Brunt: Cooperstown needs to catch up

The Sporting News/Getty

Bonds’s absence from the Hall of Fame makes one thing clear: The system for deciding who gets in is broken

Baseball is comfortable with its anachronisms, and no sport spends more time mining its past and wallowing in nostalgia.

For the most part, there’s nothing wrong with that. Such are the natural by-products of a long, glorious history, enhanced by the fact that the game itself isn’t played all that differently now than it was in the 19th century. So why not worship at those ivy-covered walls?

It’s at this time of year, though, when the results of the Hall of Fame voting are announced, that baseball’s olde-fashioned ways jump up and bite it in the behind.

The sacred task of deciding who is enshrined in Cooperstown is entrusted to baseball writers with at least 10 consecutive years of membership in the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, because that’s the way it has always been.

But that age-old system is irretrievably broken, as was made obvious once again with the announcement of this year’s class.

It’s great and just that Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas were honoured, and it’s irrelevant, really, that there were a few oddball ballots cast, that a handful of voters inexplicably failed to select a slam-dunk candidate like Maddux, and that somebody gave one of his 10 precious x’s to Jacque Jones.

That’s just a human-being thing.

What’s not so great and just is the fact that the best hitter in baseball history, Barry Bonds, and one of the sport’s three greatest starting pitchers, Roger Clemens, remain mired in a mid-table no man’s land along with the best offensive catcher ever, Mike Piazza. None of them ever failed a drug test, because there were no drug tests. Any list of the complicit starts with the commissioner and goes right on through to the clubhouse attendants, with the press definitely in there somewhere.

One might argue that it doesn’t really matter, that Hall of Fame membership is always subjective and arbitrary, and that in other sports the decisions about who gets in and who doesn’t are the work of anonymous committees that meet behind closed doors, which shouldn’t be preferable to baseball’s (relative) democracy and transparency.

But in baseball, it does matter, which is why the process is imbued with the same gravitas normally reserved for beatification.

Yet the decision remains almost exclusively in the hands of those who work for the dying institution that is the daily newspaper, who receive a vote purely on the basis of having held on to that BBWAA card, regardless of how much time they actually spent around the sport, and who retain that vote even after they leave the beat.

And, more significantly, the current group of 500-plus voters are the very same folks who covered the game during what is generically referred to as the Steroid Era, and who mostly did a lousy job of it.

That’s relevant because until baseball offers guidance as to how to deal with players who were caught, or implicated, or merely suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs during a time when the sport wasn’t at all interested in catching them, it’s the writers who have been handed the Solomonic challenge of separating the wheat from the chaff.

These are the same people who were pretty much oblivious when Oakland’s “Bash Brothers” arrived on the scene looking like post-spinach Popeyes (right around the time Ben Johnson was testing positive in Seoul…), and who by and large excoriated the reporter who wrote the original Mark McGwire andro story because they didn’t want that nice tidy hero narrative ruined, and because they were wilfully ignorant as to what andro was and what using it meant.

Now, without any direction other than the Hall’s “character” clause, which seems rather flexible given some of those who have already gained admission, they are left to pass judgment based on innuendo, on “backne,” on “not looking quite right,” on being less than convincing while testifying in front of a congressional kangaroo court, and on the odd actual admission
of guilt.

Meanwhile, even as its right hand is doing that, Cooperstown’s left hand—the expansion era committee—this year chose to induct three of baseball’s most successful managers during the very same era, including Tony La Russa, who oversaw not just the A’s sudden growth spurt, but also McGwire’s pursuit of the home run record with St. Louis, and apparently didn’t see a damned thing.

All of those amphetamine-popping baseball heroes of the past who already have their plaques? Let’s not muddy the water. All of those players in the NFL—and many of that BBWAA group also cover or have covered football—who face no great come-to-Jesus moment when they’re caught for using PEDs, suspended and then return to play? Well, that’s not baseball, and baseball is different.

Yes, it is different, and hidebound, and in the case of the Hall, too committed to the ways of the past to be able to deal with the realities of the present.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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