Some Passing Thoughts on Baseball’s Hall of Fame

Twenty years ago, my dad and I passed an afternoon in Southern California by attending a baseball game between the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners. We are Chicago Cubs fans, so we were used to watching baseball played by a terrible team in a packed stadium. But in Oakland, we found the very opposite: a tremendous team that struggled to put fans in the stands.

I only really remember two things about that game: Ichiro played, and the ballpark giveaway consisted of A’s baseball cards which lacked any real stars. How could this team be so good, I wondered, if they don’t have many stars?

That question was answered later that Christmas, when my grandfather gifted me a copy of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball. Before Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill turned it into one of the best baseball movies ever, Moneyball introduced me and countless others to the world of sabermetrics (advanced baseball statistics and models) by chronicling general manager Billy Beane’s attempts to bring winning baseball to Oakland.

Although I had grown up a baseball fan, 2003 solidified my love of the sport and made it my own. For not only did the Lovable Losers make the NLCS, but through Moneyball I learned to love the competition, history, and narratives of baseball fandom.

Among the lessons of Moneyball and the dive into baseball history that followed, I learned a crucial truth about the sport I loved: baseball (like all competitive sports) is full of people who press their advantage.

Whether through Beane’s desire to use on base percentage and sabermetrics to replace Jason Giambi, or less by-the-book tools such as spider tack, pine tar, corked bats, or greenies, players and teams have long sought any musterable competitive advantage.

Some of baseball’s most famous moments are marked by this reality. The end of the deadball era is marked by the banning of the spitball.  Even more recent issues with electronic sign stealing and the makeup of the ball itself obscure the fact that electronic sign stealing is at least as old as Bobby Thomson’s “Shot ‘Round the World” and that owners, players, commissioners, and others have always messed with the ball. And, of course, the steroid era was filled with pitchers and position players who used performance enhancing drugs to, well, enhance their performance.

Whether motivated by competition or compensation, baseball is one long story of competitors trying to gain every advantage over their rivals.

Because of this reality, I want to make a simple argument: baseball players should be evaluated based on the rules of baseball when they played. Particularly when it comes to induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, players should be evaluated based on the rules of Major League Baseball (MLB) during the time in which they played.

That means no ex post facto rules or assessments, no after-the-fact hand wringing, and no attempts at holding players accountable for standards set by the commissioner’s office, owners, or front offices. (Indeed, this is why baseball has a commissioner’s office and rulebook: as means to independently arbitrate disputes and ensure a fair playing field among baseball’s players and teams.) In a perfect world or simulation, we might wish things could be otherwise. But we can’t change the past. All we can do is evaluate players based on the circumstances in which they played.

So, why am I writing this?

Because (for what I can only imagine are a variety of reasons) baseball and the voters and committees for the Baseball Hall of Fame have taken what can only fairly be described as a confusing stance on the issue of how to evaluate a particular subset of baseball players, namely those who played during the 1990s and early 2000s. I say confusing, because here is a collection of assorted facts about the Hall of Fame’s connection with this era of baseball:

The player with the most home runs in MLB history—who played between 1986 and 2007—has not been elected to the Hall of Fame. Neither has one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, a man who amassed over 350 wins, more than 4600 strikeouts, and seven Cy Young awards. Likewise unelected are several other players who, were they from any other era of history, would have been surefire Hall of Famers.

Yet, the MLB commissioner who oversaw this era of play was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2017, a mere two years after his retirement and with a higher vote percentage than all but 22 other Hall of Famers. Furthermore, certain other players from this era have been elected to the Hall, including two who have publicly admitted to using androstenedione and another who tested positive prior at least one performance enhancing drug that has since been banned by the MLB.

Why this confusion? Why does baseball feel the need to police and punish certain athletes for alleged performance enhancing drug use but not others?[1] And why did baseball give a free pass to the commissioner who oversaw the era?

As a baseball fan, I simply want the Hall to recognize greatness and celebrate the best of baseball without stooping to shoddy, after-the-fact arguments that rely on a façade of morality. Like most other institutions created by fallible human beings, baseball does not exactly have the best track record when it comes to treating every human being with equal dignity, respect, and honor. Baseball should quit playing games with the “Steroid Era” and hold players to a reasonably fair standard. Evaluate them based on the rules of baseball that were in effect when they played.

Which begs the question: what were baseball’s rules on performance enhancing drugs over the years?

In short, there were no real MLB punishments for performance enhancing drug use until 2004.[2] And real consequences only came into effect in 2006, when the MLB instituted regular testing, a 50-game ban for first time offenders, a 100-game ban for second time offenders, a lifetime ban for third time offenders, and included amphetamines on the list of banned substances for the first time. These punishments have since been updated to 80-game, 162-game, and lifetime bans for positive tests.

Hundreds of players have been suspended for performance enhancing drug use under these rules, including MLB All Stars Ryan Franklin, Matt Lawton, Mike Cameron, Edinson Volquez, Marlon Byrd, Melkey Cabrera, Bartolo Colon, Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Braun, Nelson Cruz, Jhonny Peralta, Everth Cabrera, Miguel Tejada, Ervin Santana, Dee Gordon, Starling Marte, Steven Wright, Michael Pineda, and Fernando Tatis Jr., as well as otherwise likely Hall of Famers Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, and Robinson Cano.

These players did what all baseball players do: they pressed their competitive advantage in an attempt to play better (more lucrative) baseball. Whether for performance or competitive reasons, these players intentionally skirted MLB rules on performance enhancing drugs in order to gain an advantage. These are the players for whom performance enhancing drug use merits punishment. These are the baseball players who should be evaluated by their drug use, because that performance enhancing drug use was against the rules when they played and they were caught forcing their competitive advantage.

You’ll note that—with a few notable exceptions such as Palmeiro, Ramirez, and Rodriguez—these are not the MLB stars of the 1990s and early 2000s. These are not the individuals who played during a time when those making the rules of baseball had the power but not the will to enforce performance enhancing drug punishments. Should a positive performance enhancing drug test ban a baseball player from the Hall of Fame for life? Perhaps. I’ll leave a discussion of the balance of mercy and justice in competitive sports for another article.[3]

But in the meantime, let’s drop the façade. Baseball is a competitive sport, one with a long history of players and teams using every means necessary to gain a competitive advantage. In evaluating players, especially with regard to the Hall of Fame, baseball players should be evaluated based on the rules of baseball when they played.


[1] To be clear, I hold no special affinity for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire, nor am I upset that Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, and David Ortiz are Hall of Famers, as they should be.

[2] No, toothless memos from commissioners Fay Vincent and Bud Selig and “survey testing” with “anonymous” results and no punishments do not count as a PED ban. As with many MLB rule changes, the PED ban was soft launched in the minor leagues (in 2001) before implementation in the majors.

[3] Personally, I would not vote for these players during the current ten-year voting period if I have a HoF vote. According, my HOF ballot for this year would have included Scott Rolen, Todd Helton, Billy Wagner, Gary Sheffield, Jeff Kent, Andy Pettitte, Carlos Beltran, Jimmy Rollins, Bobby Abreu, and Torri Hunter.

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Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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