The Miami Marlins have not been in the news as of late, but even if they had been, it would be foolish to believe that any minor move the Fish made would cause a dent in the baseball news structure that the Hall of Fame voting would. This year, in what was perhaps the deepest class the Hall of Fame has ever seen, we saw no players scheduled to be enshrined. This is only the seventh time in Hall of Fame history that no one was elected and only the second time since 1961.
The reaction across the blogosphere has been admittedly mixed. Some have said that this season's empty Hall of Fame induction, at least on the writers' side, is the price the players of the so-called "steroid era" paid for the universal failure to police themselves and the culture of PED use that was supposedly around in the mid-1990's into the early 2000's. Other folks believe that this is a perfect example of why the Hall of Fame voting is flawed and how players of the steroid era may be unfairly treated by association to those who were proven guilty of PED use.
This range of opinions can be seen in the ESPN Baseball Tonight discussion between ESPN baseball analysts and Hall of Fame voters Buster Olney, Tim Kurkjian, Howard Bryant, and Pedro Gomez.
Where do I fall in this argument? I am squarely on the side on which Olney and Kurkjian appear to be. The steroid era, rightfully or wrongfully, represents a time in baseball just like any other time. Do we place an asterisk on the numbers of players who played in the deadball era and adjust those numbers upwards? No, we simply compare those players to their contemporaries and choose among the best. The same should be done with the steroid era, especially since so many feel that the PED culture was so pervasive. If indeed players everywhere, both on the hitter and pitcher sides, were juiced and advantaged, why presume the guilt of some and keep them away from enshrinement and not presume it of others?
As unfair as it may seem, players like Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, and Jeff Bagwell have been swept up in the undercurrents of the PED talk, leading to a select group of voters leaving blank ballots. Folks like ESPN's Howard Bryant decided to send their ballots in empty this season, and their reasoning is strange to me.
So I chose to leave my ballot blank this year. I know that by returning it, my ballot will count in the total number of voters participating in the election, which makes it slightly more difficult for players such as Fred McGriff, Tim Raines and Jack Morris to reach the 75 percent level necessary for induction. But choosing to vote for any players, to make any sort of comparative evaluations in this environment, didn't seem particularly appropriate.
It sounds as though Bryant is on the side of faulting all of those who played in this era, but to me, such an implication is simply unfair. The steroid era should be looked upon as one in which everyone was guilty, at least according to some voters. Why not compare them to each other and move on with the enshrinement of greats like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, players who were always great and always among the best of their generation with or without PED use? To send an empty ballot implies that the voter puts blame on all in the era but also refuses to recognize those players who were the best in a time of baseball that happened.
As for a solution, I much prefer Buster Olney's thought process of putting PED history into the Hall of Fame plaques. I actually believe this to be an elegant solution to the problem of PED use, and it allows us to both celebrate the players of the era and recognize that the era was a special time, and that these players had an edge that others did not have. Of course, there were always edges all around baseball throughout many eras, but this may be one of the only logical ways to appease those writers in the "moral police" who feel someone needs to pay for the injustices of PED use.
As for the actual ballots this year, my 10 votes would have gone to Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling, Larry Walker, and Alan Trammell. Had I had more votes, I would have selected Mark McGwire as well, and I would have at least considered Rafael Palmeiro. A good number of these players appeared to be borderline candidates, particularly Biggio, Piazza, Walker, and Trammell. Indeed, so many steroid era players ended up close to my unofficial Hall of Fame borderline, Andrew Dawson and his 60.9 Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement.
Piazza only gets in because of his accomplishments at the catcher position; he ranks as the fifth-best catcher of all time in rWAR, and no Hall of Fame should go without its fifth-best player at one of the most important positions in baseball. Biggio compiled a lot of wins, as he had only one or two "monster" seasons, but over the course of the 1990's, few players put up more wins than Biggio. If we look at FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR), Biggio ranks seventh from 1991 to 2000, behind only Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr, Bagwell, Frank Thomas, Edgar Martinez, and Palmeiro. Walker has the shadow of Coors Field on him, but he ended his career having hit 41 percent better than the league average, and that includes hitting 47 percent better than the average player in Coors Field.
But some of the others are no-brainers. Bonds and Clemens, in particular, go above and beyond what is needed to achieve Hall of Fame status. Bonds led all position players in fWAR from 1991 to 2000. Had he come into the league in 1991 and retired in 2000, before all the steroid-enhanced monstrosity that was the 2001 to 2004 string of years for Bonds, he would have still been a Hall of Famer. Bonds racked up around 80 wins from 1991 to 2000, meaning he averaged an MVP season every year in that decade. He hit less than a .400 wOBA just once (1991) and got fewer than six wins just once (1999, an injury-shortened year).
As for Clemens, he ranks second behind only Greg Maddux in wins from 1991 to 2000, at 64.5 fWAR. But he had six great seasons in 80's before that, and he put up five more good seasons in the 2000's after that. Some of those indeed could have been steroid-induced, but Clemens was always a monster on the mound, and there is a good chance that, had he allowed his body a natural decline instead of using PEDs to maintain his shape, he would have still been a Hall of Famer.
So I think this year is a disappointing Hall of Fame season because there were so many candidates who were deserving, PED use or otherwise, who nonetheless were shut out because the writers felt the need to castigate those involved in the steroid era. The era happened, and unless we plan on shutting out players like Maddux, Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, and other greats who pitched in this era as well, there is little recourse but to celebrate those who played and recognize that this was a different time in baseball. In time, I believe the writers will see this happen, but this year, it was not to be.