The concept of “innocent until proven guilty” is a fundamental tenant of the U. S. criminal justice system, but one the voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) are apparently unfamiliar with. While a majority of baseball writers aren’t lawyers, and therefore aren’t versed in criminal law, the appalling lack of support for former Houston first baseman Jeff Bagwell in the recent Hall of Fame (HoF) election suggests that BBWAA members could use a crash course on fairness, justice and objectivity.
Bagwell, a Hall of Famer if ever there was one, received only 41.7 percent of the vote. I won’t attempt to overwhelm you with Bagwell’s statistics and how they measure up against his peers, current members of the HoF, and other players who were eligible for election this year. Those stats and supporting arguments are available at the touch of a mouse. Suffice it to say that a number of respected members of the BBWAA were articulate and passionate in arguing for Bagwell’s candidacy.
On the other hand, voters who shunned Bagwell defended their position by referencing the “suspicions” of steroid use that shadowed the slugger during his playing career. Despite the suspicions, these are the facts: Bagwell never tested positive for steroids, was never accused of using PEDs, and has always emphatically denied using. Nevertheless, Bagwell was effectively “convicted” of using steroids without a scintilla of competent evidence to support that verdict. While circumstantial evidence - Bagwell hit only six home runs in 900 Minor League at bats and 449 home runs during 15 years in the big leagues, he “bulked up” during his playing career, slugging records in the “steroid era” are tainted, etc. – was often cited to support the case against Bagwell, such “evidence” is little more than baseless rumor and innuendo.
The argument that players who used steroids – as evidenced by positive tests and/or admissions - violated the “integrity and character” language in the Hall’s admission guidelines may be defensible. But shunning those who are “suspected” of using steroids is a contradiction of all that we hold dear in a free society, something members of the media should understand better than most.
In my view, even confirmed steroid users should be elected to the Hall if their stats warrant it. While the language in the voting guidelines has remained consistent, the interpretation of that language has not. If voters had consistently applied the integrity and character wording in the past, the Hall would be bereft of a majority of its inductees.
Ironically, many voters who shun steroid users are not so inclined with amphetamine users. Yet there isn’t a shred of medical research that suggests, let alone conclusively establishes, that steroids are more of a performance enhancer than amphetamines. On the other hand, substantial research has determined that caffeine, one of the most frequently used and easily available substances, enhances performance by as much as 25%, something most members of the BBWAA can no doubt relate to. Try writing a story on deadline without the requisite java. When big league clubhouses become caffeine-free zones, you can talk to me about keeping steroid users out of the HoF.
How to remedy the current situation that allows individual voters to define “integrity and character” as they see fit? One possibility is for the Hall to eliminate the language in the voting guidelines, although based on recent comments by Hall President Jeff Idelson, such action seems highly unlikely. As an alternative, the Hall could clarify the language, perhaps limiting it to a player’s conduct on the field of play. However, that interpretation may have prevented Roberto Alomar, who was infamously involved in a spitting incident with umpire John Hirschbeck, from gaining election this year.
Another option is to have some combination of the Hall, MLB and the MLBPA conduct an educational seminar with the BBWAA membership regarding what information is or is not appropriate to consider regarding Hall qualifications. Such an approach seems reasonable, given that MLB and the MLBPA were co-conspirators in the steroid era visited upon the sport and the Hall takes its marching orders from MLB.
While convincing all 500+ voting members of the BBWAA to think alike is an unreasonable expectation, something must be done to assure greater consistency in the voting process. Decreeing that suspected steroid users are “guilty until proven innocent” is an unconscionable travesty that must end.
Jordan Kobritz is a staff member of the Business of Sports Network. He is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Eastern New Mexico University and teaches the Business of Sports at the University of Wyoming. He looks forward to your comments and can be contracted, here.
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