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January 5, 2011 at 9:11 AM

Jeff Bagwell poses new problem on an ever-complicated Hall of Fame ballot

Many of you have written in to ask me why I did not have Jeff Bagwell on my Hall of Fame ballot. I wanted yesterday to be about the whole Edgar Martinez question and not to get sidetracked by the Bagwell issue.
But you have a right to ask the question since Bagwell, on the surface, appears to have Hall of Fame worthy numbers.
One unfortunate byproduct of the Steroids Era in baseball is that writers, as voters, are now forced to make a whole bunch of value judgments on players that they did not have to before. We’ve seen a list of players on this year’s ballot who were either caught having taken steroids, were linked to performance enhancing drugs in the Mitchell Report, or flat-out admitted using them.
None of those players will be on my ballot. Not now, not next year. No Mark McGwire, no Rafael Palmeiro and no Juan Gonzalez.
And for now, at least, no Barry Bonds when it comes time. No Roger Clemens. No Alex Rodriguez. No Manny Ramirez. I feel that you have to be consistent. Performance enhancing drugs were banned in baseball 20 years ago and former commissioner Fay Vincent sent a memo to each team reminding them of that fact. That the players’ association fought to prevent any punishments or testing from being implemented until 2004 is not really the issue. Players knew they were not allowed to take steroids, but did so anyway and assumed all the risks to their health and reputations.
Some made millions off them and achieved fame. Now, those who are caught have to accept responsibility for their actions. I can’t give them a Hall vote when I have no idea when they began using or the extent to which steroids impacted their performance.
This is not the same as players taking “greenies” back in the 1960s and 1970s. Amphetamines were used by players to stay awake during the grind of an interminable 162-game season. Just like today’s players now drink Red Bull non-stop or keep packs of those 24-hour energy supplements tucked away. When I played football in the 1980s, I did so alongside players who took amphetamines and steroids. Believe me, there’s a huge difference. There were times this season when I wished I had something to keep me awake in the pressbox — right around late-July when the M’s were playing at a 110-loss clip.
But back to the point, you didn’t see records getting obliterated every year, or middle infielders hitting 40 homers all of a sudden, back in the 1960s and 1970s. With steroids, you saw tons of eye-opening, first-time stuff.
In the end, I didn’t have a vote in the 1960s and 1970s, nor did I have a say about Gaylord Perry and his spitballs. I don’t know how I’d have handled that information and have too much on my plate present-day to get into it. I do have a say today about players who cheated with steroids and compiled career numbers that may have been inflated far beyond where they’d have otherwise stood.
With Bagwell, though, it’s an entirely new question.
To date, there is no evidence anywhere, other than rumor and supposition, that Bagwell took steroids.
And I do consider myself somebody who believes in innocence until guilt is proven.
The problem is, the rumor and innuendo with Bagwell has been awfully strong for a long time and others in similar positions who denied, denied, denied — McGwire and Palmeiro — have since tested positive or admitted their use. We saw baseball writers take a heap of abuse from fans over the past decade for “closing their eyes” to steroids in the 1990s.
That wasn’t entirely true, but there are limits to what you can write with no evidence. I don’t want to ever have my eyes closed and be looking the other way. Whether it’s about steroids, or some other baseball issue. I don’t want to wake up embarassed in five years because I voted in a bunch of guys who are later found to have been some of the biggest cheats in the game’s history.
Nor do I want to be leading a witch hunt. That’s not what I’m about. Nor what many of my fellow voters, I suspect, are about. Bagwell has not been found to have done anything wrong and put up numbers that appear Hall worthy.
So, here’s what I’ve decided to do. On Bagwell and any other guys from his era I’m not totally comfortable with going forward.
Photo Credit: AP

The voting structure for Hall of Fame election is set up in such a way that it gives you 15 years to make a call on a guy. The baseball fans who want instant gratification — the “He’s either a Hall of Famer now or never” crowd — hate this rule. But I like it. Opinions can change over time as new arguments and new information become available. Bert Blyleven will get elected today largely because of different ways of looking at stats than we had a decade ago.
So, with Bagwell, I’m going to take advantage of the voting structure. The structure that allows me to wait if I’m unsure of a candidate and seek out new information.
I didn’t have him on my ballot this time. But that’s not the same as casting a “No” vote for Bagwell based on rumors.
As of right now, there is no evidence he did anything wrong.
So, I am giving it one year. If in 12 months, there is still no evidence, he can have my vote.
Yes, I did my research into Bagwell before the vote. But let’s face it, right up until a few weeks ago, there was very little about this topic to be found anyplace. Very often, once a subject becomes thrust in the spotlight of public scrutiny, you have have a whole bunch of new information start to surface about them. I will do my share of asking around behind the scenes, but, since I don’t cover the Astros, I doubt it will be me coming up with anything groundbreaking. Hey, you never know. It’s happened before.
But I’m giving it a year.
This past year, we’d been hoping to learn about more names of steroid users that might have clarified things even further on a number of players. But then, just a couple of weeks before ballots were due, we learned that the federal government would not appeal a court ruling that its seizure of a list of names of players who failed a 2003 drug survey was illegal. So, those names now stay confidential. But leaks happen and who knows what new information will come about over the next year?
So, I’m going to exercise my right to wait.
And before all the trial lawyers out there start getting on my case, there is a ton of precedent for this in our society. Police can carry out information-gathering investigations for years before bringing criminal charges.
Grand juries can be delayed, as can trials, while prosecutors seek information upon which to base a decision on whether to proceed any further with indictments or trials.
Apply for a Green Card in this country, the government can bounce a perfectly good case back to you several times in order to obtain new information before approving it. Trust me, I’ve been through that process for a two-year period.
So, I want to wait a year to see if any new information about Bagwell comes out before going ahead and giving him my vote. I don’t think the past two weeks in the spotlight for him has been enough time yet.
I know the ballot was due last Dec. 31. But just because that deadline was there, it doesn’t mean I have to make a call on Bagwell right away. The voting system allows me to take my time.
Not unlimited time, mind you. At least, not in my sense of fairness. I have no plans to make Bagwell wait indefinitely. The shortest alternative I had, if I wasn’t going to vote this time, was to wait a year. Such a delay, as I’ve mentioned, is consistent with similar delays we tolerate in our legal system and our immigration policy. I think we can survive it in baseball Hall of Fame voting.
Some of you won’t like it and I understand. But it’s the decision I feel most comfortable with. I am not in the business of throwing around steroid accusations without merit and I’m not about to accuse Bagwell of anything.
But the rumors are out there and I’m not about to look the other way and duck my head in the sand. I don’t think a couple of weeks of close-up national scrutiny on Bagwell — five years after he retired and slipped off the radar — is enough. I’ll feel more comfortable in a year from now. In many ways, it’s no different than voters taking 15 years and obtaining new information that helped Blyleven’s candidacy. It’s just a shorter time period.
Nobody has to prove innocence here. If in a year, with the chance for others in-the-know to come forward, or leak evidence to the public, the only things working against Bagwell are rumors and innuendo, he can have my vote.
I didn’t ask for this situation. If anybody did, it was Bagwell and his fellow player union members who helped keep steroids alive and flourishing throughout the 1990s and through half of the last decade by not pressuring their association to give in to increased testing and punishment.
Bagwell himself was vocal, almost flippant about the issue back then, saying he didn’t care if his fellow players were taking steroids. That type of attitude, prevalent amongst many players in the 1990s, helped lead us to where we are today: trying to figure out who came about their numbers legitimately and who gave them a chemically-enhanced boost.
So, this is my solution where Bagwell is concerned. It’s not a perfect compromise. But it’s the best one I can think of under the circumstances.



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