Sunday, January 13, 2008

A Bad Case of Plaque

With all the consternation being tossed around over the allegations of steroid use by Roger Clemens, it occurs to me that the biggest loser in all of this will be the Baseball Hall of Fame. The voters have shown, through their vote for Mark McGwire and through what I have been able to discern from their attitudes toward Rafael Palmeiro, that they are willing to let credible evidence of steroid use keep them from electing someone to Cooperstown. But they can come up with plausible non-steroidal reasons for passing by McGwire and Palmeiro, McGwire for being a relatively one-dimensional slugger with a short career, and Palmeiro for being kind of a new-era Billy Williams, a player who put up prodigious career stats without ever being considered one of the really outstanding hitters of the game. (I am not endorsing either of these views, merely assessing what the conventional wisdom is.)

But Clemens and his inevitable counterpart Barry Bonds are different. Clemens has a good case as the greatest pitcher of all time; Bonds has a good case as the greatest player of all time. Both have had plausible charges of steroid use assigned to them; both have denied them, but the fans and, more critically, the sportswriters, seem disinclined to believe them.

What is the Hall of Fame to do with them? There are obviously two options: elect them to the Hall of Fame, or don't. Either is fraught with peril.

Assuming the presumptions of guilt are the same five years from now, when it's possible that both Bonds and Clemens will be on the ballot, it seems unlikely that the writers will elect them. And then what will we have? A Hall of Fame in which two of the most accomplished figures the sport has ever known are not welcome, because of moral infractions. Cooperstown will start turning into the Hall of the Ethically Upright: only the players with the clearest consciences and cleanest urinalyses need apply. We will have to tell our sons and daughters that the Hall of Fame is no longer about recognizing the greatest players; it's about recognizing the greatest players with the fewest allegations. At least that would be good news for Dale Murphy.

But if the writers hold their noses and vote for Bonds and Clemens, can you imagine the outcry? The letters to the editor will swarm like gnats around Joba Chamberlain. There will be protesters at the induction ceremony; several old-timers of the Bob Feller ilk won't show up. Thousands will announce that they will no longer make the pilgrimage to upstate New York as long as the cheaters are celebrated there. We will all be thankful that Howard Cosell is no longer around to pontificate on the subject. It would be a full-on mess.

I see no way out of this dilemma. Cooperstown has the choice to either outrage wide swaths of baseball fandom, or cease to be about recognizing the top players of all time. Neither seems like a very good idea.

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