Steroid issue still coloring voting for Cooperstown

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SHARE Steroid issue still coloring voting for Cooperstown

BY DAN McGRATH

For the Sun-Times

You bat .571 (4-for-7), chances are you’re a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Especially (heh-heh) if you’ve never failed a drug test.

Seven names were marked on this year’s Hall ballot, an uncommonly high number for this voter, even with ’roid guys not in the running.

Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Craig Biggio — I voted for all of them, without reservation. I also went for Jeff Bagwell, Mike Mussina and Alan Trammell, and a case can be made for Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling, Fred McGriff and Don Mattingly, among others on a loaded ballot.

All except Mattingly will get further consideration from the baseball writers. The Veterans Committee likely will look favorably on some of them if the writers never do.

I’m soon to be a 25-year Hall voter. It’s the most important thing we do as baseball writers. I don’t buy that “guardians of the game” nonsense — each fingernail Vin Scully clips contains more baseball knowledge than my aging brain stores, and Vin’s not a voter — but I always have taken the responsibility seriously.

This year’s ballot, though, was cast with dwindling enthusiasm. The steroid issue is an elephant in the room — a Hall of Fame without the best player and best pitcher of their era?

Until it’s resolved, too much history is being ignored, and voters find themselves making moral judgments we’re not really qualified to make.

Take Bagwell. The “same guy” comparisons with Frank Thomas begin with an identical birthday — May 27, 1968. And if you project Bagwell’s 14.3-year career numbers out to Thomas’ 16.5 healthy seasons, they’re practically even. Bagwell also ran well and was the far superior fielder.

I heard the rumors, I saw the bridge-cable forearms and I watched Bagwell’s home-run output rise from 53 total in his first three seasons to 36.6 per year over the next 10.

But I voted for him because I voted for Thomas and because there’s no evidence I’m aware of that establishes Bagwell as a PED user.

I didn’t vote for Piazza, who finished fifth this year and could get in without my help.

The Dodgers drafted Piazza in the 62nd round as a favor to fellow Norristown, Pennsylvania, native Tommy Lasorda, but from that humble platform, he launched a record-breaking career. Piazza wasn’t mentioned in the Mitchell Report, or in Jose Canseco’s deplorably bad book that outed dozens of alleged PED users. There’s no evidence he ever failed a drug test. But the suspicion surrounding him was stronger than the Bagwell innuendo, perhaps a matter of envy over Piazza’s looks, lifestyle and money. And he had acne on his back.

Lenny Dykstra reported to spring training in a 1995 contract year looking like the Michelin Man. Sammy Sosa morphed from the “greyhound-like player” of an early scouting report into a Macy’s parade float. Barry Bonds transformed himself from a 190-pound safety into a 260-pound defensive end, with gargantuan head to match.

And Piazza had acne on his back. The fellow victim in me was offended by the insinuation. And I had some history.

In my San Francisco days, I knew a bright, high-minded college football player, a linebacker who was appalled by the pervasive presence of drugs in his sport. He felt he’d put himself at a disadvantage trying to play clean against the snarling, juiced-up Tasmanian devils lined up across from him. To make his point about the proliferation of PEDs, he offered to walk us through two locker rooms on an NFL Sunday and point out likely users. Acne on the back, he said, was a telltale sign.

A few days before our excursion, an NFL team called him with an offer to play special teams and backup linebacker. It was a dream come true, and he knew the opportunity would vanish if he stepped forward as a whistle-blower. So our exposé never materialized. But acne on the back as a steroid tip stayed with me.

It shouldn’t keep a qualified candidate out of the Hall of Fame .   should it? It’s more convenient (and wrong) to duck the question and note Piazza’s shortcomings: He didn’t throw well, he was ponderously slow afoot, he wasn’t known for running a game or managing pitchers .   his perceived indifference to defense argues against his being considered a great all-around player.

But he hit the ball like few catchers ever have, and barring a bombshell revelation about PED use, I’ll probably vote for him next year.

And hope I’m right.

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