FOUR-RING CIRCUS COMING TO COOPERSTOWN

By Murray Chass

January 6, 2011

In two years Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza will be on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time. What a spectacular induction ceremony that would make if only….Steroids Four 225

Before those players or Hall officials make plans, they would be wise to check the results of this year’s Baseball Writers Association voting. If the writers hadn’t been clear in their voting the first four years Mark McGwire was on the ballot, this year they have delivered a brutally blunt message: cheaters are not welcome.

It’s not an issue players are comfortable getting into.

“It’s a subject I don’t really want to talk about,” Roberto Alomar said on a conference call Wednesday after he and Bert Blyleven were elected to Hall membership. “The players you saw like McGwire and Raffy I think they have the numbers to be in the Hall of Fame. Some day maybe they’ll put that behind them. But it’s something I don’t want to talk about.”

McGwire, who received approximately 23 percent of the vote in each of his first four years of eligibility, fell to 19.8 percent this time. Rafael Palmeiro, a first-timer, received 64 votes, or 11 percent of the record 581 writers who voted.

Juan Gonzalez, another first-timer, was named on 30 ballots. One less vote, and he would not have made the 5 percent cutoff and continued to be eligible next year. Kevin Brown did not make the cut.

All have been implicated in the use of performance-enhancing drugs. McGwire implicated himself in 2005 when he repeatedly told a Congressional panel “I’m not here to talk about the past.”

Then last spring, when he ended his self-imposed exile and became the St. Louis Cardinals’ hitting coach, McGwire publicly acknowledged that he had used illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

Palmeiro, at the same hearing as McGwire, dramatically denied using steroids, then tested positive for steroids use several months later and incurred a 10-game suspension. Brown was named in the Mitchell report as buying human growth hormone multiple times from Kirk Radomski, the chief contributor to the report.

But the voters did not limit their rejection of candidates to those who were named publicly as users. Gonzalez has been suspected but has not tested positive or named by anyone as a user. Voters might not have voted for the outfielder based on his career record, but chances are he would have received more votes if not for the steroids suspicion.

Jeff Bagwell2 225Then there’s the case of Jeff Bagwell. He is not automatically a Hall of Famer in the view of many voters based on his record, but he, too, has been suspected of using steroids and his vote total very likely suffered. Yet his 242 votes, 41.7 percent, exceeded the combined total for McGwire and Palmeiro.

As I mentioned in the previous column I voted for Bagwell. However, in my deliberation of his case, I did not consider the possibility that he used steroids. I probably should have and will study the possibility further before next year’s vote.

As I also wrote, the steroids issue is a difficult one for voters. Do we ignore steroids and vote on a player’s career record, whether or not performance-enhancers helped him build his record, or do we penalize players for using enhancers, and what do we do if we don’t have concrete evidence but strong suspicions.

Next year’s ballot will not have any newcomers who fall into the what-do-we-do category, but in two years we get the mother lode: Bonds, Sosa, Clemens, Piazza.

I have heard some writers argue that they will vote for Bonds and Clemens because they had amassed great careers before they are suspected of having taken illegal substances. But just as we wouldn’t elect Pete Rose (at least I don’t think we would), who became the all-time hits leader before he was accused of betting on games, why should we elect Bonds and Clemens on the basis of pre-steroids achievements?

I should note that the four players in this group haven’t been found guilty of anything, have not tested positive, but in some of their cases the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming.

That would include what Bonds and Clemens achieved late in their careers. It would include Sosa’s four-season stretch in which he hit 60 home runs three times when in the entire history of baseball only four other players hit 60 a total of five times, and two of those are strongly suspected of doing it chemically aided.

Piazza? I have been accused of being the only writer who has publicly suggested that he used steroids, but talk to any reporter who covered the Mets and they will say of course, he did.

Recently I came across this passage from a piece about Piazza:

“Two springs ago, Mike Piazza asked, ‘How can someone write that I was a steroid user because of acne? When did I fail any test?’”mike-piazza-225

That’s his defense, and he’s sticking to it. The suspicion is Piazza didn’t fail any tests because he stopped using steroids when Major League Baseball began testing.

Piazza is writing a book with Lonnie Wheeler for an advance of $800,000, and for that kind of money a publisher is going to expect something other than balls and strikes. Specifically the truth.

The original author of the book, Michael Bamberger, a Sports Illustrated writer of great integrity, withdrew from the project because Piazza wouldn’t commit in writing to tell the truth about steroids.

The author and an editor at Simon and Schuster, the publisher, did not return calls Wednesday. David Black, the literary agent who put the project together, said, “I don’t have any comment on the Piazza book. It’s being written. They’re hard at work and they’re writing.”

The book presumably will be out by the time Piazza’s name appears on the Hall of Fame ballot.

That year will be the next-to-last year that Jack Morris, my favorite candidate, will be on the ballot, assuming he isn’t elected next year. I don’t think he will be because his vote total didn’t increase enough this year.

Blyleven was elected this year because of a jump in his vote total last year. Alomar was elected with the biggest vote total because a lot of writers voted for him after not having voted for him as a first-timer a year ago.

Some writers reserve a first-year vote for the players they think are truly superior to all others. In Alomar’s case, too, some writers might have withheld their votes last year because of the second baseman’s notorious spitting incident with umpire John Hirschbeck.

Barry Larkin was third in the voting, leapfrogging Morris, and his gain from 51.6 percent to 62.1 percent bodes well for his chances of being elected next year in his third year as a candidate (75 percent is needed).

Morris gained from 52.2 percent to 53.5, a disappointing increase because it leaves him too far to go next year when he and Larkin could be the most attractive candidates. Morris’ next-to-last year will be the year of the four-ring circus, and in his last year, barring prior election, he will encounter Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.

I have heard some writers say they nearly voted for Morris and will consider voting for him next year, but this year would have been the year to vote for him and give him greater momentum, as Blyleven got last year.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.