disingenuous editorials, and a heavy dose of moral relativism. And, to paraphrase a prominent Washington figure who shall remain nameless, winning. So much winning we will get tired of it.
It's the American Pastime. One month to Pitchers and Catchers. Ten to the Midterm Elections.