Does Jeff Bagwell, rejected his first year on the ballot, merit enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame? His traditional numbers -- 449 career homeruns, 1,529 career RBI and a lifetime .297 batting average -- scream yes. As Joe Posnanski points out, he was one of only 16 players to ever finish with an on-base-percentage over .400 (Bagwell's is .408) and a slugging percentage over .500 (Bagwell comes in at .540). Though he's remembered as a slugger, Bagwell could do nearly everything, stealing 30 or more bases twice and recording double-digit steals in eight consecutive seasons between 1992 and 1999.
Didn't matter. Despite the fact that Bagwell never tested positive for anything, was never legitimately -- or illegitimately -- implicated as a steroid user and has reportedly denied touching illegal performance enhancing drugs, he was still deemed guilty by association with Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire and the other slugging first basemen of his era who were denied entrance to the Hall of Fame on Wednesday.
Hall of Fame voter Geoff Baker, of the Seattle Times, used the words "steroids" or "performance enhancing drugs" 16 times in defending his exclusion of Bagwell from his ballot. Jeff Pearlman of Sports Illustrated, another voter, found Bagwell implicated by his hulking musculature when he could not turn up any tangible evidence of steroid use.
But for pitchers that have been explicitly implicated as participants in baseball's steroids era, alleged sins are more easily forgotten. A New York Times article, speculating about Andy Pettitte's future, discussed Pettitte's borderline candidacy -- and failed to mention revelations of a failed steroid test until the 13th paragraph, when it was acknowledged as a factor that might make his eventual case "complicated."
Another pitcher with a debatable Hall of Fame case, Kevin Brown, hardly needs steroids to turn off voters. Though his numbers mirror those of another likely future inductee, Curt Schilling, Brown will likely keep falling short for the elementary reason that reporters -- and fans -- tended to find him personally unlikeable.
Brown's candidacy has, however, sparked some worthwhile discussions -- discussions that have largely elided his inclusion on page 242 of the Mitchell Report as a mentioned steroid purchaser. Rob Neyer's writeup of his candidacy for ESPN does not allude to performance enhancers. In the New York Times article Neyer was responding to, Brown's links to steroids were mentioned and then ignored in favor of a discussion of his questionable merits. Posnanski, who eloquently argued why steroid allegations should not hinder Bagwell's candidacy, never even saw it necessary to allude to the issue when explaining why he declined to vote for Brown.
Which is how it should be. The prevalence of performance enhancing drugs does not abdicate Hall of Fame voters from the responsibility of critically analyzing the era and memorializing its accomplishments. But if baseball writers are trying to send a message through their votes on Bagwell, McGwire, Palmeiro and other Hall contenders rumored to have juiced, then it's the wrong one. Today, sluggers denied for Hall of Fame enshrinement are in all likelihood not wishing that they had never been tempted by steroids -- they're wishing that they picked up a different glove in Little League and learned how to throw a slider.