I was recently directed to this SI.com column, which was penned by Joe Posnanski.
Joe is one of the finest sports writers out there and—from my limited exposure—a genuinely good guy. His passion for baseball blows mine away. Joe clearly lives for digging into statistics and historical comparisons, which is why his work is of such a high quality. Whether he’s writing about the Snuggie or Albert Pujols or the Royals, you know Joe is going to give 100 percent. If he’s taken an article off, well, I’ve never noticed it.
That said, I strongly disagree with Joe’s take on baseball players, the Hall of Fame and PED. I’d like to elaborate.
First, here is a passage from Joe’s aforementioned column:
Jeff Bagwell — though he never tested positive for steroids, never was implicated in any public way, was not named in the Mitchell Report or by anyone on the record as a suspected user, and is not even on this rather comprehensive list of players linked to steroids or HGH — seems to have become in some voter’s minds a player who used performance enhancing drugs.
I can’t even begin to describe my disgust … it makes me absolutely sick to my stomach. This is PRECISELY what I was talking about when I said how much I hate the character clause in the Hall of Fame voting. I think it encourages people to believe their own nonsense, to stand up on high and be judge and jury. It’s something my friend Bill James calls the “I see it in his eyes” tripe. Bill has finished a book on crime — it is, he says, actually about crime books as much as crime — and one thing he kept running into in his research was people who claimed that they could pinpoint the murderer because “it was in their eyes.” Well, as Bill says, that’s a whole lot of garbage. Eyes are eyes. Some people look guilty when they’re innocent, and some people look innocent when they’re guilty, and most people don’t look innocent OR guilty except when we want to see that something in their eyes. Oh, but we love to believe we know. It’s one of the flaws of humanity. And the Hall of Fame character clause gives voters carte blanche to judge the eyes and hearts and souls of players.
I think my e-migo Craig Calcaterra has made this point on Twitter, but I’d like to also make it as strongly as I can: I’d rather a hundred steroid users were mistakenly voted into the Hall of Fame over keeping one non-user out. I don’t know if Jeff Bagwell used or didn’t use steroids. But there was no testing. There is no convincing evidence that he used (or, as far as I know, even unconvincing evidence). So what separates him from EVERY OTHER PLAYER on the ballot? Were his numbers too good? That’s why you suspect him?
Bagwell has written (or spoken) a story defending himself from the steroid charges. This is the takeaway: “I’m so sick and tired of all the steroids crap, it’s messed up my whole thinking on the subject. … If I ever do get to the Hall of Fame and there are 40 guys sitting behind me thinking, ‘He took steroids,’ then it’s not even worth it to me.”
I would say this to those people who would not vote for Jeff Bagwell because they simply believe he used steroids, based on how he looked or some whispers they heard. I have a better idea: Let’s just burn him at the stake. If he survives, you will know you were right.
Again, Joe’s terrific. And I can understand his take in this area. But here’s the thing: Because Major League Baseball—and especially Major League Baseball’s players—did such an awful, pathetic, inane, horrific job of policing the game when it mattered, we are left with this mess. Joe blames some of us (and I’m among the us) for speculating that Jeff Bagwell cheating by using PED? Well, what the hell are we supposed to think? A. Have you seen the photographs of a young Jeff Bagwell, first as a prospect in the Boston system, then with the Astros as a pup? He looks, perhaps not coincidentally, like a young Jason Giambi; like a young Barry Bonds; like a young Sammy Sosa; like a young Bret Boone. I know … I know—people gain weight as they get older. And, hey, he lifted! And used natural, over-the-counter supplements! And … enough. I’ve heard enough. Seriously, look at the guy as an in-his-prime Astro. Dude looks like Randy (Macho Man) Savage. And while I can already hear the “Just because he had muscles atop muscles doesn’t mean anything” argument brewing, well, it does—in the context of a sport overrun by cheaters—mean something. In fact, it means a lot.
But, alas, Joe’s still right—perhaps Jeff Bagwell never used. Perhaps, as dozens upon dozens of his teammates turned to steroids and HGH throughout the 1990s and early 2000s (Reality: No two teams in baseball had more PED connections than the Texas Rangers and the Houston Astros), Bagwell looked the other way and continued to pop his GNC-supplied Vitamin C tablets. Maybe, just maybe, that happened. But, as the game was being ruined in his very clubhouse, where was Bagwell’s voice of protest? Where was Jeff Bagwell, one of the best players in baseball, when someone inside the game needed to speak out and demand accountability? Answer: Like nearly all of his peers, he was nowhere. He never uttered a word, never lifted a finger (Now, once he retired, he was more than willing to defend himself and speak up for the sport. Once he was retired).
This, to me, is why we are allowed to suspect Jeff Bagwell and, if we so choose, not vote for him. The baseball players have cast this curse upon themselves—A. By cheating (And the usage of PED was, factually cheating. I don’t care how often you say, ‘It wasn’t outlawed by baseball’ blah blag blah blah. In the United States, the obtaining and usage of HGH and steroids without a proper perscription is illegal. And ‘proper perscription’ does not merely mean one given by a doctor. It means one rightly given by a doctor for a necessary medical condition); B. By not standing up against cheating and doing everything to assure a clean product.
If he did use, Jeff Bagwell deliberately sought an advantage over other players—an illegal advantage.
If he didn’t use, Jeff Bagwell, stood by and watched his sport morph into WWE nonsense.
So, again, Joe’s right: Statistically, Jeff Bagwell is a Hall of Famer. And, on a personal note, he was always an approachable and nice guy. But, dammit, thanks to baseball’s meekness (for lack of a better word), Hall of Fame voters (I’m not one, for the record) have the right to suspect anyone and everyone from the past era. They have the right to view muscles suspiciously; to question a guy putting up six-straight 100-plus RBI seasons in the heat of PED Madness; to wonder why—when, oh, 75 percent of players were using–one extremely succesful, extemely large, extremely muscular man wouldn’t.
Did Jeff Bagwell use PED?
I don’t know.
Do I have the right to hold his era against him?
Damn right I do.