Ben DuBose is a Texas-based journalist. We went back and forth on Twitter about Craig Biggio’s Hall of Fame worthiness, so I invited him here to make his case. Ben graciously agreed. You can follow him on Twitter here.
I have little doubt Jeff Pearlman is a good reporter. You don’t work at Sports Illustrated and ESPN without being thorough and professional in your work. I also don’t doubt that he interviewed hundreds of connected baseball people for his best-selling book on Roger Clemens, many of whom implicated the Astros’ clubhouse as a dirty place during the steroid era.
I don’t believe Jeff has a personal vendetta against Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, who he believes are worthy of the Hall of Fame statistically but rejects due to off-field suspicions. To the latter point, I’m sure he’s heard PED whispers about them from people around baseball in a position to know. I can’t prove otherwise and certainly don’t believe Jeff is a liar.
What I do know, however, is that hard evidence against either player would be a massive story, the likes of which Jeff would love to break. It would be a career story for him and put an even bigger cloud over the 1990s—that even two generally-respected “good guys” had tainted careers. That two prominent players unnamed in extensive investigations such as the Mitchell Report were still guilty. It would be an enormous scoop.
But Jeff hasn’t gone forward with any kind of specific story. Why? I asked him on Twitter following the announcement of Biggio and Bagwell both falling short of the Hall of Fame (again), and he offered the usual reason of promised anonymity for his sources.
Understandable. There’s just one problem, though, and it goes back to one of the first lessons taught in journalism school.
Anonymous sources are notorious for lying or greatly exaggerating the truth. If substance is there, an accusation with specific evidence will eventually come out. It did for Clemens. It did for Barry Bonds. Same with Andy Pettitte. There’s almost always a weak link in the chain, and if Jeff had found it, I have no doubt that he would come forward.
The same goes for journalists in the Houston media. Myself, I work full-time in energy trade publications and only cover Houston sports on a freelance basis. (Ironically, my only season to report on baseball full-time was for MLB.com in Houston during 2007, which was Biggio’s final season). But I still stay connected with media here through freelance work and social media, including numerous Houston journalists who cover the Astros regularly, some extending back to the days of Biggio and Bagwell in the 1990s. They’ve sniffed around Minute Maid Park for years, digging to try and find that career story.
No one ever has.
Even though I grew up a fan of the Astros as a kid in the 1990s and want Bagwell and Biggio to be clean, I’m a journalist first, with a degree from Mizzou. I’d give my right arm for a scoop of that magnitude. If I had substantial evidence, I’d run with that story in a heartbeat, childhood fandom be damned.But like everyone else, I’ve got nothing of substance. The most specific claims I’ve heard are that Bagwell had big muscles, or that both he and Biggio shared a clubhouse and some relationship with Ken Caminiti—a known PED user. By that logic, should everyone in Cincinnati that played with or under Pete Rose be ineligible for the Hall, based on the blanket assumption that they must have conspired together, being in the same clubhouse? That seems a little silly.
Now, have some heard deeper rumors with the Astros? Yes. But nothing they’re comfortable attaching their name to. In fact, there’s actually a second level of anonymity at play here. Not only are no sources willing to accuse Bagwell or Biggio on the record, but they’re not even willing to have any of the specifics of their anonymous accusation—who, what, when, where, why and how—come out.
To me as a journalist, that’s a huge red flag, and it becomes an ethical issue in the context of Hall of Fame voting.
How can I hold an accusation against someone when they aren’t given the opportunity to respond to the charge?
It’s putting Biggio and Bagwell in an even worse position than Clemens and Bonds. At least with the latter two, they know exactly what they’re accused of and can respond accordingly. With the Astros’ duo, all they can answer to is vague innuendo and gossip.
And it’s not like they’ve hidden from it. Bagwell, in particular, has gone out of his way to strongly deny any steroid use. Problem is, many—including Pearlman—still don’t believe them, based on things they’ve heard elsewhere. That’s fine. Good journalists are inherently skeptical. It’s part of what makes the profession so valuable.
Good journalists should also, however, be fair.
The ability to vote in the Hall of Fame as a member of the BBWAA is one of the highest honors a baseball writer can receive. If I were in Jeff’s shoes, I’d need a very compelling reason before deciding my vote based on factors that we didn’t see on the diamond. [Jeff’s note: I don’t have a Hall vote.]
If it’s based on accusations that aren’t enough for a journalist to justify a story of their own, that’s not compelling enough. That’s gossip.
If it’s based on accusations so undocumented that the player in question can’t even specifically respond to them, that’s not compelling enough. That’s hearsay. If a journalist doesn’t have enough to run with the story, they shouldn’t have enough to make an award vote about something they didn’t see on the field. It’s not an ideal solution, and in the case of baseball’s Hall of Fame, it’s one that might lead to a PED user being inducted. But voters must remember that there’s no perfect solution available.
For me, keeping a deserving candidate out over unsubstantiated gossip is a bigger tragedy than letting an undeserving cheater in.