Lingering big questions on baseball’s Hall of Fame elections

Yep, I know, it’s still football season; indeed, it’s the launching point of the epic march to glorious Soupey L and a potential appointment in football Valhalla for Brothers Belichick and Brady and their merry band of Foxborough frolickers. Post-season NFL fare simmers on your plate like a slab of raw meat, aching to be devoured.  In your book, no other subject has merit at this precious moment.

“‘Balderdash,” says I. Having watched with astonishment the disgraceful first-round clash of allegedly worthy supplicants, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, I’ve had as much of the National Football League as I wish to stomach this season. If it’s savage amusement I need I’ll seek out roller derby somewhere on the cable, or full-scale martial arts no-holds-barred kick-boxing. At least you clearly know right up front what you’re going to get.

Rather, we shall deal here instead with the relatively civilized subject of baseball’s Hall of Fame elections lately transpiring amidst huge questions that said proceedings did nothing to resolve and probably further confounded. Hardly pure as the driven snow, the process by which baseball, with its customary touching embrace of mere sentiment, anoints new immortals every year is cluttered nowadays with painful issues such as lying, cheating, dissembling, drugs, PEDS, and calculated evasions with a splash of gambling on the side.

On the other hand, nobody is being hauled off the field of gladiatorial combat on a slab.

But, then, nothing is simple anymore, let alone pure. For the media, too, it ain’t like it used to be back when everyone, including the hardened knights of the keyboard, actually believed “this stuff is real,” as my old friend Dick O’Connell liked to snicker, although Dick’s term for it was more colorful than “stuff.”

I sometimes wonder how such devoutly believing media cheerleaders of yore such as Grantland Rice might have handled these turbulent times. Old Granny actually believed it was “not whether you won or lost but how you played the game.” Pretty sure no one would find that Pablum digestible these days.

So what of the HOF returns? No one will quibble with the resounding  elevation of Junior Griffey, although the fuming over him being denied unanimous selection seems, as usual, stupid and needless. If a nominee gets just the 75 percent of ballots cast that is minimally required for election, or if he gets all of them – 440 this year – the result is precisely the same. Canonization!

Ruth, Cobb, Aaron, and others more deserving than Junior weren’t unanimous picks, so why should he be? For that matter, why should anyone be, even if someone everyone agrees was greater than the Babe comes along? It’s a distinction both trivial and touching that can only be appreciated in baseball where we slaves of tradition still have a seat at the table.

In deference to all that, three BBWAA voters held out, denying Griffey the honor. One hopes they’re still around in a couple years when first Mariano Rivera and then Derek Jeter are up for election and the demand for unanimous acclamation gets downright goofy.

Not that Junior’s achievements can possibly be minimized, but it can be argued he could have used more fire in the belly. He was a bit too controlled. Or maybe it just came too easy to him. You wonder if he might even have been greater had he been fired with such obsessions to excel as governed the likes of a Cobb, Rose, Robinson, or Williams. A fiery Griffey would have been a sight to behold, but such was not in his make-up. Good health would have further helped. Junior’s first dozen seasons were spectacular, but his last decade was unexceptional, blighted by wear, tear, and a very bum back. Great as he was, you may ponder what might have been.

If there’s no problem or controversy, or at least qualms, to be had with Griffey, there are plenty of them with the chap to be ushered into the Cooperstown Pantheon alongside him, slugging catcher Mike Piazza, holder of indisputable credentials for the honor, most of them suspect. 

In what has seemed the hopeless dilemma unreasonably foisted upon the baseball writers – to resolve the PED issue’s impact and the doling out of its punishments – Piazza was the ultimate test case. His election has opened the floodgates. Henceforth it will be impossible to deny the claims of all but the very few most outrageous offenders deemed guilty beyond doubt. 

And who might they be?  Making that distinction now gets even trickier while easier to dispute and, thereby, in the end impossible to make. Down the road one can see near all the so-called “suspects” with the sufficiently gaudy stats getting in; and make no mistake about it, election to the Hall of Fame is de facto absolution. This will also, of course, hopelessly muddle the entire performance enhancement drug/steroid/ cheating era in baseball history with the obliterations of the record book, already accomplished, becoming permanent and, ultimately, accepted. Nor will any asterisks be necessary, or welcome.
Can we blame all this on Piazza? Of course not! He was simply the test case, a bit of luck on his part, one would say. Circumstances were favorable.  As “suspects” go, he was among the less obvious. Most important, a change in the mood of the electors is evident.

Increasingly, the baseball writers are becoming sick of this mess and, if few scribes have come out and said so flatly, many seem tired of being stuck with the responsibility of having to make the hefty moral judgments that have become implicit in their HOF votes. Essentially being asked to decide who’s guilty or innocent is an impossible task. Even more to the point, it’s not the proper role of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Period!

The character of candidates has always been a factor in the criteria for enshrinement, but with the task of honestly evaluating the goodness or badness of people being ridiculously elusive, even for those well-trained in the art, it has rarely been invoked by the electors, except in stray extreme cases like Joe Jackson and Pete Rose where unqualified disapproval has been clearly expressed by the rulers of the game.

So where are those exalted rulers on the PED issue? Chief among them is, obviously, the commissioner. It is he who should declare unequivocally which of the PED offenders bears Major League Baseball’s official and emphatic disapproval and is therefore ineligible for any distinctions, including election to the Hall of Fame. Those who are not so designated would then be eligible. No more agonizing obliged. Simple as that!  

But after dodging and weaving his way through the PED controversy the entire length of his stewardship, retired czar Bud Selig cleverly managed to slide off into the sunset without so much as a wave at the Big Questions. So typical of dear old Bud. Since he has been in the post now only a few months, maybe it’s too early to write off his successor, Rob Manfred, but let’s just say I’m not holding my breath.
Should the writers be required to do the dirty work for the rulers? No bloody way, says I! PEDs have been a flaming hot potato dumped in the BBWAA’s lap by the silk suits in MLB’s penthouse. If the writers have come to resent that, who can blame them?

And so we bear on. Next year – same time, same station – the issue, presumably unchanged, will rear again, presenting  even more intriguing and thornier dilemmas that will doubtless lead to more wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. 

Prime candidates for elevation will include:  Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, another estimable catcher even more “suspect” than Piazza. Beefy Jeff Bagwell, who became a feared NL slugger after exhibiting little such long-ball potential as a Red Sox prospect. Our own favorite looney tune, Manny Ramirez, who as three-time loser to the PED cops would seem a longshot, but you never know. Tim Raines, clean on PEDs but a confessed cocaine abuser.  And you may further bear in mind that if Roger Clemens jumps as much in the balloting next year as he did this year he’ll be within ten percent of the votes required for election. Bingo!

So, you see, it ain’t going to get easier.