Perception Becomes Reality With Hall of Fame Voters

It doesn't bother me that Jeff Bagwell didn't make the Hall of Fame. He has comparable numbers to Orlando Cepeda, Jim Rice and Andre Dawson, all of whom had to wait more than a decade until sportswriters chose to acknowledge them. It doesn't even bother me that he only received 41 percent of the vote despite the fact Willie Stargell, a statistically similar player, received double that amount (82 percent) on his first ballot because the guy had a "fatherly personality" and hit the ball a long way. In fact, it doesn't even bother me that Lee Smith garnered more attention at the polls than Bagwell did. No, what bothers me is why he didn't make it into the Hall of Fame.

The guy had muscles in a decade of muscles. So what? That doesn't mean he was on steroids. He has never privately or publicly been linked to them, but he has been penalized by sportswriters who were as complicit in the pedaling of the home-run surge, maybe more so, as any GM, owner or juiced-up player during the 15-20 year reign of what is now known as "The Steroid Era." Common sense would indicate that the vote was hypocritical. It is also a sports-page version of "profiling," which happens to be an unsubstantiated measure of guilt applied to people prior to a legal charge and condemned by any judicial system that wants to be taken seriously.

Hold on though, sportswriters don't always profile. No, no; they pick and chose when they do it and to whom they do it. Gaylord Perry was an admitted cheater. He doctored, scratched, scuffed balls, a penalty that carries the same suspension as Rafael Palmeiro's 10-game dismissal in 2005, but his Ph. D in spitball wasn't held against him. Don Drysdale won 153 of his 209 games from 1960-1968 in what was commonly called "The Pitching Era" with the aid of a higher mound. In 1969, Major League baseball lowered the mound because it gave pitchers like Drysdale, Koufax and Bob Gibson what MLB deemed to be an "unfair advantage" over hitters. That same year was Drysdale's last in the big leagues but, true to form, he was elected to the Hall of Fame. Mickey Mantle took "handfuls of greenies," illegal amphetamines, according to Jane Leavy's meticulously researched biography, The Last Boy. And, yes, Mantle along with many other players, probably the majority of them, who took illegal amphetamines from the 1940s onward have etched copper plaques in the Hall of Fame.

But Jeff Bagwell didn't get more votes because sportswriters looked at him and thought, "He must have used something," the same way a bad police officer might arrive at the scene of a crime and see a black kid in a hooded sweatshirt and think, "He must be involved." Pure and simple.The sportswriters were an accessory to the crime of steroids. They were in the locker room. They saw what was happening and they chose to not to say anything. Now, they are penalizing any player they assume to be guilty with heretic fervor.

The problem is that those who critique and cover the game have been allowed to dictate to it as well. Sportswriters wouldn't be allowed to call balls and strikes. They wouldn't be allowed to vote on whether instant replay should be a larger part of the game. They certainly wouldn't be allowed to pick who was the starting pitcher in the All-Star game. Yet they are allowed to choose who should have the title "Hall of Famer" bestowed upon them.

I understand. They are, by chosen profession, the only people who are qualified by the number of games witnessed and the volume of years spent chronicling it (you have to have 10 years covering baseball before you are allowed into the Baseball Writers Association) who can have a vote. Many, like Buster Olney, Jim Caple, Tim Kurkjian and others do an extremely diligent and honest job of voting. But, with something like the Jeff Bagwell vote, many more did not, and it needs to be changed.

A problem is only a problem if it has no solution. So here it is: Create a panel for voting. Allow the voters to choose as many players as they want and whoever they want and create some guidelines for eras, like the 1990s, that were known to have been fueled by illegal substances. The panel ought to have sportswriters on it, undoubtedly they should have some say, but not all of it. The rest of the voting community should be filled out with people who know and love the game, people like baseball aficionados (Doris Kearns Goodwin, Bill James, Bob Costas), ex-players and managers (Don Zimmer, Tommy Lasorda, Joe Torre) who can make accurate, detailed judgments about players, their ability, their career.

If the rules don't change and player's like Jeff Bagwell and eventually Mike Piazza, Frank Thomas and Jim Thome, keep ending up with less than half the vote because writers "think they might" have done something wrong then in 15 years it could be that eight of the top 20 home-run hitters of all-time are listening to speeches on the steps of Cooperstown instead of giving them. For those Hall of Fame voters, that's about 40 percent.