Major League Baseball's high cost of integrity
Posted August 2, 2013
It was unusually quiet in Cooperstown, New York last Sunday. Not that there weren't tourists, because there are always tourists in Cooperstown in the summer. Some arrive for the Farmer's Museum, others the Fenimore Art Museum or even the Glimmerglass Opera.
Mostly though, we associate the Village of Cooperstown with the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. And the silence there was deafening.
For the first time in 53 years, not a single living person was inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame. Only Deacon White, Hank O'Day and Jacob Ruppert were honored, and all by the veterans committee – and if you don't know who any of those people are, you're not alone.
For the record, White was one of the best hitters of the 19th century, recognized by sabermatricians of the time for his WAR (Win Above Replacement) of 45. O'Day was the preeminent umpire of the early 20th century, most-remembered for being the arbiter of record in Fred Merkle's Boner (google it). Ruppert was George Steinbrenner before the Boss was even born. He owned the Yankees from 1915-1938 and began the practice of buying other teams' best players, most notably Red Sox star Babe Ruth. He brought the Yankees from laughing stock to dominance, winning 10 pennants and seven World Series and leading the club out of the shadow of the National League's New York Giants.
All were legendary figures in the sport, and all had interesting stories to tell. Yet all have long since passed away, thus there was no buzz at all for the Sunday afternoon ceremony.
Only the grand sport of baseball can author such a tale. Only the national pastime devours its own history and flushes it into the septic tank of time. No other sport so willingly sprays graffiti all over its biggest stars, and they do so at a steep price. Only baseball.
For that, they deserve tons of credit.
Call this the high cost of integrity, if you will. The commissioner, Bud Selig, has set out to clean up a sport he had no idea needed the steel wool treatment when he took over the reins in 1992. Sure, there was a measure of head buried in sand that went on for the better part of the next decade as it pertains to performance enhancing drugs, and that embarrassment is likely at the root of what is driving Selig's mission today.
Regardless, with the help of the Players Association, the sport is aiming at restoring its reputation among fans who value the game, its history and the legacy one generation leaves for the next.
This isn't to say that the steroid era is the lone period of the game's misconduct. It isn't to say that the game was pristine before nor that it won't find another controversy down the road. But the wild, dare I say "loosey goosey" (thank you, Alex) days of the 1990s into the early 21st century will go down as the most thrilling yet shameful portion of baseball's history.
In the span of ten seasons, baseball witnessed the historic home run duel between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, each of whom eclipsed Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs in a single season. Three years later, Barry Bonds left McGwire and Sosa in the dust, blowing past their meager totals of 70 and 66, respectively, in a 73-home run campaign that saw the seven-time MVP go deep every 6.5 official at bats – by miles the best ratio in the history of ever.
Then, on August 7, 2007, Bonds left the ballpark for the 756th time in his career, passing the great Hank Aaron to become the game's all-time home run king. It was a moment in sports that should have been honored, revered and remembered by every fan at home or in attendance.
Only Selig, the commissioner, wasn't there.
Bonds, McGwire and Sosa were the poster children for the steroid era in baseball. And along with many other players – including the likes of Roger Clemens – who were identified by the MLB-commissioned Mitchell Report as having used performance-enhancing drugs, their presence became a day-in-day-out black eye for baseball.
Which brings us all the way back to Cooperstown, and last Sunday's oh-so quiet induction day at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. With Bonds and Clemens and Sosa and McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro all on the ballot, four of whom rank among the top home run hitters of all time in a sport that reveres its sluggers, baseball saw its most accomplished Hall of Fame ballot in more than 70 years spit out not a single player worthy of enshrinement.
Not Mike Piazza, the greatest hitting catcher of all time.
Not Craig Biggio, whose 3,060 hits rank 21st in history and is the only member of the 3,000-hit club NOT in the Hall of Fame (other than Derek Jeter, who won't be eligible for at least another six years due to the fact that he's still good enough to continue playing).
Not Jeff Bagwell, a perennial MVP candidate who averaged over 100 runs batted in per season during his 15-year career. Part of this could be attributed to a silent suspicion of Bagwell, though he has never been documented as a cheater.
There were, by any measure, at least 15 players you could argue for induction, and none achieved the necessary support because there are those who simply will not vote for anyone connected to the "Steroid Era." Personally, I think it's shameful on the part of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) to selectively ignore a portion of the game's history to satisfy their own sense of right and wrong. Though, much like the commissioner's zeal to rid the sport of performance-enhancers is, in a way, enhanced by his own failures early, the writers were also left with egg on their front page as the people in charge of observing the sport on a day-to-day basis while the cheating was going on in front of their own eyes.
The real irony of that August night in San Francisco almost six years ago – you remember, the one that the commissioner was noticeably absent for – is that most outside of San Francisco were looking to New York Yankees' star, Alex Rodriguez to provide the sport with a home run king they could admire. Seems like a long time ago, doesn't it?
In all, some of the greatest players of any era have been exposed as cheaters. And not just exposed, but shamed and humiliated, by the Office of the Commissioner. As a result, baseball is reluctant to celebrate its achievements in any way because of the stain they left on the game and there are some who would rather cherry pick their historical greats and recognize past heroes as record-holders, such as sportscasting giant Bob Costas' assertion that Roger Maris is the true single-season home run champion.
In all its nobility, there's enough sadness in that sentiment as well.
The point to all of this is that every other sport has had some sort of scandal that received headline treatment. The NFL has their history of concussion-related problems and an active lawsuit with thousands of plaintiffs. The NBA had a referee gambling scandal that threatened the integrity of their sport.
The NHL is constantly trying to separate itself from a vigilante justice image that they'll likely never escape. But only baseball routinely takes its greatest performers and performances and willingly discredits and trashes them. Heck, the sport even placed Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays on the banned list for signing autographs at the grand opening of an Atlantic City casino! Baseball separated itself from two of it's most legendary figures for two years. Can you imagine any other league doing that?
It's hard to imagine that repeated scandal and the exposing of heroes wouldn't have some bottom line impact on the sport. Would the game be more popular if players were allowed to use whatever they wanted to improve their performance and lengthen their careers? Was baseball, circa 2001, better than baseball today? Were there more fans in attendance, more television viewers, more sold merchandise? While some of this is measurable we'll never really know for sure.
However, it's safe to assume that there is at least some detrimental cost, whether to the bottom line or through the fourth estate. Integrity doesn't come cheap, and it takes a long time to achieve.
Just something I'm sure the stewards of the game were pondering during the down time of an almost idle Hall of Fame weekend in Cooperstown.