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HOW MUCH LONGER WILL THE BASEBALL HALL OF FAME MATTER?
Bonds and Clemens were rightly rejected as cheats, yet Ortiz got in with his own baggage — so why are writers voting, why does Cooperstown display tainted items, and do young people care?
On days like this, I wonder about the sustainable purpose of a Hall of Fame. Amid so much debate and divide about character and integrity — and whether steroids use should cancel baseball’s greatest asterisked slugger and pitcher — does it even matter that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens have no plaques when Cooperstown’s exhibits already include tainted bats, balls, helmets, gloves and scorecards from their careers?
Their achievements and numbers stand. Their memories and videos won’t be erased. When families visit the museum, I’m guessing the kids will be more interested in real memorabilia than the quieter, oak-walled gallery that contains plaques, likenesses and inscriptions. They won’t think about legitimacy. They’ll want ice cream on Main Street.
So when an electorate of baseball writers determined that Bonds and Clemens, along with political rabble-rouser Curt Schilling, would fail one last time in their 10th year of Hall eligibility, it’s fair to assess if it’s really the end of the world. Fifteen years have passed since all three were in uniform, meaning large swaths of Generation Z never saw them play. I certainly think much less of Bonds and Clemens because they cheated. But given the moral direction of a country spinning out of control like a misfired cutter, will future generations care who juiced or didn’t juice — and whether players are bronze-casted in a building in upstate New York?
The gallery’s arched entryway is for the perfect baseball people, I suppose, though they, too, have imperfections if you look closely enough. Bud Selig, who enabled the Steroids Era as a play-dumb commissioner who worked for complicit owners, is enshrined. David Ortiz was elected in his ballot debut Tuesday despite his own performance-enhancing-drug baggage. The process, like all politics, is subjective and influenced by personal perspectives, tastes and biases.
So will Halls of Fame in the future be the hallowed cathedrals we’ve made them out to be? I doubt it. Of course, I bow to the majesty of the late, great and very clean Henry Aaron when his defining statement is recirculated — “There’s no place in the Hall of Fame for people who cheat.” Did I feel sick inside the San Francisco ballpark, covering the 2007 sham, knowing Aaron had to experience the injustice of watching Bonds pass him as the career home run king? But I’m not sure anyone under 40 cares, just as few under 40 — or 60 — care about baseball.
Today in America, the best way to conquer life is to cheat, lie and bamboozle … and not get caught. I need not name names, but half of Silicon Valley and all of Washington qualifies.
Besides, isn’t the balloting just an ego flex for the Baseball Writers Association of America? Just to clarify, authentic sportswriters aren’t paid by North America’s leagues and teams, other than random hacks who accept bribes inside holiday cards. We are supposed to cover and scrutinize the news, not make the news. So why would we ever let Major League Baseball plop its most damning existential dilemma — deciding which players from the Steroids Era should be inducted forevermore — into our crumb-filled laps?
The owners closed their eyes and ears, after all, when everyone in the sport knew about the juicing debacle. In the Los Angeles Times, writer Bob Nightengale brought a flashlight as early as 1995, when he quoted all-time great Tony Gwynn, “It’s the big secret we’re not supposed to talk about.’’ Even Selig acknowledged the owners had addressed the subject in a private meeting the previous year, then he ran away from a quickly developing scandal in saying: “It certainly hasn’t been talked about much. But should we concern ourselves as an industry? I don’t know. Maybe it’s time to bring it up again.”
Ten years later, in one of sport’s most shameful scenes, Selig looked like Mr. Magoo during the humiliating Congressional hearings. Why should writers be tasked to clean up baseball’s mess? Why should the owners’ self-immolation be outsourced to us? All this does is make the process look hypocritical and biased when Bonds and Clemens fail to earn the required 75 percent of affirmative votes for election, while uber-popular, laugh-for-ratings TV star Ortiz wins an immediate plaque even though he appeared on a list of positive tests in 2003, a report the New York Times stands by.
If all it takes to scrub a steroids past is a gig on a Fox Sports studio show, then Alex Rodriguez eventually might be inducted, too, despite his confession and year-long suspension after various cover-up attempts. True, commissioner Rob Manfred expressed scientific doubt about the validity of Ortiz’s test, but he also could be protecting Big Papi’s legacy as a beloved teddy bear and Dominican Republic-raised hero. His MLB-administered sample is more dirt than Manfred has personally collected on Bonds, Clemens or, for that matter, Sammy Sosa, who has no paper trail yet has been body-slammed with low vote totals for a decade.
Nonetheless, Ortiz maintains his innocence to this day. “We had someone coming out with this one list that you don’t know what anybody tested positive for,” he said as he celebrated. “All of a sudden people were pointing fingers at me, but then we started being drug-tested and I never failed a test. What does that tell you?”
I would lock out all of them. I don’t care if Bonds is a top-five player historically and Clemens is in the same class on the mound. Regardless if they used PEDs before or after MLB began survey testing, which nabbed Ortiz and 103 other players, juicers knew they were gaining an unfair competitive advantage that could lead to more millions, more personal glory, more team titles — and a Cooperstown speech. To knowingly cheat is to violate the Hall’s character clause, which states, “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.”
So why differentiate between cheaters? Why let Ortiz off the hook and banish Bonds and Clemens to oblivion, at least until the Modern Era Committee — which gathers retired players, executives, managers and umpires to consider candidates no longer eligible for BBWAA election — convenes in December. Only 12 of 16 yes votes are needed for induction, which might be attainable when Modern Era voters have included the likes of manager Tony La Russa, who made the Hall despite his link to juicing Bash Brothers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire with the Oakland A’s. Without steroids in the equation, Bonds and Clemens are unanimous first-ballot inductees — the core tragedy of it all — while Ortiz is a level or two below statistically, though undeniably beloved as an October fiend, New England icon and affable multi-national ambassador. Instead, the lesser of three evils is preparing for a July date with immortality, though Papi also is clouded by what brought down Bonds and Clemens.
Not that he cares, having won 77.9 percent of the vote as only the fourth primary designated hitter to make the Hall. “It was something I really never dreamed of. Once I figured it out, it was going to be a wrap,’’ Ortiz said. “I am grateful to the baseball writers who considered my career in its totality, not just on the statistics. I learned how difficult it is to get in first-ballot. It’s a wonderful honor to get in on my first rodeo.’’
To induct Oritz and boot Bonds and Clemens makes no sense, beyond the absurdity that grown adult voters actually could be swayed by Papi’s TV career. Even Ortiz said he felt naked without the others. “To me, that guy is a Hall of Famer. This is a guy who took the game to a whole, totally different level — same as Roger, the Rocket.’’ Ortiz said of the other two. “When I see these guys, to be honest, I don’t even compare myself to them because I saw so many times these guys performing, and it was very special. Not having them join me is hard for me to believe, because they did it all.’’
Consider how in-studio rehab worked for Ray Lewis and Randy Moss in football. Why wouldn’t TV work push Ortiz over the top and eventually help Rodriguez, (who gained 34.3 percent approval on his first try and now waits out years of purgatory)? At least A-Rod’s body of achievement is in the grand vicinity of Bonds and Clemens, yet, again, why should Rodriguez slide in if they’ve been exiled?
"My family and I put the Hall of Fame in the rear view mirror 10 years ago,’’ Clemens said in a statement. “I didn't play baseball to get into the Hall of Fame. I played to make a generational difference in the lives of my family, then focus on winning championships while giving back to my community and the fans as well. It was my passion. I gave it all I had, the right way, for my family and for the fans who supported me. I am grateful for that support. I would like to thank those who took the time to look at the facts and vote for me. Hopefully, everyone can now close this book and keep their eyes forward focusing on what is really important in life.”
All of which underlines why writers should stop doing MLB’s dirty work. Oh, the painful contradictions. The sport dives head-first into the legal wagering craze, signing deals with every sportsbook that burps, yet Pete Rose continues to serve a lifetime ban for gambling. How can Manfred be taken seriously if he wants his so-called integrity and his betting revenues, too? But there has been no movement on loosening Rose’s punishment, though it can be argued Rose’s crimes — gambling on games as a player/manager — did less harm to the industry than the entirety of the Steroids Era.
And baseball wants writers to figure it all out? A better idea: Let Manfred assemble a voting panel that doesn’t include media members. That way, we can cover a scummy story instead of participating in a scummy story.
Should Schilling have been barred from Cooperstown because of his outrageous political views? Not according to the Hall guidelines, unless we’re judging “character’’ based on our own ideologies. Is Schilling a social-media loon? No doubt. But is the unvaccinated Aaron Rodgers, a certain NFL Hall of Famer, any less of a crackpot during his anti-vaxx crusades? So why did Schilling gain only 58.6 percent of the vote after nearly winning election last year with 71.1 percent? Oh, maybe because he hurt the feelings of some voters when he asked the Hall to remove his name from the ballot, saying he’d try deferring “to the (Modern Era) committee and men whose opinions actually matter.’’ He also advocated the lynching of journalists, part of an online incendiary pattern that targeted transgender people and Muslims, among others. Is he someone you want to hang out with? I’d run away, actually. But what does his rhetoric have to do with how his baseball career is remembered?
Shame on any voter who omitted Schilling out of spite. He never was busted for steroids and never impugned the sport’s integrity. He was an October warrior, of Bloody Sock fame, lethal enough to strike out 3,116 batters and precise enough to walk only 711. And his character during his playing career? Didn’t he win humanitarian awards named for some of baseball’s greatest citizens — Lou Gehrig, Roberto Clemente and Branch Rickey among them?
Yet Schilling is out. And Big Papi, his Boston teammate, is in.
“I say it every year and especially this year, focus on who did get in,” Schilling tweeted, taking the high road. “@davidortiz deserved a 1st ballot induction! Congratulations my friend you earned it! #bigpapiHoF.”
Also magnanimous was Bonds, who had nothing to write about his latest rejection but posted this about Ortiz: “CONGRATULATIONS Big Papi on your induction into the Hall of Fame! Well deserved…I love you my brother.”
I realized a long time ago that having a BBWAA vote was a farce. My ballots remained blank around the time I started hosting a Chicago radio show with Ryne Sandberg, as he awaited an election. He got his plaque, deservedly so, and it would have been a conflict of interest had I voted for him. I didn’t vote again.
If you told an alien from outer space that baseball’s all-time home run leader, all-time Cy Young Award leader and all-time hits leader are not in the Hall of Fame, well, the alien would think it’s a pretty filthy sport. Baseball made its own bed, filling it with the manure of a years-long steroids disgrace, and the smell still is foul.
Yet Cooperstown has no problem showcasing tarnished memorabilia items, of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, that also stink. It suggests the vote is a charade, the plaque is merely a wall ornament, and the Baseball Hall of Fame isn’t as hellbent on high character as we’ve been led to believe.
So, while the stewards are it, why not add syringes and vials to the showcases?
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.