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Democracy, or vigilante justice? History says steroids should not be a consideration for writers in Hall of Fame voting


Most writers have a little bit of drama queen inside of them. It is part of our nature, part of the reason why we spend so much of our time living other people's lives instead of our own. We are the original reality television producers. So the annual melodrama about the steroid era and the Hall of Fame is understandable. In addition to our infatuation with narrative, many of us have an unrealistic sense of self-importance, and when you combine those two characteristics with our ever-present need to meet deadlines and fill space, then the decision to make us the official selectors for the Baseball Hall of Fame has resulted in exactly what you would expect: a Grishamesque volume of stories that tend to over-inflate the ramifications and cultural significance of both election to the HOF and the writers' role in facilitating that process.

But this is not a screed arguing against the inclusion of writers in the voting process. I have written plenty about that before. For disclosure purposes, the only thing that matters in this instance is that I am not eligible to vote for the Hall of Fame because I have not been a member of the Baseball Writers Association for 10 years (although I feel like I am getting frighteningly close to that threshold).

As far as this piece is concerned, the only thing that matters is that the 2013 Hall of Fame class will be selected by eligible baseball writers, and that this year's election appears to have devolved from a democratic process guided by a specific set of rules to a system of vigilante justice meted out under the guise of a popular vote.

Many writers will have you believe that there is a special choice to be made in this election, that ballot members like Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro create a situation where this particular vote will serve as an important referendum on the validity of the so-called Steroid Era in baseball. Some paint it as a moral decision. Some see it in more pragmatic terms. All of them -- at least all of those in this particular faction -- see it as a way to render judgment on the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs in the game of baseball.

None of this is logical.

The reality of the situation is that baseball has already decided what voters should do, and any writer who attempts to argue otherwise is simply attempting to add a level of power to his vote that does not exist (and, frankly, that should not exist for anybody who considers themselves a journalist). The fact that baseball has deemed players like Bonds, Palmeiro, Sosa and Mark McGwire eligible of being on the Hall of Fame ballot means that they have deemed said players eligible for the Hall of Fame. It's that simple.

Writers who view this election as some sort of existential dilemma, many of whom I respect greatly, do so only because they want to experience such a dilemma. That want is understandable. Many of these writers have covered the game for decades. They love the game, and they view the Steroid Era as having eroded the integrity of the game. No doubt, there is a little bit of projection going on; some writers harbor a bit of self-loathing at having been duped into mythologizing players who now appears to have been blessed more by science than by God (unless you attribute science to God, but we'll save that discussion for another day).

The source of all of this angst is the so-called character clause included in the voting instructions that accompany each ballot. Those instructions read, "Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played."

The instructions are ridiculous, as Joe Posnanski notes here. They are vague and abstract, bordering on meaningless, no doubt the work of some committee that spent too many hours attempting to accommodate everyone's opinion on the matter. But they are not nearly as open to interoperation as some people take them to be.

Record, playing ability, and "contribution to team" leave no room for a voter to issue demerits based on steroids.

Integrity would seem to be a qualification negated by steroid use, except that the instructions as written do not refer to a player's integrity within the framework of the game of baseball. They refer simply to a "player's. . .integrity. . ." Integrity, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is "firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values," or, "an unimpaired condition," or, "the quality or state of being complete or undivided." Steroids are not a moral issue. They are against the law, but so is speeding. Legality does not equal morality. Morality is universal. Legality is jurisdictional. If you are a woman and you visit some countries, it is illegal for you to be alone in private with a man who is not a relative. But if you choose to break that law, are you being immoral? What if a player who used steroids did so in a country where steroid use is legal? The HOF voting instructions say to consider morality, but they do not specify the moral code within which to consider it.

Same goes for character, because integrity is essentially a measure of a person's ability to maintain a specific level of character.

Finally, we get to sportsmanship, which is the one category where the use of steroids would apply. Because the use of steroids was against the rules of baseball, even if there was not method in place to enforce those rules. Sportsmanship is not contingent upon systems of enforcement or deterrent. A player who used steroids against the rules clearly did not display "conduct (as fairness, respect for one's opponent, and graciousness in winning or losing) becoming to one participating in a sport," as Merriam-Webster defines the word.

Thing is, the voting instructions do not say that one category should be valued more than another. If they are listed in order of importance, then sportsmanship is only a fourth consideration.

Long story short, the only way somebody can read the HOF voting instructions as a mandate to keep steroid users out of HOF is if that somebody wants to read the instructions that way. They are completely open to interpretation. And if somebody wants to argue that steroid use counts against a player because of the "sportsmanship clause," then I can argue that steroid use should count FOR that player because of the "contribution to the team(s) on which the player played" clause. After all, if Barry Bonds' steroid use helped him break Hank Aaron's home run record, then it also must have helped the Giants reach the World Series.

The truth is, the rules are completely open to interpretation. And when rules are open to interpretation -- like, say, the legal code -- then they are usually interpreted based on precedent. This is how the Supreme Court operates. It examines the case at hand, the letter of the law, and the manner in which the letter of the law was interpreted in previous relevant cases. Which is what we must do here. And once we do it, the case for disqualification of steroid users evaporates.

The important case occurred in 1989, when baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti banned Pete Rose from baseball because of his involvement in gambling on baseball games. In an interview from earlier that year, the New York Times reported that Giamatti "implied that the rulebook, not his own personal opinion, would seal Rose's fate."

"Baseball is moralistic about baseball," Giamatti said in the interview with the Times. "With all these elaborate rules and regulations and customs and wrongs and rights and fair and foul, it's the most highly moralized game in the world, at least to Americans. That's why Americans love it so much. It's a kind of people's legal system."

Astros owner John McMullen, in the same article, told the times, "Bart Giamatti has no vendetta. He's just doing what he's supposed to do."

Later, Giamatti said, "Baseball has always been very clear about its ethical standards. Games are highly ethical, and everything off the field is viewed as to how it impinges on the field. There is an ultimate product."

Giamatti essentially argues that the integrity of the sport of baseball is something that needs to be protected by the office of the commissioner, that the commissioner's job description requires him to act as he did in placing Pete Rose on the permanently ineligible list and thus banishing him from the Hall of Fame.

Rose v. Giamatti reinforces the right for the commissioner of baseball to make a player permanently ineligible from the game. It reinforces the status of the office of the commisioner as judge, jury and executioner for all matters pertaining to the preservation of the sanctity of the game of baseball. He is the one who metes out punishment to those whose actions he deems to have delivered long-standing damage to the integrity of the sport. The decision to exercise this right was previously invoked in the cases of William Cos, Jimmy O'Connell, Phil Douglas, Lee Magee, Benny Kauff and the Black Sox Eight, among others. Yankees pitcher Steve Howe was once banned for drug use, although he was reinstated.

In 1991, the Hall of Fame voted to make members of the "permanently ineligible list" ineligible for inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Their names do not appear on the ballot.

As of today, commissioner Bud Selig has not placed any players from the so-called Steroid Era on the permanently ineligible list. He has the right to do so. If he does, then that player is ineligible for the Hall of Fame. That player will not be on the ballot.

Given the precedent established by commissioners like Giamatti, Bowie Kuhn and Kennesaw Mountain Landis, Selig's decision not to ban steroid users effectually labels them as fit to be judged solely on their on-field production. Every player that has been banned, after all, has been banned for issues relating to character, integrity or sportsmanship (mostly gambling, although auto theft and drug use are other sins that have resulted in bans). It stands to reason that, in the absence of specific instructions otherwise, every player who has not been been banned has been deemed by baseball as possessing sufficient character, integrity and sportsmanship to warrant continued conclusion in the sport, and, thus, potential inclusion in the Hall of Fame.

This is the precedent established by baseball. If a writer acts otherwise, he does so on his own. He decides that he is more responsible for "protecting the game of baseball" than baseball itself.

The way I see it, logic and legal history proves beyond a reasonable doubt that any writer who does not vote for a player because he used steroids is exceeding his mandate (and that's before we even get to the players who are not included on the mere suspicion of steroid use).

But again, we writers often pay more attention to the heart than the mind, to the power of narrative over the power of rationalism. So in that case, I will conclude with this: Long-time executive Larry MacPhail is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1947, MacPhail was one of the more vocal opponents of Branch Rickey's decision to break baseball's color barrier with the promotion of Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers. According to Leslie A. Heaphy in "The Negro Leagues, 1869-1960," MacPhail said of Rickey, "He double-crossed his associates for his own personal advantage, raided the Negro Leagues and took players without compensation."

Rickey is a member of the Hall of Fame, despite the fact that he was an alleged "double-crosser" who operated outside baseball's established rules for "his own personal advantage." MacPhail is a member of the Hall of Fame despite the fact that his insistence at excluding black baseball players from the game is a violation of the moral code that most of us hold in modern day America.

Any way you look at it, baseball's history tells us that election to the Hall of Fame should be based on eligibility and performance. Every player who is on the ballot is eligible, and thus should be judged on performance. Regardless of what the voting instructions can be twisted to say.