In advance of his induction this weekend, Jim Rice made a case against admitting strongly suspected steroid users to the Hall of Fame. He also unwittingly made a case for becoming an official gatekeeper in Cooperstown, replacing the writers who currently hold the keys.
The practice of having baseball writers choose Hall of Famers has been outdated for a while. A few media outlets, recognizing that journalists should observe and not make the news, have already barred their writers from voting. I have somewhat muddled views on that, and have voted only once in my four years of eligibility.
At this point, though, the real question isn't about journalistic ethics. It's whether writers are more qualified than elite athletes to judge what performance-enhancing drugs do to a body, a game or a hall of immortals. They aren't. Almost six years after the first BALCO raid, many remain shockingly ignorant about how a sustained program of artificial hormone usage affects an athlete.
|Jim Rice, pictured during his Red Sox days, wouldn't mind being a gatekeeper at Cooperstown. (Getty Images)|
Unlike the writers, they know what it really takes to perform at the highest level of the sport. They know it in their bones. Their instincts surpass any convoluted reasoning that writers will have to apply to their ballots.
They won't have to play games like: "Well, if guys from the '60s and '70s took an occasional amphetamine and Sandy Koufax once said he felt half-high from the treatments on his ravaged left arm, then why shouldn't we overlook whatever Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens might have done to pad their stats?"
They'll know the difference. They've been hurt and gotten treatment, and they can tell whether a doctor simply repaired damage or created The Unnatural. They may not know beyond a shadow of doubt, but who would?
Many of them probably suspected that Bonds' ability to hit 500-foot line drives, after years of clearing the fences with giant pop-ups, had come from a lab. For that matter, according to the book Game of Shadows, Bonds looked at Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in the summer of 1998 and felt disgust that no one questioned their Popeye arms and homer binges. He knew what was happening. He had a ballplayer's instincts.
But no player could talk about the drug suspicions. They would have sounded jealous. It wasn't their place to judge. So give the best of them responsibility for the Hall of Fame, and it will become their place.
There's no guarantee which way they'll go. Mike Schmidt has said that he might have juiced if the temptation had existed in his playing days. Imagine the lively debate if he and Rice sat in the same room or talked on a conference call as they prepared to vote on a new class for Cooperstown.
That debate should happen. It would be good for the game.
Sure, some of the players will vote for undeserving old teammates. But the writers are just as likely to favor players who charmed them or who played in their hometowns.
Under the current system, Rice got in during his last year of eligibility, even though his accomplishments didn't get any better than they were over the previous 14 years. There still hasn't been a unanimous pick for the Hall, not Willie Mays, not Frank Robinson, not Tony Gwynn nor Rickey Henderson. Twenty-eight of the 539 voters last winter did not vote for Henderson, making a strong case for drug-testing in the press box.
Clearly, this process is not a science. It's fallible, sentimental and replaceable.
The details of forming a players' selection committee would have to be worked out. Some of the older guys may be too far removed from the sport to assess their modern heirs. But again, they can't be less qualified than the current voters. Some of the smartest baseball analysts in the country have lost their jobs and voting eligibility. Some of the very best work in TV and have always been excluded.
I exclude myself because I don't feel particularly qualified. The one year I voted, I wanted to honor the late Ken Caminiti for telling the truth about using steroids without having a book deal or a perjury threat in front of him. After years of covering Olympic drug scandals and hearing the most absurd excuses and witnessed endless willful ignorance, I knew that Caminiti had made history. One other writer voted for him.
To be fair, I also voted for Rice, Andre Dawson and Gossage, so that my ballot wouldn't lower their percentages just enough to keep them out of the Hall that year. I did not vote for McGwire, then in his first year of eligibility.
Since then, I've looked at the ballot wistfully each year, but haven't sent it in. I appreciate the honor and think of all the people who can only dream of such a privilege. But ultimately, I want the privilege turned over to other people. Only those already enshrined in Cooperstown can know who really belongs there and who would make a mockery of the entire place.
Gwen Knapp is a sports columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle.