By Noah McCaffrey
(Noah McCaffrey is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research [SABR] and author of the book And My Father Was There: Eight Home Runs, One Unbreakable Promise. He played baseball in his youth and has been in love with the game ever since, warts and all.)
DECEMBER 29, 2018 (UPDATED JANUARY 17, 2019) – In November of this year, voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America began receiving their 2019 Baseball Hall of Fame ballots; as in the past, the ballots were not without controversy. The lingering issue facing this year’s voting class – one that will continue to plague HOF voting for years to come: how to handle eligible players listed on the ballot who either admitted to or were suspected of (with proof) habitual PED (Performance Enhancing Drugs) use during their professional playing years. Regrettably, there can only be one solution that respects the greats of baseball’s past – let these tainted players suffer the consequence of choosing to cheat, namely being excluded from the most prestigious hall in all of baseball - the Hall of Fame. We owe it to baseball to preserve, or rather salvage, the integrity of our beloved game; more importantly, we owe it to our beloved children, who depend upon us for guidance in handling life’s challenges.
But what is integrity? Somebody wiser than me once said, "Integrity is what you do when nobody is looking." I'd have to agree with that summation. The dictionary puts it more succinctly, calling integrity "moral soundness."
Like a lot of you, I’ve been following up-to-the-date balloting through Ryan Thibodaux’s Twitter feed @NotMrTibbs, which publishes HOF ballots as they become public, and I am honestly stunned by the number of baseball writers voting for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Manny Ramirez – with the first two, Bonds and Clemens, trending at well over 73% of the vote thus far. That means over 73 percent of the writers/voters - almost three-quarters of the voting members - care very little about what a player does to affect the game and his career when nobody is looking, very little about moral soundness of the player, about the player's sense of integrity, sportsmanship, or character. That is just astonishing, and very disappointing.
Though this trend surprises me, it shouldn’t. Over the years I’ve read many articles by voting members of the BBWAA, this year being no exception, whereby these writers voice their disregard for the issue of player PED and HGH use when casting their votes for said players.
I mentioned this to Sam Mellinger – BBWAA voting member and sports columnist for the Kansas City Star – via twitter when he tweeted a copy of his own ballot, which revealed his favor for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Manny Ramirez as 2019 inductees. Not to single Mr. Mellinger out; I found him to be polite and respectful in his response, and as I’ve already mentioned, Bonds and Clemens are presently trending favorably with over fifty percent of the BBWAA voting members, though seventy-five percent of the vote is necessary to win induction to the HOF.
When I suggested that character must not count with him based upon his vote, Mr. Mellinger responded by tweeting, “MLB showed it didn’t care much about any of that then. I’m not sure why I should now.”
Regardless of whether or not the League failed in its policing of PED use, here’s one very important reason why you and the other voting members should “care.” Note Rule 5 of the BBWAA Rules for Election, as published on BaseballHall.org:
5. Voting: Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played. (Emphasis mine)
Mr. Mellinger went on to say in a later tweet to me, “I don’t see a HOF vote as a moral judgment.”
The problem with this point of view is that the BBWAA and the Hall of Fame made voting “a moral judgment” by enacting Rule 5 of the Rules for Election, which specifically tells voting members that they are to vote based upon, among other things, “a player’s…integrity, sportsmanship, character…” What is the consideration of these three traits if not the summation of “a moral judgment?”
Again, I’ve no axe to grind with Mr. Mellinger; he simply shares the mindset of a majority of voting members of the BBWAA. This mindset, however, is a willful rebellion against their own rule, the intent being to vote solely on the other aspects of Rule 5, “…the player’s record, ability…and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played.” But surely the BBWAA had a good reason for including “integrity, sportsmanship, [and] character” in that rule in the first place, and I suspect it was because inherently we all know - we have all been taught from an early age - that integrity, sportsmanship, and character matter. If they didn’t we would all be cheats and this game – this world – would be the worse for it.
To illustrate, every year we see exceptional young teams from around the globe compete in the Little League World Series, and it seems every year there is one team that tries to cheat by sneaking a player into their team lineup who exceeds the age limit (established to maintain a level playing field), thus giving them an unfair and illegal advantage over other teams. The result when discovered is that the offending team is disqualified, and rightfully so. The League does that to teach the young players that cheating is wrong and has consequences. But then these same players see their sports heroes – some who have been caught cheating – making big money and being nominated for induction into to the Hall of Fame, despite that cheating. It’s an inconsistent message and one that will impact them later on.
Let me give you a scenario:
Your seventeen year old son, a senior and varsity pitcher on his high school team, wants to get a college scholarship for baseball but has hit a slump. The scouts have stopped showing interest and he knows he’s got to do something. He comes to you, his father or mother, for advice. He wants to try this certain banned substance that a hotshot teammate of his said would give him the edge he needs, but he’s not sure if it’s the right thing to do. He's been told by another player on his team - a friend - that it would be dishonorable to take the banned drug and would be considered cheating. How will you answer? Think carefully because your son is going to remember your answer for the rest of his life, every time he’s faced with a decision to cheat or not to cheat – on an exam, on his wife, on his taxes, and yes, on the ball field.
And right there is why this all matters, whether or not we allow willful cheaters into the most prestigious club in all of baseball; it actually teaches our children something. What lesson we teach them depends upon all of us. It starts with the players themselves. And when the players fail to abide by the rules enacted by MLB for the integrity and sake of the game, they must face consequences. If not, then we are teaching our children that they might as well cheat because there will be no price to pay. Most of all, they can cheat, put up big numbers and gain that big paycheck, and still get into the Hall of Fame. They will still call you exceptional – best of the best.
Meanwhile, there are and have been players on the HOF ballot each year who have chosen to play by the rules, with integrity, only to get passed over by many voters who give their choice to cheaters. How does a clean player compete against an Alex Rodriguez (eligible in the next few years) who habitually used PEDS to gain an unfair and illegal advantage over him and others competing for the same position, a spot in the majors or HOF, the same chunk of payroll? Some can’t compete and their careers get cut short, or they’re relegated to the minors, their families suffering for it. And what about the games whereby these willful cheaters affected the literal outcome with their PED use? (I want to clarify that I’m talking about habitual use, not a single use error in judgment.)
Let me ask you this, writers/voters: Was Pete Rose’s infraction of gambling on baseball games any more egregious than Alex Rodriguez’s habitual PED use? To my knowledge Rose’s betting never affected the actual outcome of a single ballgame. But can you honestly say that about Rodriguez’s PED use? The guy had an amazing bat with amazing power, and there was a reason for that – and that reason has to be considered when voting. It’s imperative for the integrity of baseball itself and for our children’s sake. If Rose’s betting got him banned from baseball all together, shouldn’t actual cheaters like Clemens, Bonds, and Rodriguez (to name a few) be penalized?
Read what Alex Rodriguez said about himself and his future prospects of the Hall of Fame in an interview with Cody Benjamin of CBS Sports back on September 12, 2018, just a few months ago:
"There's rules, and you have to follow the rules. I made those mistakes, and at the end of the day I have to live by those mistakes. Whether I get in or not -- and let's be clear, I want to get in, I hope I get in, I pray I get in -- if I don't, I think I have a bigger opportunity yet again….Maybe I'm not a Hall of Fame player, but I get a chance to be a Hall of Fame dad, a Hall of Fame friend."
Fine words, and I hope he is a Hall of Fame dad and friend, but that just goes right to my point: What makes a Hall of Famer – ballplayer, dad, or otherwise? Surely integrity and character would be part of the Hall of Famer’s make up.
A case has been made for Barry Bonds by some writers that he would still be a Hall of Famer if we considered just the first half of his career, allegedly before his suspected PED use (see Jay Jaffe’s article for FanGraphs.com, JAWS and the 2019 Hall of Fame ballot: Barry Bonds), but is that the right way to look at it? To do so simply lets the writers and voters themselves off the hook, allowing them to overlook the “integrity, sportsmanship, and character” considerations of their own Rule 5. In that same article, Jaffe cites the numerous domestic abuse allegations that plagued Bonds over the course of his career, an issue that highlights the character issue, but then Jaffe goes on to say:
“The legal morass aside, Bonds’ numbers make a case for him as the greatest position player of all time.”
Jaffe goes on to cite Bonds’ accomplishments against those of Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, and others. But with respect to Mr. Jaffe, is it fair to compare Bonds’ impressive but tainted numbers with Hall of Famers like Williams, Gehrig, and others who played clean their entire careers?
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have anything against these players or writers or voters on a personal level; I don’t know any of them. I’m making my argument strictly on principle and what we must teach our children, as well as up-and-coming ballplayers currently in the farm system – that cheating is wrong and there is a serious price to pay for it. If the cheaters themselves don’t pay the consequences, the game and future generations of ballplayers will pay it for them – and that would be wrong.