The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Sports

July 25, 2011

Thoma: Baseball Hall of Fame approaches a crossroads

— Bert Blyleven (along with Roberto Alomar and Pat Gillick) was inducted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday.

It was truly now-or-never for Blyleven — he was voted in on his 15th and final appearance on the writers’ ballot — but for such deserving candidates as Barry Larkin, Tim Raines and Alan Trammell, next year looks like now or never.

Consider the first time candidates for 2013: Craig Biggio. Barry Bonds. Roger Clemens. Mike Piazza. Curt Schilling. Sammy Sosa.

As Joe Posnanski wrote this weekend, there’s basis for argument on all six. Steroids, the meaning of fame, the importance of milestone numbers, how to weigh post-season accomplishments — there won’t be any oxygen left in the room with that crew.

Especially on the steroids issue. Bonds, Clemens, Piazza, Sosa ... yeah, there’s a PEDs party there, or at least suspicion of one.

If you take their numbers at face value, there’s no question of their greatness.

But here’s the thing: Nobody’s numbers should be taken at face value. All baseball stats are creatures of context.

The National League — the entire league, pitchers included — hit .303 in 1930. In the American League in 1968, no regular player hit better than .301. An outfielder in the 1930 NL who hit .290 wasn’t helping; an outfielder in the 1968 AL who hit .290 was a star.

Shifting from the general to the specific:

Christy Mathewson pitched his entire career with darkened, mushy baseballs. Babe Ruth didn’t compete with black players. Ted Williams lost years to military service. Mel Ott piled up home runs in a particularly friendly venue. Sandy Koufax benefited from a high pitchers mound. Mike Schmidt spent most of his career on artificial turf.

And Bonds, Clemens and company starred in the steroid era. Deal with it.

OK. How do we deal with it? How do we deal with this phenomenon of players — stars and scrubs alike — seeking excellence through secretive and unethical means?

Steroid use was not limited to a handful of superstars. We know that much. We don’t know exactly how pervasive PEDs were in the 1990s and early 2000s, not in the same way that we know what percentage of Ernie Banks’ home runs came in Wrigley Field.

We don’t know how pervasive it was and we don’t know how much it helped, but we know that juiced hitters were competing against juiced pitchers.

As Bill James wrote of Rickey Henderson, cut the careers of Bonds and Clemens in half and you’d have four Hall of Famers.

Really, if you end those two’s careers at the point where the steroid allegations begin, you still have players worthy of enshrinement.

If the Hall of Fame electorate doesn’t see it that way — if the writers block Bonds and Clemens (and Sosa and Piazza) as they have Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Jeff Bagwell — the backlog of candidates will become oppressive.

The suspect will be excluded. The nonsuspect might be too, because so much attention will be devoted to the suspects. And if they are admitted while clearly superior players are out, that’s not good either.

Either way, the Hall of Fame will be diminished by the omissions.

Edward Thoma is a Free Press staff writer. He is at 344-6377 or at ethoma@mankatofreepress.com. He also has a baseball blog.

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