WASHINGTON, January 14, 2012—The election of Barry Larkin to the Baseball Hall of Fame last week provided yet another example of how the aftertaste of the Steroid Era has irrevocably changed the Hall of Fame voting environment. In an entirely different manner, the posthumous election of Ron Santo last month is another episode in a dangerous trend. Both Larkin and Santo were worthy of enshrinement on playing merit alone, and even more so when including character in the argument. But what their elections portend are two trends sure to affect the Hall of Fame voting process in a negative manner.
Larkin, even though he played during the heart of the Steroid Era, still ranks among the best hitters of the 1990’s. From 1991-1998, he was easily one of the best pure hitters in all of baseball. Even as 40-homerun seasons became the norm, he took home the 1995 National League MVP Award, beating out Dante Bichette, Mike Piazza, and Greg Maddux in one of the closest votes in history. He accomplished that feat in a year he put up traditional MVP numbers of 15 homeruns, 66 RBI’s, and a .319 batting average, but locked up the award on the strength of his 51 stolen bases and impeccable defense, the latter netting him the second of three consecutive Gold Gloves.
But what does Larkin’s excellence while playing clean have to do with the tarnish that covers the entirety of the time period during which he played? A whole lot, when it comes to the hypocrisy that has stepped in for hard evidence in the debate over who used steroids. A year ago, I addressed this problem from a statistical angle in a rebuttal of an infamous Dan Graziano article about Jeff Bagwell. But this year, Larkin’s vote total, amounting to 86.4 percent, demonstrates the reverse to the attitude that Pearlman vaulted to center stage during the 2011 election process. Bagwell was hurt by the lingering cloud of doubt hanging over the heads of all who played in the ’90s. What the near consensus over Larkin’s induction exemplifies is that that voters merely wanted to honor the most-worthy of the non-steroid users.
The problem with this viewpoint is that it essentially guesses guilt or innocence, and applies that guess to determine an in-or-out decision, without regard to actual performance or evidence. But there are two standards that could be applied instead. Ignoring steroid use and voting for the best players of the time period, whether they were or weren’t steroids users, would handle the issue. The same goes for the opposite, which would be to exclude all players under the assumption that no guilt can be determined and hence the careers of all are null and void. I personally fall in line with the first standard, but am not opposed to the second. It’s an all-or-nothing question, and what I strongly oppose is the practice of deciding who to allow in, and who to shut out, without any evidence of steroid usage or non-usage, all while invoking the damage of the Steroid Era as an excuse.
Switching over to an entirely different aspect of voting, Santo’s long-deserved election is less than it should be, overshadowed by the trend of voting in players, managers, and executives immediately after their deaths. In my mind, Ron Santo was a worthy potential inductee ever since the day in 2003 when I was astounded to learn that he was not already in the Hall. But to a Veterans Committee member who had previously voted against Santo’s induction, Santo’s death should have made no difference.
Santo himself said on the radio many times that if he wasn’t inducted into the Hall while alive, then he didn’t want to go in at all. Now he’s finally taken his rightful place with the best, but it feels hollow. He came up for election before the writers fifteen times, leaving the ballot in 1998, then came up before the Veterans Committee every two years until his death on December 3, 2010. After he died, he received the votes of 15 out of 16 members of the Veterans Committee. The merits of his career never changed. The sympathy and guilt of the voters did.
Larkin. Santo. Together their careers and lives should present a view of everything that is and always has been right with baseball. Instead, the ideas that are consuming the Hall of Fame voting process have turned their accomplishments into statements of what’s wrong. Barry Larkin and Ron Santo both deserve the induction into the Hall of Fame that will occur for them next July, an event that only the former will be around to see. But the debates behind the scenes form a sad ending for a story that should have a happy one.
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