'Tis baseball's pearl-clutching season, when writers sit down with their Hall of Fame ballots and combine wisdom with morality. Improprieties -- and even suggestions of improprieties -- are addressed with a dismissive omission. Check marks are used and withheld with Olympian loftiness.
The result is an incoherent mess. Even those who win induction end up losing something in the process. The focus of any story regarding the Hall of Fame has become -- and will remain -- those who are denied. There's toxicity associated with every aspect of the voting process, and these efforts to elevate the Hall to baseball's Vatican -- it's a museum, and nothing more -- have paradoxically served to degrade it along the way.
Just watch. The second paragraph of any story announcing Greg Maddux's election on Jan. 8 will be about those who were rejected on moral grounds.
So here's a question for the voters: Who, exactly, are you presuming to protect?
If it's baseball -- Major League Baseball, that is -- you appear to be wasting your time. All the debated names associated with performance-enhancing drugs, from Barry Bonds to Roger Clemens to Mark McGwire, remain on the ballot, eligible to be enshrined. Moreover, the general managers and owners obviously don't share your vigor for the eternal prosecution. Otherwise, they wouldn't continue to hand out new and improved contracts to known present-day cheats. Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon, Jhonny Peralta and soon Nelson Cruz -- all richer, or soon to be, despite PED suspensions.
If owners and general managers don't care, why should baseball writers?
Here's the obligatory disclaimer: I respect those who cite the Hall's moral clause -- it hinges on one word: integrity -- as the reason they can't elect PED cheats. It's perfectly understandable that intelligent people can choose to omit certain players because they both cheated the game and inflated their own worth by ingesting or injecting banned or illegal drugs. I was a member of the Baseball Writers' Association of America for nine years -- one short of earning voting rights -- and I used to be able to summon the high dudgeon needed to dismiss Bonds and Clemens and anyone else who dared besmirch the game. I get it.
But more writers, including The Boston Globe's esteemed Bob Ryan, seem to be softening on the issue. In explaining that he remains committed to leaving PED users off his ballot, Ryan wrote, "I may very well wake up one day and say, 'I give up. Juiced pitchers threw to juiced batters. We will never know the full effect of the PED usage. It is impossible to be both judge and jury in this matter. So, let 'em all in. If they've got the numbers, vote 'em in.'"
That's the point: It's too muddled to pin down. It's impossible to differentiate between who did and who didn't use, or why a 2004 HGH user is more of a cheater than a 1968 greenie user. And more importantly, why is the Hall of Fame being turned into a court of law?
It seems to me the best way to send a message is to vote them all into the Hall. The most revolutionary ballot would include Bonds and Clemens and anybody else the voter deems qualified.
Most writers who feel compelled to send a message to the PED cheats also believe MLB was complicit in creating and promoting the entire era. And nobody -- with or without a ballot -- can argue that everyone in baseball, from the top down, didn't profit immensely along the way. And yet the leagues get a pass. The writers serve MLB's interests by refusing entry to those known or suspected of PED use -- Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza are the most famous hunch rejections -- despite the mounting evidence that writers are the only ones who truly care. Tony La Russa and Joe Torre were voted into the Hall of Fame, and nobody believes they weren't aware of what their best players were doing. Any suggestion that they were completely oblivious to what was happening directly under their noses would seem to discount their value as leaders of men.
I agree with Grantland's Jonah Keri when he says the Hall should be a place where people -- especially kids -- look with wonder at what great things have taken place in baseball. Again, it's not church, as anyone with a working knowledge of Ty Cobb or Gaylord Perry knows.
I also agree with Keri that the voting limit of 10 players, coupled with the moral grandstanding of the voters, will create a backlog that pushes worthy players off the ballot far too soon.
And the solution to the bigger problem, the untenable and growing problem, is simple:
This is what you're giving me, and I will vote accordingly.
By voting strictly on qualifications, the onus falls on the Hall or MLB or whoever else wants to take up the cause of adjudicating the morals of the game. To this point, the evidence indicates that, among the baseball community, BBWAA members are the only ones who seem to care.
It's not a cop-out; it's an acknowledgement that nobody is qualified to sort all of this out in an orderly fashion, and the voters shouldn't be the ones tasked to do it. If you believe MLB was complicit in the steroid era, then why do Bud Selig's bidding for him? Why make it easier on the decision-makers who profited from the boom times?
Vote for those who deserve enshrinement, and think about this moment: Selig standing on the dais with Bonds and Clemens on a beautiful July afternoon in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Standing guard at the gates might feel like the good fight, but it has become a losing, never-ending and ultimately fruitless battle.