Freud: Sorting out steroids and the Hall of Fame
Many congratulations to Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven for getting the nod to Cooperstown Wednesday morning.
For the latter, his Hall of Fame enshrinement was far too long in coming. Cranky voters often cited Blyleven’s 287-250 win-loss total, and just one 20-win season, but the curve-baller pitched for some pretty dreadful teams, so that .534 winning percentage should in no way diminish what he did during his career.
The most curious thing about this year’s voting, aside from pitcher Jack Morris’s exclusion, was that Houston Astros first-baseman Jeff Bagwell received only 41 percent – 75 percent is the magic number for enshrinement – in his first go-round of voting.
Bagwell is not a first-ballot selection. That should be reserved for the greats of the great, and Rickey Henderson (2009) and Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn (both 2007) were the last three so rightly-honored.
Yet just 41 percent for Bagwell? He was the 1991 NL Rookie of the Year, 1994 NL MVP, surprisingly only a four-time All-Star, 449 career homer runs, two 30-30 seasons (home runs and stolen bases), 1,529 RBI with a career slugging percentage of .540.
Bagwell’s average year was hitting .297 with 35 HRs and 115 RBI. Those are Hall of Fame numbers, kids, especially when you consider that he played nine of his 15 seasons at the Astrodome, which was a dreadful park for hitters.
Bagwell’s problem is that he played in the Steroid Era. Rightfully, Rafael Palmeiro got a meager 11 percent in his first foray of voting after his finger-wagling denial of steroid use in front of Congress in March 2005, only to test positive for the same five months later. Mark McGwire, who finally admitted steroid use in 2010, continues to struggle in the voting at 19.8 percent.
Though Bagwell was a good-sized guy who put up great power numbers in a steroid-powered era, there is nothing solid linking him to performance-enhancing drugs, merely innuendo. No positive tests, like Palmeiro or Manny Ramirez. No dramatic body alteration during his career, like Barry Bonds, McGwire or Roger Clemens. No eye-popping statistical arc where his numbers rise dramatically at a chronological age when they shouldn’t.
In fact, Bagwell’s last big season came at 35 in 2003 with 39 homers and 100 RBI and then his numbers fell off the table and he was retired by 2006. By comparison, both Clemens (four Cy Young Awards after he turned 34) and Bonds (four MVPs beginning at age 36) both saw their careers sky-rocket in that all-too-familiar steroid-linked curve.
Bagwell’s Hall of Fame candidacy is being tainted with suspicion by proximity.
And this is a problem with which baseball and the Hall of Fame will be dealing with in the years to come. While there are no huge names among those who become eligible in 2012, what about 2013?
Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Clemens will come up for the first time, and those three are hornet’s nests. Leaving those three for another column, also eligible will be Mike Piazza. Primarily as a member of the Dodgers and Mets, he re-wrote the record book for offense by a catcher.
Piazza should be a first-ballot selection – and there is absolutely nothing indicating that he used steroids – but will there be the same whispering campaign associated with Bagwell? (“Piazza blew Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk out of the water offensively, so he must have been doing something.”)
It gets even more interesting in 2014. Pitchers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux are automatic selections, but what about Frank Thomas and Jeff Kent? The latter is particularly interesting.
Like Piazza, Kent redefined offensive output for his position (second base). But Kent’s career, despite not using steroids and actually being avid advocate against them, was nonetheless helped by likely steroid use by Bonds.
If you hit in front of No. 25, you saw a steady diet of fastballs. (Example: Giants journeyman Rich Aurillia hit 37 home runs hitting in front of Bonds in 2001, the year the latter knocked out 71.) If you hit behind Bonds, you usually had a lot of runners on base to fortify your RBI total. (Kent’s MVP season in 2000 came hitting behind Bonds.)
What does a voter do?
You elect the best players from the Steroid Era to the Hall of Fame, unless there is concrete proof, meaning a positive test or a criminal conviction for use or perjury (the latter is more likely for Bonds), or an admission of guilt.
Baseball fans are not stupid. We know what happened – with offensive records falling in improbable and short fashion in the late 1990s and the early part of the last decade – and that steroids are probably still a part of the game. While Bonds, McGwire and Sosa all exceeded his total, most fans would say that Roger Maris’ 61 homers in 1961 is the single-season record. The same goes for Hank Aaron’s career mark of 755.
But in the pursuit to purify the game, the legacies of clean players and their rightful place in Cooperstown shouldn’t be tarnished.
Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934 or firstname.lastname@example.org.