I’m honestly not sure why those of us who love sports care as much as we about who is or is not in a sport’s Hall of Fame.
But we do.
We argue and debate, we revel when the right people get in, we’re disappointed — angry — when they don’t. Even though my name’s on a plaque in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as a winner of the Curt Gowdy Award, I want nothing to do with the place because the system used to select who gets in and who doesn’t is corrupt. I’ll go there again when they induct Lefty Driesell, Jim Phelan, Bob Huggins and Rollie Massimino. And when they make public who votes and who they voted for each year.
At least the Baseball Writer’s Association of America, which votes on the Hall of Fame annually, is now completely transparent. Every ballot is made public, as it should be for every Hall of Fame. Voting is a privilege, and if you accept that privilege it comes with a responsibility to let the public know your vote. After all, it is the public that pays to keep the Hall of Fame up and running — in one form or another.
Once, I had a baseball Hall of Fame vote since I have been a member of the BBWAA since 1992. But the Washington Post made the decision about 10 years ago to follow the lead of the New York Times and not let its reporters vote for any Hall of Fame. I understand the principle: those who cover the news should not make the news, but there are drawbacks to this policy.
For example, because The Post’s beat writers can’t vote for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there’s a shortage of available reporters to fill the city’s two voting slots. As a result, Larry Michael, who is an employee of and a shill for Washington owner Dan Snyder, is now a voter. Michael is not only on the payroll for Snyder, he publicly calls anyone who criticizes the team, “haters.” He is less likely to be fair when it comes to a Hall vote than I am when it comes to picking the smartest kid in my daughter’s second grade class.
I’m not financially dependent on her.
For years, I’ve defended the notion that the baseball writers — with or without me — are the most qualified to vote for the Hall of Fame. I think almost all of them take the responsibility very seriously. I know I did. I read all the bios of anyone who deserved serious consideration and tried to push aside any personal feelings I had for or against in making my decisions. I’d bet virtually everyone voting does the same thing.
And, as I said, making the votes public should ensure that no one does anything stupid. We know the names of the 12 writers who didn’t vote for Chipper Jones this year, and I’m sure they will be asked to explain themselves.
Now, though, I’m not so sure the time hasn’t come to change the system and dump the writers.
Why? Because too many of them are apparently willing to forgive the steroid cheats — notably Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds — for cheating the game, fans, and their fellow players. The following is the definition of the word fame: “Someone who is known or talked about by many people on account of notable ACHIEVEMENT. Synonyms: renown, celebrity, stardom, popularity, prominence.
Clemens and Bonds — and the others — are certainly known and talked about and they’re celebrities. So are the Kardashians. Not to mention all of the world’s most evil leaders dating back to Julius Caeser. They are, in fact, “infamous.” Definition: “Well known for some bad quality or deed.”
That fits the steroid cheats perfectly.
Now, the apologists — 57.3 percent of this year’s voters in the case of Clemens; 56.4 percent in the case of Bond – make a number of arguments in defense of their clients.
• They had Hall of Fame numbers before they started using steroids.
Irrelevant. Joe Paterno did many wonderful things at Penn State before the Sandusky case. Other than a number of Penn State people (who could be Hall-of-Fame voters, I suppose), no one forgives Paterno or will forget Paterno for looking the other way in the Sandusky case. Living a good life for many years doesn’t give you the right to be forgiven for a terrible crime later. And cheating through steroids was/is a terrible crime in the context of baseball.
• Everyone was doing it, or, we don’t know everyone who was doing it.
1. Everyone wasn’t doing it. Most players — smart guys — I talked to estimated that at the height of the epidemic — and it was an epidemic — perhaps 25 percent of players did it on a regular basis at some point and maybe 50 percent had tried or contemplated it. Those are HUGE numbers. But they are a long way from “everyone.”
2. You’re never going to catch all cheaters or all criminals. What you do is prosecute those you catch. If everyone on the highway is going 80 in a 65 and you’re the one caught in the radar trap, the cop doesn’t let you go because others were speeding too.
3. The Hall of Fame is a museum and all these men were an important part of baseball history. Absolutely true. But I’m not giving Bonds the same bust as Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth or Willie Mays. I’m not giving Clemens the same place of honor as Cy Young, Greg Maddux, Tom Seaver or Bob Gibson. No f—- way.
So, create a wing called “The Steroids Era.” Put them there. Have a display for the Black Sox, too, and a place that explains why there was no World Series in 1994. (Because the owners tried to subvert labor law is the simple answer).
The copout during Watergate was, “Nixon didn’t do anything other politicians weren’t doing.” Putting aside the fact that the tapes prove that not to be true, Nixon and his men got CAUGHT. So did Bonds, Clemens, Rodriguez, Sosa, McGwire, Palmeiro and others. Pete Rose bet on the game and lied about it for 20 years. All these guys are Hall-of-Famers based on numbers. The baseball Hall of Fame has a character clause and you don’t grant “fame” to people who damaged the game AND lied about it repeatedly.
Whether they’ve admitted it or not, we KNOW they cheated. If you suspect someone, then it’s your call whether to think them guilty or not. But if you know in your heart someone cheated you can NOT vote for them. This isn’t a court of law. We aren’t talking about beyond a reasonable doubt. No one’s freedom is at stake. This is about what you know in your heart to be true. Everyone knows Bonds and Clemens cheated, repeatedly – and lied, repeatedly.
And yet, more than half the voters saw fit this year to vote for Bonds and Clemens. There’s a good chance they’ll get in before their 10 years on the ballot are up and that would be absolutely shameful. To allow them to stand on the same stage in Cooperstown – where those who have honored the game have stood – would be disgusting.
I am almost certain that those who are in the Hall of Fame (and belong there) wouldn’t let this happen. So perhaps, as with the veterans committee (or whatever it’s called now) all the votes should be placed in their hands, regardless of era. I thought I could trust my colleagues to do the right thing; to understand that if you cherish a game, you don’t honor those who have damaged it. And if you don’t think the cheaters damaged the game, you know nothing about the game or, more importantly, about competition.
There is a huge difference between being famous and being infamous. It’s pretty simple stuff. Those who voted for Clemens and Bonds clearly don’t understand that.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,” is in its fourth month on The New York Times bestseller list. His most recent Young Adult book, “Backfield Boys—A Football Mystery in Black and White,”—was a 2017 selection by the Junior Literary Guild as one of the year’s best books.