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I'll consider McGwire, but is he Hall worthy?

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Mike Nadel

Storyteller, wise guy, observer, analyst, husband, dad. One-stop shopping, baby!

As a Baseball Hall of Fame voter, I'm ready to consider Mark McGwire and other known and suspected juicers as they become eligible. Now the big question: What should my standards be for Steroid Era candidates?

In McGwire's first three years on the ballot, I didn't check the box next to his name. I wanted to see how many of his fellow superstars would be caught dipping their hands into the steroid jar and I wanted time for my own feelings on the subject to evolve.

Given that Mr. I'm Not Here To Talk About The Past will be on the ballot for up to 15 years, I felt this was a reasonable approach. Sure enough, in the interim, the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez have gone from slam-dunk Hall of Famers to marginal choices because of their use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Many of my Baseball Writers Association of America peers already have decided they never will vote for any juicers. As much as I respect that choice, it leads to so many questions that my bald head is spinning.

1. Who juiced? Aside from those who have admitted their PED use, do we lump all those named in the Mitchell Report together with those whose names were leaked to the New York Times, those accused by Jose Canseco, those named in the BALCO case, those named in Game of Shadows, those we suspect strongly, etc.? McGwire, for example, never admitted to using illegal PEDs and barely rated a mention in the Mitchell Report, but any intelligent observer knows the score when it comes to Tony La Russa's new hitting coach. Or at least we think we do.

2. Do we give breaks to those who fessed up after being caught, especially those who seemed sincere in begging forgiveness? How about those who claim to have used HGH only briefly - and then only to recover from career-threatening injuries, perhaps applying the "I might have done the exact same thing" caveat? Andy Pettitte and his ilk fall into these categories.

3. Do we consider the point in a player's career when he likely started juicing? Barry Bonds is the main test case here. He arguably would have been a Hall of Famer had he retired after the 1998 season instead of turning himself into Mr. Bulky because he was jealous of the McGwire-Sosa attention.

4. Why was it OK to vote for guys who took greenies by the handful in the '60s and '70s but not for guys who took 'roids?

5. If we use the "integrity, sportsmanship and character" voting guidelines to reject juicers, why would we ever consider wife-beaters, dope fiends, self-centered jerks, alcoholics or, in the case of ballot newby Robbie Alomar, guys who spit into umpires' faces?

6. Why was it OK to elect a guy who joyfully admitted to doctoring the baseball (Gaylord Perry) but not any guys who doctored their bodies?  

7. For a long time, there have been whispers about players such as Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza but no firm evidence they juiced, and they will be eligible for the Hall soon. If we only reject known cheats, don't we run a risk of enshrining a Steroid Era player who later proves to have been a user?

8. Isn't it reasonable to assume that just about every player in a two-decade span knew exactly what was going on under their noses but still let the game they purport to love turn into a syringe-filled cesspool? Aren't they all guilty by association?

Questions 7 and 8 play a strong part in leading me to consider McGwire this time.

If my fellow BBWAA voters and I start eliminating Steroid Era suspects because we want to preserve the sanctity of the Hall, we pretty much have to reject every player from the entire era.

One could argue quite convincingly that the Steroid Era is just another period in the sport's history. You have the Lily-White Era that lasted through 1946, various Dead-Ball and Live-Ball eras, the Drug-Culture Era (in which a significant number of ballplayers used coke, pot, LSD, etc.), the so-called Modern Era (as opposed to pre-1900), and so on.

I don't want to eliminate every player from the Steroid Era. Nevertheless, as I said in my first paragraph, that leads to a whole 'nother set of issues ...

1. Is the 500-homer milestone - long considered a Hall of Fame guarantee - still impressive in the Steroid Era? Should the "guarantee" now be, say, 600? If so, should McGwire, who had 583 homers (most coming late in his career, when his juicing supposedly became even more prevalent) be a legitimate candidate? He was a .263 hitter, was a defensive liability and ran the bases like a plowhorse. And his only championship came as a member of an Oakland team known as much for its steroid swilling as for its on-field success. He's a candidate because of his home runs - period. If we decide we aren't impressed by the 583 homers hit by a juicer during the heart of the Steroid Era, McGwire isn't even a borderline candidate.

2. Should we give "extra points" to guys we believe weren't juicers? Maybe the home-run totals of Fred McGriff (493), Andre Dawson (438), Dale Murphy (398) and Harold Baines (384) look better because they were accomplished in a "more pure" fashion.

3. What about pitchers? Say "steroids," and people immediately think of hulking sluggers Bonds, McGwire and Sosa. But numerous pitchers also have been embroiled in PED scandals, including Pettitte, Roger Clemens, Kevin Brown and the great Felix Heredia. Should Hall voters take that into consideration when looking at numbers from Steroid Era pitchers?

4. Considering what we know now, should the all-around skills of players such as Dawson, Murphy, Tim Raines, Barry Larkin and Alan Trammell make them better Hall candidates?

5. How strongly should the "feel test" be used, especially pertaining to Steroid Era candidates? Along with a long, hard look at stats, this always has been part of my process: Does so-and-so "feel" like a Hall of Famer? Maybe guys I eliminated before, such as Baines and Murphy, rate a better look now in relation to the juicers who put up ridiculous numbers.

As you can see, there is a lot to consider.

Like me, most BBWAA voters take their responsibility - and privilege - very seriously. We respect the Hall of Fame and we want to make educated, reasonable choices.

This process, never a matter of black and white, has more shades of gray than ever.

Check back next week, when I fill out my ballot and post my choices here. In the meantime, I welcome your feedback.

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6 Comments

Mike DeVault said:

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I say the heck with it all. Forget this protecting the sanctity of baseball and the HoF. What sanctity? It's entirely possible that tons of HoFers were using all manner of PEDs. More than possible, extremely likely. So what's to protect.

As for McGwire, 583 homeruns is fine but he's a one trick pony. Homeruns are great but overrated as a measure of skill. Take away the homers and no one would even consider him a good player, let alone HoF worthy. I don't care about the juicing, it's his one dimensionality that should keep him out.

doug nicodemus said:

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as you know i think most "awards" are not worth the time of day..miss america, the academies, halls of fame are all nice but i root root root for the ...oh sorry ...i mean if it ain't a nobel or a pulitzer or a guggenheim then i don't pay much attention...that said WAY to many people are in the baseball hall of fame...i'd be happy if you went back through and tossed half the people out and then voted for one, that's 1 uno in every year here after...i do not think very many juicers would make the list at that point or any other cheaters as well..

Mike Krivich said:

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Tough question.

One other question, if it okay to juice which can change the outcome of a game, then why is it not okay to gamble which can change the outcome of a game? In the end, the players overall ability should be considered and not just one skill aspect as Mike DeVault has stated earlier.

Too many average players are in all sports HoF's as far as I am concerned. Maybe its time for writers to start change that.

DrewS said:

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I realize that baseball prides itself on being able to compare statistics across generations. But it's one area where I'd take a cue from other professional sports and not give the stats so much consideration.

The one yardstick that should be used more and isn't, is how players stack up against their contemporaries. To me, the HOF should honor the top x% of baseball players. That means that there should really be the same percentage (or close to it) of HOFers from one era as the next. For instance, the statistically maligned 80s deserves as much representation as any other era. Who cares that the HR totals of its the top tier weren’t as high as other historical or current periods? Those players in the 80s didn’t play against players from other time periods.

I’m not saying that the x% needs to be hard and fast. It’s more of a guideline, since you really can’t draw solid lines between eras. There’s too much overlap for that. But it makes sense to me that you’re going to have great players in the game at any given time. So why not strive to recognize the top tier of those players, and why not try to make that tier at least somewhat consistent? Since they have to play against the people in the game in their own times, there’s really no way to compare them to people from other eras.

I just think that there’s waaaaaaay too much time spent comparing statistics across time. Stats may tell you a story, but you have to be open to listening to the story they tell you and not the story you want them to tell you. It’s very easy to talk yourself into believing what you want when looking at statistics, and in the sports world nobody embodies this more than baseball writers. Nothing about HOF voting irritates me more than when a writer gives you a stat line from a player in 1956 and one from a guy up for election now, and tells you that if the former is in the HOF that the latter should be as well because they have similar stats. I think that if you have to resort to that approach to validate a candidate, he doesn’t merit inclusion.

This simplifies the steroid era in one way because there are still great players around today. Some from this era will have to be inducted. But it raises the question of which players from this era belong. If a player juiced, then he’s going to appear to be better against his contemporaries than if he didn’t. And if a player didn’t juice, then he’s got a tougher climb that those who did.

However, the HOF has never been about fairness. All you can do is judge the players on what you see before you. I think there’s no question that Bonds gets in. McGwire, too. Steroids or no, they played at a level well above their peers. I don’t think you can attribute how well they played to steroids alone, considering other players used steroids and didn’t approach their level. I think you’d even have to put Palmeiro and Sosa in that group, since one demonstrated a high level of play for a consistently long time, while the other didn’t have quite that level of longevity but packed some truly dynamite years in there. In an era where everyone was suspect, there were still some who stood apart. They should be in the HOF.

Mike Nadel said:

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I probably shouldn't be sweating this so much, because no matter how I vote, McGwire, Palmeiro, Sosa and others of their ilk simply are not going to get in. One only has to take a look at the support (or lack thereof) McGwire has gotten in his first three years on the ballot.

It will be interesting to see how McGwire handles steroid inquiries when he starts talking to the media as Cardinals hitting coach. If he's contrite and sincere, will it earn him some Hall votes in the future?

Bonds and Clemens are in a different category because they were so great before their juicing supposedly began. I think there will be some who don't vote for McGwire et al but do vote for Bonds and Clemens.

Anyway, thanks for the discussion. Great food for thought.

Brad Palmer said:

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One way to resolve your dilemna is give up your voting rights. I would.

I don't consider the game I once loved a legitimate enterprise. The genie went out of the bottle when the players struck the 1994 World Series. To get people back, they brought in the fences and "juiced" the ball. Of course, it was all "in the best interests of baseball."

I never bought into the McGwire-Sosa home run derby, and that was before I came to learn that they were "juiced", as well.

My only baseball highlight after '94 was Ryne Sandberg's Hall of Fame speech in 2005. It was my last year covering baseball. I haven't seen a game since. The sport no longer exists for me.

Obviously, you haven't reached that point yet and probably never will since you've already come this far. All I can say is lotsa luck in trying to make sense of it all.

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