Jeff Bagwell is a Hall of Famer by almost any standard. Despite playing most of his career in the pitcher-friendly Astrodome and being plagued by injuries, he logged 449 home runs, 1529 RBIs, and a .948 on-base plus slugging percentage (the 22nd-highest of all time). He’s never been named in any PED reports or called to testify in any Congressional hearings or even had his name tossed around in a steroids discussion by anonymous sources.
Jeff Bagwell — the fourth-greatest first baseman of all time, according to the rankings of the legendary Bill James — didn’t get into the Hall of Fame in either of his first two years of eligiblity. He didn’t get in this year either.
No one did.
Why? Because many Hall of Fame voters have decided to ignore players from the 1990s, even those who’ve never been accused of PED use, or even to turn in completely blank ballots this year in protest of the entire steroids era. Their attitude is summed up by what sportswriter Jeff Pearlman wrote about Bagwell in a now-notorious column: that even if Bagwell “didn’t use [he] stood by and watched his sport morph into WWE nonsense.” (Bear in mind here that there are more than a hundred Hall of Famers who “stood by” when black people were banned from playing baseball.)
Putting the problem on guys like Bagwell is a terrible solution to the (legitimately difficult) steroids conundrum — even if you accept the dubious premise that voting on individual players is an appropriate place to make a statement about a collective issue.
To understand why, consider the example of Bagwell’s teammate, Craig Biggio, who’s never been associated with steroids by anyone. He was never that kind of player. He hit home runs, but not at a crazy rate. He never got big. He was never injured, a frequent reason/excuse for using banned substances — he was on the DL once over his entire 19-year-career! He recorded 3,060 hits, joining the elite “3,000 club” — every eligible member of which is in Hall of Fame except for Rafael Palmeiro, who tested positive for steroids days after recording his 3,000th hit. Biggio was a seven-time All-Star, a four-time Gold Glove winner. He is the only player in the history of baseball with more than 3,000 hits, 600 doubles, 400 stolen bases, and 250 home runs. He is, unquestionably a Hall of Famer, and if he had been inducted this year, he would have been the first player to go into the Hall as a Houston Astro.
Biggio got the most votes for the Hall of Fame this year, his first year of eligiblity, but still fell 39 votes short of the total he needed to get in. Whether he gets in next year remains a question mark with an unusually crowded field.
If your goal in voting for the Hall of Fame is to strike a blow against PEDs, what have you done by voting against Biggio? You’ve given steroids a win they don’t deserve. Houston fans — and baseball fans — could have had the chance to celebrate the wonderful things about baseball this year. Even if we can’t agree on everything yet, we could at least take the opportunity to agree on the merit of someone like Craig Biggio. Instead, in the absence of fresh inductees, we will spend Hall of Fame induction weekend pouting and sulking about what some guys did wrong 15 years ago. The writers’ tantrum, allegedly thrown in the name of ideals, is depriving the fans who care about baseball the most — the geeks who get excited about things like Hall of Fame weekend — one of the few occasions to celebrate those ideals.
I can’t pretend to be objective here: I have spent the last two years drawing every member of the Hall of Fame. I plan to be done with the project this year. I thought I’d have a player or two to add to my list, and that I might have the chance to actually draw the uniform of my own beloved Houston Astros. There was ample warning that Biggio might not make it this year, but I allowed myself to believe that the writers might cut the Houston baseball fan base a bit of a break. And according to the strange Hall of Fame phenomenon in which players get more votes the longer they’ve been retired, Bagwell and Biggio are actually both almost guaranteed entry at some point during their eligibility, which begs the question: what’s going to have changed between now and then? Here’s one thing: as Dave Cameron of Fangraphs pointed out on Twitter today, “there are aging Astros fans who are going to die before Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell get elected.”
BBWAA members were supposedly sending a message with their votes this year. The message I got was that they are too bitter and proud of their own moral tenacity to celebrate baseball with the rest of us.